Is zero waste really possible?

Paul Wright, Project Director at Tricon explores if it’s feasible to achieve “zero waste” in a staff restaurant and to what extent this objective is influenced by client policy.

Around 50% of all food produced on the planet never gets eaten.

The waste hierarchy provides an international recognised framework for waste management. Top priority is given to preventing waste in the first place followed by re-use, recycling, recovery and disposal. Thus “zero waste”, which encompasses elimination or re-use, is considered preferable to recycling or recovery. A number of chefs are opening restaurants pioneering the concept of “zero waste” operations, utilising full nose to tail menu planning.

Notable examples are Massimo Bottura, of Osteria Franscescana in Modena, Italy and Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York City. This got us thinking; is it feasible to achieve “zero waste” in a staff restaurant and to what extent this objective is influenced by client policy?

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The three principle waste generating areas are food, packaging and disposables. Firstly, food waste. This can be split into “production waste” resulting from food preparation and cooking activities including left-over food, and “plate waste”, essentially food served but not fully consumed by the customer. Chefs, such as Massimo Bottura, will butcher a whole animal carcass on-site and use every constituent part in a dish. This is clearly not a realistic option for a staff restaurant as not many employees would buy-in to eating brains or eyeballs in the interests of achieving zero waste. Therefore, the use of prepared fresh ingredients, such as pre-portioned meat and peeled vegetables is a better (and commonly used) approach. However, zero waste should not be restricted to the on-site activities only but should extend down through the supply chain. Consequently, there is a requirement to ensure suppliers are also delivering a zero waste commitment. There’s a poultry processing plant where the last thing you see are pairs of feet dangling from an overhead tracking on their way to China. Every part of the bird is used (but maybe avoid the chicken nuggets!).

Production waste is also influenced by menu range and choice. The broader the menu range and the greater the daily variety, the higher the potential for food waste (and additional cost!). We often see menus that offer different dishes every day for an extended period. We’ve seen a hospitality menu that included over 100 different ingredients (including 10 varieties of bread) just for the working breakfast and lunch menus. Compare this to a successful commercial restaurant where a limited range of dishes are produced using the optimum number of ingredients to a set and tested standard that enable wastage (and therefore cost) to be tightly controlled. A very successful catering operation in a well known company with 3,000+ employees only serves two high quality, plated main dishes daily, but this is still well received by its employees. To further reduce wastage, any left-over food is carefully chilled and offered at a discounted tariff the following day.

Though how to reduce plate waste? Providing good quality and tasty food is the obvious answer. However, not everyone has the same appetite and yet invariably standard portion sizes are served. So why not offer different portion sizes or encourage customers to take less and return for more (free of charge or for a nominal tariff) if they wish? This could also allow for lower tariffs for smaller appetites.

Secondly, packaging waste, where again due consideration needs to be given to levels of waste in the supply chain. Most fresh ingredients can potentially be delivered in reusable containers; an initiative best supported through the use of local suppliers and producers and the use of seasonal produce. Unpacking apples from New Zealand into a plastic box for delivery to a site in London does not qualify. Elimination of all packaging for dry goods may be more difficult to achieve, but wherever possible ingredients should be delivered in bulk,
in reusable containers and decanted into smaller dispensers on site, e.g. jams, sauces, salt and pepper, sugar etc.

How about cold beverages? One answer is to provide water only. Alternatively, soft drinks can be made on-site and presented in bell jars with dispense taps. Post-mix, using re-usable canisters is an option but is it necessary to limit this to unhealthy drinks? Surely a similar system could be introduced for naturally flavoured waters and juices?

Thirdly, disposables. Why do we need them? If all employees dined in the restaurant then only serviettes are required. Such a policy would also promote social interaction and encourage employees to take a break from their workstations. The use of disposables for “take-away” food and drinks can be extremely costly as well as significantly slowing down the speed
of service. Hot beverages can be served in re-usable serviceware and if the same serviceware is utilised in the restaurant and in the tea points this simplifies washing and re-stocking.

Whilst it may be difficult to achieve zero waste, there are many feasible opportunities to significantly reduce waste, some of which can deliver additional benefits to the organisation. Such opportunities are influenced by client policies that underpin the reasons for providing staff catering but often these are policies are not totally clear and can be unduly influenced by the caterer’s own objectives. In our view, if a client’s fundamental objectives are employee welfare, encouraging social interaction and promoting health and nutrition, while at the same time reducing costs, then adopting a zero waste approach to catering would be a positive step forward.

This article first appeared in Insights & Actions Magazine, October 2017.