Redefining Foodservice Waste Management: What's Next

Here are 10 concepts and trends foodservice operators should master if waste management is a priority.

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Once upon a time, the topic of waste management conjured images of messy garbage handling, hauling and processing.

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Most foodservice operators viewed it as largely unrelated to their core business. Not unlike electricity or water utilities, you signed a hauling contract and checked the task off your list.

But with these challenging economic times – and in a society increasingly focused on sustainability – it's no longer advisable for operators to treat waste as a peripheral concern. We spend massive dollars to purchase food and supplies that become waste and our discards make a huge, negative impact on both our financial results and the environment. Cutting waste makes sense – and it also happens to be one of the least painful ways to remove costs, avoiding the negative shockwaves of staff reductions or menu changes.

For these reasons, foodservice operators should make waste management one of their top priorities. This starts by redefining their thought processes to recognize that waste management is not about garbage – it's about reforming inefficient policies, procedures, and behaviors that lead to many types of waste. Managing a foodservice operation's waste cannot be delegated to a facilities manager or waste hauler; it requires hands-on knowledge of food service and production. Operators will need to master new best practices, deploy new tools and build new partnerships to usher in a new era of high efficiency and low waste. The following are trends to watch and concepts to master in 2010.

The Rise of Three Top Priorities

Foodservice operators have many potential waste management issues to address. Three leading issues have emerged in most waste management plans as primary considerations worthy of initial and sustained attention:

Pre-Consumer Food Waste. Also known as kitchen waste, pre-consumer food waste includes all food discarded by foodservice staff before it reaches a guest, including overproduced and expired items, spoilage, trim waste and waste due to handling errors such as contamination, dropping and burning. Pre-consumer food waste typically equals 4 per-cent to 10 percent of the total food purchased.

Post-Consumer Food Waste. Also known as plate waste, post-consumer food waste is all food discarded by guests. This waste stream needs to be managed in a completely different manner than pre-consumer food waste because the reasons for its creation are quite different. While production and service behaviors primarily drive pre-consumer food waste, guest discretion heavily influences post-consumer food waste. Proper portioning, thorough menu testing for customer acceptance and other operator measures will help reduce this waste, but ultimately it comes down to the guest deciding how much food goes into the garbage.

Packaging Waste. Packaging waste includes take-out containers, single-use cups, plastic bottles, disposable utensils, napkins and portion-controlled condiments, among other items. These items cost operators a lot of money, often are unnecessary for guests, and rarely get recycled or composted.

Ranking Waste Management Goals

As foodservice operators attack each of the above priorities, they will confront a range of confusing questions. For example, is it better to focus on composting pre-consumer food waste or donating the food? With post-consumer food waste, should one use a pulper, a digester, or a commercial composting facility? With packaging, does it make more sense to offer reusable plastic cups or compostable disposable cups?

To answer these questions, foodservice operators should refer to the waste management hierarchy, a pyramid (seen left) that ranks waste management strategies in order of priority. Using this tool, operators can map options against the hierarchy and determine priority. For example, source reduction of pre-consumer food waste is always more important than either food donation or composting. With packaging, it is almost always better to offer reusable cups versus any compostable disposable option.

While the hierarchy can help prioritize, sometimes there are competing objectives which are not easily reconciled. Is your top goal to reduce costs? Waste less water? Reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Avoid using non-renewable resources? Patronize local manufacturers? Operators often can find their way through confusing situations by listing and ranking their organizational goals.

For example, an operator might be struggling with the question of whether to purchase a compostable disposable cup if there is no way for the operation to compost that item. If the primary goal is to avoid buying products made from non-renewable resources, it may not matter that the compostable cup will not be composted. The operator will have met the primary objective by purchasing the compostable cup even if it goes to landfill.

As foodservice operators explore waste management topics, they will encounter many of these tradeoffs. It's not reasonable to expect easy answers in situations with so many variables. But it is possible to make clear, straightforward decisions once you know what you want to achieve.

Applying Sustainability Standards to Waste

There are several new third-party sustainability ratings systems available that identify waste management best practices. Even if an operator has no interest in pursuing a certification, they can use one of these standards as a roadmap to setting opportunities and goals.

The first nationally recognized standard is the Green Seal GS-46 Environmental Standard for Restaurants and Foodservices. It provides a detailed framework for waste management that will apply in whole or in part to most operations. Other standards that offer content relevant to specialized foodservices include the Green Guide for Healthcare, the AASHE STARS system for colleges and universities and the APEX standards for catering and convention centers. Each standard offers downloadable summaries, checklists and background information.

Understanding & Striving for Zero Waste

Foodservice operators will never avoid all waste, but they should prepare to strive for “zero waste.” This means not putting any waste, especially food, in landfills. Foodservice operators can achieve zero waste through a combination of source reduction and waste diversion via food recovery, composting or recycling. Source reduction, which is perched at the very top of the waste management hierarchy, offers the highest cost-savings potential and dramatically better environmental outcomes than diversion.

Foodservice operators occasionally claim they have a zero waste operation if they compost or recycle pre- and post-consumer waste even if they lack focus on source reduction. Composting has received considerable attention in recent years despite the fact that it ranks near the bottom of the waste management hierarchy. While composting is vastly preferable to landfill disposal, it should not be viewed as the singular antidote to food waste. A zero waste operation should focus heavily on source reduction and consider diversion a secondary option.

As the industry focuses more on source reduction, there also will be less tolerance for imprecise claims about waste reduction. Everyone wants to claim they are reducing waste, but this assertion is only true if you are preventing or minimizing waste at the source. Composting and food donation represent waste diversion tactics. In such cases, waste is diverted from a landfill for a higher and better use, but it has not been reduced.

