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Q&A: What can restaurants do to reduce food waste?

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Abshire (Photo: National Restaurant Association)

For restaurants looking to implement a sustainability plan, one of the best places to start is by reducing food waste. As much as 40% percent of the food that is grown, processed and transported in the U.S. will never be consumed, according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. There are a number of ways restaurants can cut their food waste, from donation programs to composting.

SmartBrief interviewed Laura Abshire, the director of sustainability policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C., about different methods of reducing food waste and how restaurants can benefit from food waste reduction. Abshire leads the Association’s work on energy and environmental policy and related advocacy efforts, works extensively with its Conserve initiative and also is the NRA’s liaison for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a joint effort with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute, to help reduce, reuse and recycle food waste in the retail and foodservice industries.

What is the benefit for restaurants of reducing food waste?

To begin with, by carefully tracking their waste, restaurateurs can not only save on operating costs, but also create additional revenue streams through composting and recycling. In addition, foodservice companies can participate in food donation programs, which greatly help their communities and make them eligible for tax credits.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to a lot of restaurant customers. Recent NRA research found that more than half of U.S. consumers said they would choose to dine at a restaurant based on its environmental practices. This means food waste prevention is not only good for a restaurant’s sustainability practices and bottom line, but also could attract customers who want to patronize socially responsible businesses.

How does the amount of food waste generated by the back of the house compare with food waste generated by consumers in the front of the house?

Food waste generated in the back of house is easier to measure so it’s simpler to manage. It’s a matter of restaurants having more control over their food supply, preparation, and menu planning. Food waste generated by consumers is harder to accurately measure, particularly in the case of quick-service restaurants, because many customers leave the restaurants with their food. And even in casual- and fine-dining restaurants, customers take leftovers home, so it’s hard to know the exact amount of waste generated.

What is the easiest first step toward reducing food waste?

Conduct an initial waste assessment and regularly track and measure the food waste you produce. We always say you can’t manage what you don’t measure, so tracking is extremely important. Also, inventory everything that comes in and goes out to determine how much you use and how much you don’t. That way you can make adjustments going forward.

Some companies already know how to measure and track food waste, but others still need help. Tracking can be done in several ways, including using traditional pen and paper; utilizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s waste prevention tools, such as paper logs and automated tracking system; or working with companies like LeanPath, which offers new mobile tracking and reporting software that can be installed on a tablet. The NRA’s Conserve program also offers several tips and best practices for conducting a waste characterization audit on our website.

Is composting a viable option for most restaurants? What about areas that don’t have composting facilities?

Composting food waste is an option for some restaurants in some areas, but we know that throughout the country, there is not enough infrastructure supporting food-waste reduction efforts. In recent research from the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, data indicates that 54% of smaller foodservice companies and 92% of larger ones said they were challenged when trying to recycle their food waste.

What needs to be done? For starters there needs to be more access to affordable haulers as well as composting and recycling facilities that accept the waste material. Also, there must be more education on waste reduction and how to do it. That’s what we are trying to do at Conserve: offer our members education and best practices that help reduce waste, save money and protect the environment.

How does food donation factor into a restaurant’s food-waste reduction plan?

The EPA’s food recovery hierarchy suggests that after source reduction, feeding hungry people is the highest use of leftover food. Many restaurants are actively involved in donation programs that accept unused food to feed the hungry. Restaurants that donate food also are eligible for tax credits, and we are currently lobbying Congress to extend and expand those deductions for smaller corporations. Reducing food waste is really a win for the environment, restaurants and the communities they serve.


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