From coffee grounds to vegetable peelings, surplus supplies to leftover meals, food waste is a fact of life for every restaurant. But whether it ends up as costly trash or someone else’s treasure depends on what you do with it. By Merran White
While it may not be top of mind for those running busy hospitality businesses, food waste impacts all a restaurant’s operations—and can attract hefty fines if not disposed of correctly.
But reducing food waste can increase profits and raise your restaurant’s social-equity stakes.
And cutting restaurant food waste—whether it’s spent coffee grounds, fats and oils, prep scraps, spoilage or diners’ leftovers—isn’t difficult. It simply requires planning, staff training, and connecting your business with organisations that recycle and redistribute what would otherwise be wasted.
According to Sanjay Sridher, executive director of Circular Economy & Resource Management at the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Environment (DPIE) and a spokesperson for NSW EPA’s Love Food Hate Waste program, it’s a problem all restaurateurs should prioritise.
“NSW throws away nearly a million tonnes of food waste a year,” Sridher says. “Food businesses are paying top dollar for waste removal, but few know what’s in their bins.
“Our research shows that 62 per cent of restaurant waste is food. “When food is wasted, it impacts on a business’ operational cost.”
The Hilton Sydney, which recently completed the NSW Government’s ‘Your Business is Food’ program, reduced its food waste by 50 per cent, saving almost $860,000 over the period 2016–2018, Sridher notes.
“There is also an environmental motivator to reducing food waste which can increase staff satisfaction and customer loyalty,” he says. “When food waste goes to landfill, it creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas 26 times more potent than CO2.
“It also wastes all the resources that went into growing, raising, transporting, cooling and preparing that food. So minimising food waste has positive impacts that are not only financial but environmental as well.”
Reducing food waste: as simple as 1,2,3
Measure your food waste, stresses Sridher: “It’s an easy but crucial step. Once you know how much and what type of food you’re wasting, you can almost instantly start to make savings for your business. All you need is a scale and three buckets—one each for food waste from spoilage, preparation and plate waste.”
Or invest in Winnow Vision, a high-tech way to do the same thing.
To cut waste through spoilage, adopt the ‘first in, first out’ principle, using older ingredients first; and order less but more frequently, Sridher says. Another strategy is “offering a lunch special to use up [surplus or soon-to-reach-use-by-date] ingredients”.
Reduce kitchen waste by designing menus that minimise food waste during prep, he advises. “Involve your staff in the menu design and seek their input—it can improve productivity and create a positive working environment, and a sense of pride and ownership, when then they know their contribution can make a difference to the environment.”
Side-dishes are commonly wasted, so to minimise plate waste, Sridher suggests offering customers a choice between, say, small or regular sides of chips; one or two pieces of bread. And rather than binning leftovers, offer diners takeaway containers.
Sustainable dining—less waste, more cred
An ancillary benefit comes from “increased staff engagement, productivity and community pride”, Sridher says.
“When staff understand their work is committed to reducing environmental impact and their contribution can make a big difference, it motivates them to participate and work harder which is priceless.”
Diners approve, too: EPA NSW’s research shows that most consumers appreciate restaurants tackling food waste: 53 per cent of people surveyed thought leaving leftovers when eating out is a waste of good food; 50 per cent said it’s a waste of money. Nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) favoured being offered ‘doggy bags’ to help reduce food waste; and 42 per cent agreed that a restaurant’s ‘environmental responsibility’ impacted their dining selection.
Participate in waste reduction initiatives
Sridher strongly recommends that restaurateurs in NSW and Victoria join their state’s Love Food, Hate Waste business programs, “and let your customers and staff know”.
The food and hospitality businesses that participated in the NSW Government’s ‘Your Business is food’ program saw at least a 20-50 per cent reduction in food waste. “When food waste is reduced, you’re saving on the disposal cost but also on food purchasing and management costs,” he says.
Not convinced? Check out Love Food, Hate Waste’s video and food-business case studies
Pay it forward: donate surplus food and compost
Organisations such as Oz Harvest and Second Bite organise to redistribute edible food that would otherwise be wasted to those in need.
Others collect and recycle organic waste using it to make everything from biofuels to soil conditioners, compost and mushroom-growing media.
Winnow Vision: using AI to help food businesses cut waste
AI-based system Winnow Vision uses computer vision to help chefs manage waste, snapping images of food binned in restaurant kitchens, then calculating each item’s weight and type to ascertain the total amount lost and its value. It also produces specific daily feedback reports to show chefs which foods are wasted most by customers and kitchen staff
Using Winnow in its UK restaurants has cut IKEA’s food waste in these territories by 40 per cent, saving the equivalent of 800,000 meals a year. Other major food and hospitality providers including InterContinental Hotels Group, Costa Cruises and Emaar hospitality group are now using Winnow, with interest growing across the food industry. “I think we’re going to see something of a movement to make [food waste] a thing of the past over the next 20 years,” contends founder-CEO Mark Zornes.
Berlin-based vegan restaurant Frea is 100 per cent zero waste, using raw, unprocessed, unpackaged ingredients sourced fresh from the farm; making everything from drinks to bread, hazelnut butter to pasta from scratch; recycling and upcycling anything that’s not biodegradable; and returning composted leftovers to local farms to ‘close the loop’.Like Frea, SILO Restaurant in Brighton, England, wastes nothing, avoiding packaging and processing—even milling its own flour onsite. SILO has its own composting machine, delivering the resulting compost to local farms, and SILO diners sit on second-hand and upcycled furnishings.
Around 80 eateries across London including Michelin-starred Pied a Terre are reducing their collective food waste to zero with the help of Indie Ecology, which converts all their organic waste to compost, then distributes it to participating farmers. Fresh organic vegetables grown from this compost are then delivered back to participating restaurants, completing the fork-to-farm-to-fork cycle.
Resources to help restaurants reduce waste
Track and manage your food waste
NSW EPA Love Food, Hate Waste’s Your Business is Food Program
NSW EPA’s BinTrim program: Reducing restaurant and café waste
BinTrim case study
Sustainability Victoria’s Love Food, Hate Waste Business Program
Donate your surplus food
1800 108 006
1800 263 283
Recycle organic waste
Phone your local council or check out Veolia’s organic waste collection services
Get further information
Love Food, Hate Waste (NSW EPA)
Love Food, Hate Waste (Sustainability Victoria)