Overcoming barriers to hospitality's food waste

Written by: RWW | Published:

Last month, the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association held a hospitality-specific event to find out why restaurants, hotels and caterers are still throwing so much food waste into landfill. How much more of what’s unavoidable could be recycled into energy through anaerobic digestion? David Burrows, freelance writer, investigates.

Hospitality businesses in the UK produce something in the region of 920,000 tonnes of food waste a year. That’s about 1.3 billion meals or one in six of the eight billion meals eaten out of home. Three quarters of that waste is avoidable and could have been eaten, claims WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme). 

Restaurants throw away £682m of food waste a year. Pubs chuck £357m. For staff caterers the figure is £44m. Extrapolate this to the cost per tonne - including labour to prepare, cook and serve it, the cost of ingredients, logistics and waste management - and the figures are even more startling (see table). For restaurants it’s £3,500 per tonne, while pubs are forking out £2,100 on every tonne of food that ends up in the bin. For hotels the figure hits £4,000. 

Barrier one: The cost of collection

It was no surprise this cropped up as one of the top three barriers to increased treatment of hospitality waste through AD at the conference held last month by the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association (ADBA). It was, after all, a room partly filled with waste contractors and AD specialists - for whom it’s been a constant challenge and a particular frustration. After all, the unavoidable mass equates to about 25% of the 920,000 tonnes - or 230,000 tonnes of good, yet hard to reach and expensive to collect, feedstock. 

Indeed, the weight versus volume dilemma came up time and again. 

A study by ReFood, published late last year, found that hospitality companies that have heavier bins are being subsidised by those with lighter ones. This pay-per-bin model has a number of flaws, the firm claimed, not least because it leaves little incentive to separate the heavier food waste out. 

Peter Jones, a senior consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting, highlighted how food waste “takes up very little space in the bin. You are not making a saving as the volume is still [pretty much] the same.” So, by separating the food waste, businesses are likely to save little. In fact, waste costs can go up. What’s more, the gap between gate fees for food waste and general waste is still not large enough to make the majority of hospitality business - 97% of the sector are small to medium sized enterprises - think twice. Studies in Scotland show savings are possible for smaller cafes and restaurants, but perhaps not enough to offset the hassle involved. 

Barrier two: Lack of AD awareness, knowledge and education

In Scotland, businesses producing more than 50kg of waste of waste now have to separate it for AD or in-vessel composting. Space for an extra bin was foreseen as a big headache for some businesses (who also have to separate out other recyclables under the new Waste (Scotland) Regulations). Innovation is helping to overcome this. 

Brendan Hunter at WRAP admitted that “it isn’t easy” for SMEs to separate all their waste, but he’s seeing some “really clever innovations” that are helping overcome space issues with “bins constructed to take more waste streams [in separate compartments]”. 

Some of the bigger companies at the event explained the challenges they are facing too. 

KFC and McDonald’s are both faced with the regulations north of the border and both are struggling with encouraging customers to separate waste. Janet Cox, head of health and safety at KFC, explained how she is working “very closely” with McDonald’s on a solution. 

This would also ensure customers in both restaurant chains were receiving consistent messaging. Indeed, the fact that separate household food waste collections had not also become mandatory at the turn of the year was seen as a “missed opportunity” by some at the event. The messaging would have been clear and enabled businesses to explain to customers why food waste needs to be separated. The knock-on effect, and bigger ‘win’ of course, is that less food is wasted. 

Barrier three: lack of legislation

This one tended to cloak the other two issues. Legislation was thought to breed consistency of messaging and drive economies of scale. However, the coalition government has said its current programmes of work on AD and food waste are nearing completion and “the responsibility for taking work forward will largely rest with the industries concerned”.

This clearly remains a frustration. “There is not any leadership from Defra in terms of where we should be going with this,” says Dean Pearce, regional commercial manager at PDM, which owns the ReFood brand. Leaving it up to the market might lead to “myriad solutions rather than the most environmentally friendly one or the most economically efficient”, he adds.

Those in the foodservice sector are also keen for more government involvement. 

Mike Hanson, head of environment and energy at caterers BaxterStorey said he believed in “an element of command and control”, adding: “In Scotland, the market has recognised [the law] was coming and the opportunities that are there. That makes it happen. When it’s left up to the market it’s a chicken and egg situation.”

So, where do we go from here? 

There is little sign of government intervention; though Labour has suggested that, if elected, it would ban food waste from landfill, while the European Commission’s upcoming communication on sustainable food could contain food waste reduction targets. But with 920,000 tonnes of food being wasted from the sector, at a cost of over £2.5bn, there is little to be gained in waiting. So, waste businesses and their hospitality clients need to work more closely.

The conference concluded that waste contractors must help businesses understand the benefits of separate food waste collections, with case studies showing financial and environmental gains.

More transparency in invoices would also help, as would better communication of how innovation can help overcome the perceived challenges. As SITA UK’s development director Stuart Hayward-Higham noted: “We often get customers who say they only have room for one bin and that’s a 1,100l one. We have bins [that size] that have six different containers [within them].”

This communication should also extend to what services are offered, not least the levels of contamination that food waste collectors will accept. This currently varies from contractor to contractor, which has affected the quick service restaurant in particular where food is served in packaging. 

PDM’s Pearce explained: “Food waste recycling dies a death as soon as you put too many restrictions on it. You have to be able to handle a certain amount of contamination.”

For their part, food businesses should also be looking at collaboration. Eunomia’s Jones highlighted a number of businesses working together in Bath: polling their food waste and procuring waste services from one contractor had enabled the group to save 50%. 

There are other examples around. There are certainly challenges to overcome as the AD sector looks to the valuable, but traditionally hard to reach, hospitality food waste stream, and legislation is still viewed as the key. However, it doesn’t have to stifle progress. Mandatory food waste collections and a landfill ban would help, but waste contractors and foodservice companies can help themselves too.

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