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Waste Not, Want Not

Organic waste management may be one of the least appealing subjects you’ve ever run across.  At the best of times it is an afterthought; something loaded into black bags and tossed into the dumpster after hours. At the worst of times, it means expensive removal and hauling bills, or a major attraction for vermin and pests. Besides minimizing food waste to preserve the bottom line, chefs often don’t give much thought to their trash. Curiously though, the reduction or elimination of food waste is now at the vanguard of food trends, as both an opportunity to be ecologically conscious and to enrich profits in your establishment.

Just How Much Food Waste is there?

The growing, harvesting, distribution, and serving of food all requires power, water, and labor. Spoiler Alert, a tech company focused on waste reduction for retailers, estimates that between 30 and 40% of food produced in the United States is ultimately wasted. This equates to $218 Billion in lost resources annually for the US and globally.  Were food waste to be considered a nation, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, behind the US and China, cites a 2013 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report.

Prevention, Recovery, Recycling

ReFED, a collective of businesses and non-profits working to minimize food waste, has recommended prioritizing Prevention first, that is, stopping loss via overproduction and spoilage. Secondary efforts should be focused on Recovery, the notion of distributing unused food or leftovers to charities; and Recycling, or making good use of your waste instead of sending it to the landfill. Prevention has a serious potential to improve profit margins for foodservice operators, while Recovery and Recycling make themselves appealing to the pragmatic via potential tax breaks and reduced waste hauling expenses. Good design can be a key to all of these efforts.

Managing Waste from the Start

 Any chef worth her salt is already doing her best to manage inventory to match orders to demand. But the methods of storage can be crucial in the lifespan of meats, dairy, and especially produce. Restaurants that can afford the space should consider a separate walk-in cooler for produce so as to better control the storage environment. A couple of companies now produce air purifiers for produce coolers that eliminate environmental contaminants such as bacteria, yeast, and Ethylene, a gaseous by-product of ripening and decomposition that can hasten the ripening of other produce. Detailed charts of produce types, lifespans, and sensitivities are available online for those who cannot create a separate produce cooler. Produce washers and dryers are also invaluable in removing initial surface contaminants.

Blast chillers and shock freezers are the best way to expediently cool cooked food for storage and minimize bacterial growth during that cool down. Vacuum packaging units can be utilized to store oxygen sensitive foods as well as improve the holding conditions of anything shock frozen for long-term storage.

Software programs and apps are now available that can integrate with bulk scales to allow a foodservice operator to track the quantity of food waste produced as expressed in pounds and ounces. Many of these programs can help translate these weights into average dollar values lost to your establishment. Reducing these pounds and ounces requires staff training and menu innovation. Chefs at home and at work who are unfamiliar with poaching, pickling, dehydrating, and canning can find support in organizations such as Spoon University, Love Food Hate Waste, and Taste Before You Waste. Many of these same programs and organizations can also help connect foodservice establishments with food bank charities, and assist in tax code compliance to help get rebates.

Careful consideration of how food is served can also reduce waste. Quick service restaurants such as Panda Express, have experimented with programs where attendants ask patrons if they’d like a half-portion of bulky side dishes such as fried rice or chow mein. This was positioned before the customers not only as a method for reducing temptation and calorie content, but also to reduce food waste. Studies commissioned by universities demonstrated that in dormitory serveries that went trayless, students were less likely to overload their plates by taking more food than they were hungry for.

Ecofriendly Solutions to Disposal

Finally, there is the sometimes stinky matter of disposal. Despite options like composting, which has been around for years, most food waste still ends up in a landfill. Carting this waste can be a major expense to foodservice establishments large and small, and holding the waste until pickup can degrade environmental quality around the restaurant and attract pests.

Garbage disposers are a traditional solution to this problem, but they consume a lot of water, and are increasingly discouraged by municipalities tired of your garbage burden being transferred to their waste water facilities. Modern facilities can contract with composting agencies for waste pickup, sometimes even free of charge, and those lucky enough to enjoy a garden can create their own compost to help grow more produce for the restaurant.

For others, solutions present themselves in the form of dehydrators and digesters. Both of these options grind the food waste in a water slurry similar to how a traditional garbage disposer works, and can be engineered to recirculate this water to minimize fresh water waste. The dehydrator then extracts (and recirculates) the water to turn the food waste into a compressed and lightweight granular sand not unlike coffee grounds. This waste product is considerably lighter and less bulky, and can be integrated into a compost pile (though it should not be composted by itself).

Decomposers store food waste for a given period of time in a large tank, using a mixture of bacteria and nutrients to break down the waste into an inert gray water solution suitable to be disposed into any common drain. Like the dehydrator, the decomposer minimizes hauling costs. Unlike the dehydrator, it does not leave any matter for the compost heap, which is a loss.  However, unlike natural decomposition, no methane is produced during the process, which is a gain.

The larger your establishment, the more appealing these solutions become, but even with a small operation, there are options available.  The equipment companies do try to scale different models for almost any operation’s size, and can work with you to calculate a return on investment timeline.

Save the Earth and the Pocketbook

Careful consideration of food waste prevention techniques, from capital investment to menu changes, will need to be given by any operator considering them. The costs of ignoring the matter are staggering, however, which is part of why the issue exploded so suddenly and why such a plethora of groups now work to help combat it. Opportunities to reduce your food waste exist almost everywhere– in what you serve and even in how your kitchen is designed. Creative effort in this area can save the earth and the pocketbook.

By:  Kevin Banas

Associate | Chicago

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