In the United States, nearly 40 percent of all food is thrown out. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. It’s the equivalent of throwing out nine meals a week. But if you own a restaurant, this figure may not be too surprising. The average restaurant tosses out 25,000 pounds of food every year, wasting tens of thousands of dollars and causing significant environmental strain.
Because wasted food is wasted money, it is imperative that everyone who buys food—and that means everyone—learns how to reduce food waste or keep it to a minimum. This goes tenfold for restaurants, whose business is food. Seeing an opportunity to help restaurant businesses meet their food waste reduction goals while also achieving its own, the EPA created the Food Pyramid’s equal opposite: the Food Recovery Hierarchy.
1. Source Reduction
The easiest and most effective way to reduce your food waste is simply to order less food. After all, you can’t waste what you don’t have. Start routine waste audits, and compare your current and past inventories to see if you are habitually ordering too much of certain goods. If you often see half-full plates left at the table, don’t take it personally—take it back! You may simply be serving portions that are too large. You could be ordering twice as much food as you need across the board.
There are also several details you can focus on to rein in waste. Order products in compostable or recyclable packaging, or remove the problem entirely with shelf-stable items in bulk to cut down on packaging. If food comes in packages, that’s an excess cost from your supplier that has been shoved onto you. Refuse single-use plastics and junk mail; it is trash that someone else is having you throw away.
And since your business is food, make the most of every piece of food. If you order anything that isn’t a raw ingredient, learn how to make it yourself. Overripe berries can become a jam. Chicken bones, fish heads, and vegetable cores and peels can be used for stock. Use a Mother (combination of cultures and acidic bacteria), and mix it with sour wine to make vinegar. Consult the internet, or join one of the many social networks where recipes are shared. In this age of information, there is almost no excuse for not learning how to make ingredients or being creative with your food preparation.
2. Feed Hungry People
We live in a hungry country. In 2015, 42.2 million Americans lived with food insecurity, with over 13 million of them being children. That’s one in six Americans! If the country reduced its food waste by 15 percent, more than 25 million people could be fed. That would cut the number of hungry people down by more than half.
If you have ordered too much food, consider donating it to shelters or soup kitchens where it will make a huge difference. Talk to your fellow restaurateurs to pool excess foods, and set up a rotation for collecting and delivering the donation to cut costs on transportation. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the community, and it’s good for your reputation.
If you are concerned about your liability for donating perishable or prepared foods, have no fear. Donors who give food with no intention of harm are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.
3. Feed Animals
Of course, not all food is people food. Farm animals can eat a lot of things we barely recognize as edible. Quite often, the leftovers that you’d toss would satisfy the appetites of the very animals you may be purchasing later this year. Your donation will reduce the farmer’s cost of operation as well as the strain on the food supply.
Not only is donating food scraps to animals good for the environment, it’s also good for your wallet. It is cheaper to send food waste to a farmer rather than to a landfill. There are certain preparations necessary to donate food scraps to animals—always consult your health agency before doing anything—but the savings can be massive. For example, Rutgers University has a partnership with a local farm to have its scraps diverted, and it saves the university a whopping 50 percent compared to sending scraps to a landfill. The farm even collects the food straight from the dining halls!
4. Industrial Uses
There are some amazing uses for unused food that go far beyond eating. You’ve probably seen some cars using biodiesel, a fuel derived from organic materials such as vegetables and extra cooking oil that produces fewer pollutants than gasoline. Fats, oils, and grease are also used at wastewater plants to produce renewable biogas. Even solid meat is used in the rendering industry to create pet foods, cosmetics, and much more.
Many universities and municipalities partner with local establishments to find a beneficial solution to energy and food waste problems. They’ll even provide containers and pickup.
Hard as you may try, it could be too difficult to put every last piece of extra food to use. This is where composting comes in. Long used by farmers as an invaluable resource, composting has become more popular with the general population recently.
Some cities require restaurants to compost, but other parts of the country take the opposite approach. If your city has a composting facility, take advantage of it. Keep in mind some of the less obvious things you can’t compost, like onions and citrus peels, as they slow down decomposition or even soil the batch entirely. Get different bins to separate the many different scraps to make it easier for you and your donation recipients.
Sometimes, even after you’ve tried every avenue to use or sustainably dispose of a foodstuff, you simply have no other choice but to send it to the landfill. This should be your last resort, though even landfill has its uses. Boston was famously expanded through extensive landfill projects, including using the rubble from The Great Boston Fire of 1872 to fill in its downtown waterfront.
The problem with landfills is that they are heaped with materials that won’t biodegrade for centuries, and the tons of waste that will degrade does so in a hodgepodge of toxic decomposition. Plus, when landfilling gets out of control, it can contaminate soil, seep chemicals into groundwater and aquifers, and pump methane—a greenhouse gas that retains 72 times more heat than carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere. And the only way to reduce the load is to incinerate it, pumping a comparable tonnage of carbon into the air, instead.
The less you dump into landfills, the better it is for everyone. Consider what else is being lost when food is trashed. For instance, huge quantities of water and phosphorous go into every pound of meat and vegetables, and we are quickly running out of both resources. To throw out food is to send these precious, life-giving elements on a wasteful voyage to nowhere, and that’s something we can’t afford to do any longer.
It’s Your Turn to Reduce and Recover Food
If just a 15 percent reduction in food waste could feed 25 million people, imagine what a 100 percent reduction could do. If you want to set a zero-waste goal for your restaurant, it can be done. Even if that’s not practical for your restaurant right now, it doesn’t mean you can’t cut down your food waste. With some extra effort and small investments of money and time, you will see the returns reflected in both your bottom line and the world you live in.
About the Author
Dominick A. Farina is the owner of Trashcans Unlimited, a supplier of trash cans and recycling bins to the restaurant industry,