In theory, waste management seems like a pretty simple concept in the foodservice industry: make the most effective and efficient use of ingredients, labor and other resources to minimize what the operation tosses in the trash. What could be easier, right?
If only it were so simple.
Waste management represents a constantly evolving part of the foodservice industry, one that, if handled correctly, can continue to benefit not only a company's bottom line but also the environment. In other words, employing proper waste management techniques will always be good business.
Of course, keeping abreast of such a broad yet important topic can be quite the challenge for even the most seasoned foodservice professional. The greenwashing of zero-waste campaigns along with the landfill bans sweeping major metropolitan cities represent two key topics dominating the waste management conversation today.
In the last few years, many foodservice operators have set out to run a "zero waste" kitchen, whereby the businesses divert 100 percent of their waste from landfills through composting, recycling, donations and/or a combination of those steps. The problem is that many declare victory too soon, according to Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of LeanPath, a Portland, Ore.-based waste management consulting firm. "Ninety percent does not equal 100 percent," he says.
The overmarketing of sustainability diluted consumer trust when it came to who was truly making a difference and who was simply out for their own branding cause. Many foodservice operators can quickly overstate their waste management efforts. "We're seeing similar improper messaging with this waste reduction campaign and operators not looking at the big picture," according to Shakman.
For example, many foodservice operators want to claim their space in the zero-waste arena after simply initiating programs for composting or donating unused food. Typically accompanying this "close enough" declaration is a check-box mentality, which can lead to the type of complacency that can impede the long-term success of waste management efforts.
"Just because you may not send your waste to a landfill does not mean you are producing zero waste," says Shakman. These operators "could actually be producing a lot of waste, composting it and declaring a victory on the 40-yard line and washing their hands of the issue."
In reality, waste reduction represents a long-term goal that encompasses many different solutions, including composting, recycling and donating for landfill diversion as well as source-reduction steps that stop waste before it occurs. Tracking daily food waste, noting instances of overproduction and ensuring proper inventory management can further cut back on the need to heavily compost in the first place, says Shakman.
Composting certainly helps complete a cycle of food waste, meaning we grow things, eat them and put the leftovers back into the soil. But true waste reduction — not just landfill diversion — entails examining the bigger picture, including zeroing in on the details of large-scale food production and the possible overproduction of food there, along with the accompanying environmental and social consequences. Composting and the zero-waste concepts do not exist in a vacuum, according to Shakman.
A better way to look at waste management is to view it as a more comprehensive metric of total waste generated and whether the foodservice operation is reducing that number. "I love the call to action of the zero-waste ethic, but I think we have to view it as an aspirational goal over the long term and not something we're going to achieve tomorrow," Shakman says. "Zero waste is a good thing — we just have to hold ourselves accountable and really understand what it means, not just throw a marketing label on it."
A number of states and municipalities have passed laws restricting food waste from being sent to landfills, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut; and the cities of Seattle, San Francisco, Austin and, next year, New York. In addition, Shakman says, California and Rhode Island are inching closer to instituting similar bans.
"The idea behind this legislation is that it helps create demand for composting and food waste management infrastructure, and in some ways it's more effective than marketing campaigns or declarations like "zero waste" because of the legal framework," says Shakman, who sees these bans as the most pertinent topic on many operators' minds of late when discussing food waste management.
For example, Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group (B&BHG) operates more than 20 restaurants and food operations throughout New York City and beyond. B&BHG's New York restaurants have their compostable material picked up daily and sent as far as Delaware for processing. Beginning in July 2015, the city will require larger commercial food businesses separate food waste and organics from their regular trash streams. "I think the idea is to put some pressure on the haulers to find or build more composting solutions, which would be great," says Elizabeth Meltz, director of food safety and sustainability for B&BHG.
Landfill diversion bans like these "create pressure on certain foodservice operators, particularly larger organizations and national chains, to start separating their organics, but the legislation will probably be scaled down to affect smaller facilities and more jurisdictions over time," Shakman says.
Massachusetts has also jumped on the landfill bandwagon. Effective this October, the state will require businesses producing a ton or more of organic waste each week to separate all food from their traditional trash streams, according to John Fischer of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. This latest law tacks onto existing waste management efforts that include a goal for a 30 percent reduction of total waste statewide by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
"While there is a range of ways to comply, we always focus on the top of the waste reduction hierarchy with reducing food waste generation in the first place," Fischer says. "We want to make sure the food operation is more efficient and wastes less food."
Still, source-reduction efforts go hand in hand with landfill-diversion efforts, including composting and donations to food banks and animal-feeding operations. The state's RecyclingWorks program has helped bring more businesses into the group effort.
"We found food waste bans can be effective in driving the growth of anaerobic digestion and composting plants, at least in Massachusetts," says Fischer.
By removing water, dehydrators can reduce the weight of food waste by up to 90 percent and create an effective soil amendment suitable for mixing with composting material. But if this soil amendment material isn't readily used or sent to gardening or farming operations, it too can end up in the landfill. While on-site composting machines can be effective in cutting down on hauling costs and filling in infrastructure gaps, they can also be large in size and expensive, to say the least.
"At B&BHG composting works for us in that you're generating the trash anyway — so why not divert it from a landfill?" says Meltz. "I think this is what the city was trying to get at; it's about ways to incentivize and make composting more appealing and accessible to businesses." The more businesses that compost and the more infrastructure there is, the more cost effective it will become.
"Down the line we might be talking about how sending our trash to the landfill is so expensive and composting is cheaper," says Meltz. "This won't happen overnight, but I think that's where we're headed."
In addition to off-site composting via third-party providers, operators can research other landfill diversion solutions, including the use of on-site waste-dehydrating machines, and in some cases, pulpers and disposers, all of which prevent the need to haul waste away to meet waste-diversion initiatives. Pulpers and disposers, however, introduce a whole new set of complications related to whether a municipality such as New York City can handle the strain on its water-treatment capabilities, Meltz notes.
B&BHG was able to get an even better handle on its trash production by using MintScraps, an app created by the New York Mayor's Office, which collects data on the number of composting, recycling and garbage bags picked up each day. This information, supplemented by a city audit, has helped the restaurant group get a closer look at just how much it should pay in hauling fees, which are calculated on a per-pound basis. Without this tracking, businesses are at the mercy of the haulers, which often take rough initial estimates and rarely change those numbers.
Aside from leveraging modern technology in this way, education and training remain key to long-term waste and cost reduction, says Meltz. "You can't just point at the trash and say, "This goes here, that goes there"; you have to say why and show the staff what happens if they don't separate properly, like showing a picture of a compost windrow with plastic all torn up in it. Sometimes a little friendly competition between the restaurants helps. But it's really about making it easier for our restaurants — if there are two compost bins and they're set at opposite ends of the kitchen, that doesn't work." Waste management failures in this regard have less to do with people not caring and more to do with logistics and infrastructure, she adds.
Beyond that, the hospitality group continues to research all potential diversion and source-reduction solutions as well as look at the long-term impact of some of these potential solutions as a whole, rather than just settle on one route over another.
This is precisely Shakman's main message when it comes to waste management of the future: The big picture is what it's all about.
The National Restaurant Association (NRA) recently partnered with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute and USDA to reduce, reuse and recycle food waste through the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. The collaboration seeks to define ways to divert waste from landfills into other, more productive uses like composting and to research source-reduction opportunities. In addition, the NRA is partnering with Food Donation Connection, an organization that helps restaurants donate excess food to charitable organizations and food banks. NRA representatives have said the association remains focused on collecting as much data on food as possible to help operators reduce their overall food waste, and leveraging education through the NRA's Conserve program to spread the effort.