Less is more: dealing with waste management

The concern about waste management has shifted from dealing with it to preventing it. Jim Banks speaks to consultants and technology developers about solutions

Food waste is a massive cost, not only for operators of commercial kitchens, but also for the environment and society as a whole. Studies are only now starting to bring the scale of the problem into focus, but just a glance at some of the statistics is enough to convince anyone that swift action must be taken.

It is widely acknowledged, for example, that 40% of food in the US goes uneaten. Given the processes that bring food from farm to table require 50% of all US land, 10% of the country’s energy budget and 80% of all the fresh water it consumes, it is clear that wasting food equates to wasting natural resources. In a country where nearly 15% of households are food insecure, this level of waste is hard to accept.

In its most recent report on food waste, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that in 2010, food losses in the US amounted to $161.6bn. Over 36m tons of food waste was generated in 2011, of which 96% went into landfills or incinerators.

While commercial kitchens certainly do not account for all of this waste, there is growing pressure on the foodservice sector to reduce food waste, not least because of regulatory pressures.

“Most governments and many operators in the hospitality industry are looking at the issue of waste – especially bio-waste. Sending waste to landfill is a waste of land, plus it increases handling and labour costs. Regulations are coming in to force foodservice operations to find better solutions by reducing or treating food waste,” says Mohamed Karam, business development manager, Middle East & Africa for InSinkErator, part of Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions.

An essential part of the toolkit will be the technological solutions that improve the disposal process, along with increased efforts to divert waste to compost or bio-energy production. From the company that invented waste disposal units back in 1927, InSinkErator is one of the most effective solutions for reducing the volume of food waste as it grinds material down into a fine powder, which can then be composted, used as bio-fertiliser or as a source for biogas.

“We can reduce the volume of food waste by a minimum of 60% and sometimes by as much as 85%. Most new projects these days add solutions for handling waste and our technology is a cost-effective solution. It lowers operating costs and improves hygiene. Whatever hotels and restaurants choose to do with it, the disposal process starts with grinding food waste,” says Karam.

A similar technology comes from PEL, which recently installed its waste reduction system in Europe’s tallest building – The Shard in London. The solution allows hotels and restaurants in
The Shard to reduce at source general waste, cardboard, plastic and glass. Waste volume is reduced by up to 90%.

“It is a neat, compact solution. Taking waste from the catering facilities on the 32nd floor of The Shard is a big cost, so it is important to reduce the volume. Everything comes in cardboard boxes, so those boxes go into a baler, which reduces volume and minimises the fire hazard. Glass bottles and jars are crushed. Waste disposal costs come out of the bottom line, so there is a cost advantage to cutting labour and transport costs,” says PEL founder and CEO Timmy Griffith.

Grinders, compactors and balers from suppliers such as Red Devil Equipment Company, PEL and Emerson are essential to the waste management processes in many commercial kitchens, but more voices in the industry are calling for less waste to be created in the first place.

Back-to-front thinking

For some, including sustainable food consultant John Turenne FCSI, focusing primarily on
the disposal of waste is a mistake. “I’ve worked with large institutions on food catering projects that focused on dollars and cents rather than common sense,” he says.

“I saw the light and now I help companies make sound business decisions in light of the huge environmental impact of foodservice. I help to manage processes better and what I do touches on technologies for managing waste, but I try to help clients eliminate waste in the first instance. The mantra ‘reduce, recycle, reuse’ is the key.

“There is often more focus on the last part in terms of composting and compacting, but I focus on the environmental, social and economic impact of reducing food waste. Just 25% of what we waste in food in Europe and the US could feed the world’s malnourished because a lot of it comes from overproduction.”

Turenne points to the work of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has created a food recovery hierarchy. This presents a list of the preferred ways to reduce waste. Incineration or landfill is at the tip of this inverted pyramid as the least preferred option. Increasingly preferable are composting, industrial uses, feeding animals and feeding hungry people, but at the top of the list as the best option is source reduction. In other words, priority one is to stop overproducing food.

“To achieve this we need to buy better, plan better and forecast the correct amount of food we need to prepare,” says Turenne. “For foodservice operations, reducing waste upstream means spending less money on food. They buy less, so less food needs to be grown, transport costs decrease as fuel demands fall, fewer chemicals go into the ground and less water is used to grow food. The downstream advantage is that there is less waste to compact or compost, so disposal costs also fall.”

Planning need not rely on guesswork. Commercial kitchens have all the data they need, and Turenne points to technological solutions that can help operators manage and use that data to make food-purchasing processes more efficient. LeanPath is the industry’s first automated food waste tracking system and is widely used in hospitals, colleges, restaurants and other foodservice operations across the US and, increasingly, in Europe. It has helped its users to cut food waste by as much as 80%.

“LeanPath started work on food waste 10 years ago when there was very little focus on this issue,” says Andrew Shakman, LeanPath’s president and CEO. “We looked at it from the perspective of efficiency and to minimise food waste you must first measure it. The scale of the problem is tremendous, but in foodservice we can motivate people by focusing on the cost savings on labour, transport and waste disposal, as well as the environmental angle.

“Food waste is a clear issue for water use, energy consumption, waste disposal, greenhouse gas emissions, cost-efficiency, obesity and much more. The industry is focused on what to do with waste, but the problem begins with sourcing, which is where LeanPath comes in.”

The technology tracks food waste from measurements made by kitchen staff at the disposal stage. Using scales to weigh the waste, cameras to capture images and touch-screen terminals to input data on the type of food being thrown away and the reasons for its disposal the LeanPath solution is pretty easy to use. It feeds data directly into procurement processes and helps identify the types of food that are being bought in excess.

“The best way to reduce waste tomorrow is to know what you are throwing away today. We provide a toolkit that is actionable, not just academic,” says Shakman.

The bottom line

The industry’s efforts to reduce food waste will no doubt combine back-end solutions with front-end processes, and cost reduction will be the main driver.

“The touchpoint for clients is often cost savings,” says Turenne. “The money saved can be invested in better equipment, better staffing or better sourcing from local organic farms. It could also be the social responsibility aspect – doing what is right – because more people can be fed.

Waste used for composting or energy production has value as a commodity, so there are financial advantages to be gained at the disposal end as well as in limiting the amount of waste created. Ultimately, a balanced approach will yield the greatest benefit.

“Composting and sending food waste for anaerobic energy production are good, but you don’t get the same impact on the costs of food and labour at the front end,” says Shakman. “All of the cost upside is at the front end, it does not come from diversion of food waste.”

Turenne agrees: “Waste management is the quickest and best way to save money, so it should be a top priority. The industry is getting that message, but things need to start moving faster.”

Jim Banks

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