Given all the day-to-day issues facing the average food service entrepreneur, you can be forgiven for already having enough on your plate to think about food waste.
But it’s actually a massive issue, with the Australian Government estimating in its 2017 National Food Waste Strategy that the country’s economy loses about AU $20 billion a year from Australians sending 5.3 million tonnes of food to landfill.
Globally, if food waste was a country, it would be the world’s third largest CO2 emitter (behind China and the US).
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as your restaurant’s financials go. While figures for Australia are hard to define, overseas studies have found food waste to cost the average restaurant significant amounts of cash. According to resource efficiency charity WRAP, for example, each year restaurants in the UK lose about a dollar (£0.97) on every meal served just through food waste.
And there’s real money to be made in tackling the issue. A recent study by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that hotels taking part in its food waste reduction programme were saving US $7 in operating costs for every dollar they invested in reducing food waste.
So it makes sense to tackle this issue for the benefit of your bottom line as well as the environment.
Fortunately there are a host of new technologies and new ways of thinking either being championed now, or are on the horizon, that you can take inspiration from.
It’s time to bin food waste for your business.
Let’s start in the here and now – blast chillers and shock freezers have been with us for at least 20 years, but recent innovations in the field have made them the most powerful weapon against food waste currently available to food service businesses.
At their core, blast chillers and shock freezers rapidly cool food at such a pace that the build-up of bacteria is dramatically reduced.
The process minimizes the size of the ice crystals which, in turn, minimises any potential damage to the food that can be caused by the presence of large ice crystals. The end result is perfectly preserved food that maintains its natural flavours and essences for longer.
This simple action has a number of massive benefits for restauranteurs, bakers and patisserie chefs - including slashing food costs and increasing food quality and safety.
But it also results in a lot less food waste by tackling the overproduction of food which results from the traditional kitchen production line.
Food bulk prepared with an Irinox blast chiller, for example, can last up to three times longer on the shelf – allowing chefs and bakers to cut production levels to optimum levels that meet demand, not overshoot it.
Bakeries are traditional victims of overproduction, with huge amounts of bread ending up in the bin or repurposed as animal feed – even in places where there’s a really strong demand for bread products.
In Germany 90% of the population eat bread at least once a day, but a World Wide Fund for Nature study shows one in every five pieces of baked goods made there is never sold over the counter.
The study also found that even medium to large bakeries have losses of up to 19% of volume, while the picture is worse for small bakeries.
With a blast chiller a small bakery could perhaps cut production by up to 25% while still meeting demand.
There’s no wonder blast chillers are mandatory in the EU.
While eco-friendly restaurants have been a mainstay of the Australian restaurant scene for years, there has long been a question mark on whether any restaurant can actually achieve zero waste.
But ground-breaking restauranteurs around the world are answering that question with restaurant food concepts that aim to deliver zero material waste. This sees restaurants composting all their food waste in anaerobic digestion systems, while also focusing on things like using whole ingredients and buying local to reduce food miles.
Silo in Brighton in the UK has gained global recognition for employing such a system, even opening a brewery that ferments drinks from foraged ingredients. As for the quality of its food, Silo featured in The Guardian’s 2017 list of the UK’s 50 best Sunday lunches.
And there’s actually a Melbourne connection there, as founder Douglas McMaster worked in the city at Melbourne’s Silo, which went on to use an anaerobic digestion system when it later became Brothl, a soup café billed as “Australia’s first waste-free café.”
Nolla in Helsinki, the first zero waste restaurant in Finland, uses a similar concept. Working closely with local producers, the restaurant produces dry fertiliser from biowaste which is returned to the very fields its produce comes from in re-usable boxes. The restaurant’s owners have a no single-use packaged food policy on premises and, like Silo, avoid using paper products – which is why at both restaurants you won’t see any printed menus.
Nolla opened in February to packed tables, with co-owner Carlos Henriques telling mindbodygreen.com in May that "When people see that there is a restaurant that makes more money doing this, why wouldn't they try it too?” But Silo and Nolla are just two examples of a trend that is proving that zero waste is more than just a buzzword.
Blockchain is the system underpinning cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. It provides a transparent ledger which shows buyers a clear history of a product’s supply chain. Every time the product changes hands, relevant data is recorded of the transaction so consumers can see the state of what they’re buying before they purchase.
Logistics companies are starting to explore the potential of blockchain on a global scale to reduce food waste from miscommunication between vendors – which has traditionally been a big problem.
According to Material Handling & Logistics, one example of this saw nearly 37,000 metric tons of bananas being lost in Australia between 1996 and 1999 due to communication issues between growers and packers.
However, there is huge potential for blockchain to reduce food waste at the restaurant level as well. Think about how much spoiled food you have to throw out from every bulk produce purchase you make. Now imagine if you could see a breakdown of the condition of each item represented by data (on, for example, how long it’s been in the supply chain) before you buy.
You could then drastically reduce food waste before the food enters your kitchen.
Data analytics is probably one of the last things you expect to find in the kitchen. But the benefits of measuring and analysing food quantities and use with accurate, easy-to-use digital systems are becoming increasingly apparent.
Providers like Winnow and LeanPath are leading the way by working with businesses in the food service space to help them put a number on what’s being wasted and figure out what to do about the problem.
Last year, Swedish furniture retail giant Ikea credited both companies with helping it save 350,000 meals destined for the bins at its on-site restaurants.
Broadly speaking, systems like these work by putting food waste bins on scales and having everything that’s put in them logged by kitchen staff. This gives you a breakdown of exactly what’s been wasted and what it means financially for your business, so you can discover ways to repurpose the food instead of throwing it out.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Winnow founder Marc Zorne said “You ask people what they throw away and they say they think it’s 3-5% of what they buy, when the reality is somewhere between 5% and 20% – most of it happening before it even gets to a plate.”
There’s now an app for virtually everything. But one area which is seeing a real groundswell of growth in development are food exchange apps that find a good home for food from restaurants and supermarkets that’s about to be thrown out.
Bring Me Home is a local example that works with Australian restaurants to sell, at discount, perfectly good unsold food to local people looking for something to eat.
But communities all over the world have their own dedicated food exchange apps that redistribute food at a community level, whether that food comes from restaurants, supermarkets or hotels.
In the case of No Food Waste in India, the app helps feed 200 people a day across seven cities by accepting leftovers from any party that catered for 50 people or more.
Food exchange apps are proliferating because they work on a hyper-localised level, which means that no matter where your business is, if there’s not a food exchange app available right now, there probably will be one soon.
When it comes to repurposing surplus food the assumption is that it has to be eaten. That certainly represents a good use for food waste in a world in which so many go hungry.
But one other intriguing prospect is repurposing food waste as construction material for the building industry.
In 2017 engineering firm Arup released The Urban Bio Loop, a report that outlines how the building industry – which in the US alone creates more than 500 million tons of waste – could partner with food industries to create a circular economy to reduce waste in both areas.
The idea is simple. Both construction waste and food waste end up in landfill, with 90% of the construction industry’s waste coming from demolishing old buildings. Why not reduce that waste by using building materials made from food waste that can be recycled and ploughed back into the land after a building is demolished?
The boundaries of just what kind of construction materials can be made from food waste are being explored every day in the sustainable building materials industry, which is thought to be worth about US $63 billion.
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