Tracking Food Waste

The only way to “see” source reduction is to track waste and regularly review the data. Tracking represents the return of a historical practice with deep roots. It was once common for chefs to stand by their garbage cans to monitor inflows and use log books to record waste. Time constraints forced these practices to the margin. But it's now important enough to revive even if it takes a little extra work. Also, new technology advances in food waste tracking make it feasible to automate what was once a manual process.

By measuring waste continuously, or at least frequently, operators establish a waste baseline and can measure progress over time. This data allows operators to break down the waste problem into subcomponents and set goals targeting specific areas and items.

With a feedback loop based on waste data, foodservice operators can raise staff awareness, obtain an edge through diagnostic information, and create accountability where none previously existed. Once an operator meters waste, the process will begin to drive the systemic and behavioral changes necessary to minimize waste. Source reduction and tracking are two sides of the same coin.

Reporting on Green ROI

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released a new version of its Food Waste Calculator, an easy spreadsheet-based tool that helps foodservice operators predict waste reduction outcomes based on specific strategies. It also estimates environmental improvements and cost savings.

After launching an initiative and running it for several months, operators should evaluate actual savings. Start by using your waste tracking data collected in paper logbooks, a spreadsheet, or automated tracking systems to calculate food-cost savings due to pre-consumer waste reduction. Then use your garbage bills to calculate disposal cost changes for both pre and post-consumer food waste. Add the savings together and monitor changes monthly.

Reusable Serviceware over Disposables

Compostable disposables have a prominent place in the current discussion about waste management. However, source reduction of disposable waste is still a much better solution than compostables if you have on-site diners and warewashing capabilities. By making every effort to encourage customers to take reusables, operators reduce waste and its impact on the environment.

As a first step, operators should require all foodservice workers eating on-site to use reusable ware. Then make disposables scarcer for regular guests and consider a surcharge.

Supporting Regional Commercial Composters

Even with extensive efforts to source reduce, there will be waste and it should be diverted away from landfills. Composting is one of the most common and effective diversion strategies, but many regions lack access to commercial composting facilities for food waste. While some operators may compost on-site, this is not a practical solution for most facilities. Commercial composting facilities offer great value because they master the technical nuances of composting and market the end-product effectively. More operators will find themselves looking for commercial composting alternatives in 2010, and it's important they communicate this need to their municipality and garbage hauler. As operator demand increases, there will be incentives for private enterprise to develop more commercial composting alternatives.

Taking a Fresh Look at Garbage Disposers

Grinding food waste in a garbage disposer and sending it to a municipal waste water treatment plant is another landfill diversion strategy. Since food is comprised of 70 percent water, this is often feasible and offers the benefit of avoiding hauling costs and emissions. Many waste water treatment plants digest food waste with other organic matter and turn it into methane gas in a sealed system used to generate energy. This energy helps lower costs at the treatment plant and the remaining bio-solids after the digestion process may be used as fertilizer. In this example, a garbage disposer would place higher on the waste hierarchy than composting because its industrial use leads to energy generation.

However, this solution may not be available or appropriate for all operators. Garbage disposers are not allowed in some jurisdictions. Not all waste water treatment plants have the ability to turn food waste into energy and some treatment facilities are overloaded and don't want food waste. Critics argue that some disposers use too much water and that post-digestion bio-solids may include contaminants. Still others worry about fats, oils and greases (FOG) in the sewer system, though research shows food waste rarely causes FOG buildups.

Garbage disposers may be greener than people expect, but it depends on municipal regulations and infrastructure.

Deploying On-Site Processing Systems

On-site food waste processing may be a good alternative if an operator lacks a commercial composting solution and does not want to dispose of food waste through a garbage disposer. There are several options:

In-vessel composting. Effective if an operator possesses the labor, space and technical know-how.

On-site aerobic digesters. These systems use enzyme-producing microbes which digest food waste into nutrient-rich water effluent within hours. It's important to understand the digestion process and discuss it with the municipal sewage authority to ensure the digester effluent will be accepted.

Waste Dehydrators. This solution extracts and evaporates water, reducing weight and volume of food waste and leaving a soil amendment as a by-product which is not compost.

Looking Beyond 2010

Here are a few trends on the horizon:

Customers Demand More Information. Customers have been clamoring to understand their food better in recent years: Where did it come from? Who grew it? Is it safe? These customers expect transparency around food, an attitude that will expand beyond food sourcing into the waste arena. Some customers now ask whether a restaurant composts its food waste and reuses its oil for bio-diesel. Expect more questions and expectations of transparency and responsibility around waste handling in the future.

Regulations Exclude Food Waste from Landfills. More municipalities will strive to eliminate organics from landfills due to their greenhouse gas emissions. These regulators will create new requirements that may effectively prevent food waste from going to many landfills, forcing operators to develop more diversion alternatives.

Regulations Prevent Use of Non-Compostable and Non-Recyclable Disposables. Following Seattle's lead, regulators across the country may prohibit non-compostable and non-recyclable disposable packaging.

Waste to Energy Plants. Food waste can be converted to high-value energy by digesting waste and creating methane. Expect to see new digestion plants to digest food waste directly (not from the waste water system) on a commercial scale to produce energy.

Learning to succeed on the new frontier of waste management may frustrate operators and test their patience. The payoff will be large enough to justify the investment. Managing waste efficiently represents a chance to improve the bottom line while making a meaningful difference environmentally.

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