Restaurants and foodservice operations of all types are becoming more interested and active in food waste reduction. However, one might argue that noncommercial foodservice operators — those in the college and healthcare sectors, especially — have led the charge. That’s based on the fact that they tend to produce the greatest amount of waste compared to others and realize the impact they can have on the environment by reducing that amount.

Two major foodservice providers, Sodexo and Compass Group, remain extremely focused on waste management initiatives and services as each strives to reduce their carbon footprint and climb the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy toward overall food waste reduction and reuse.

Sodexo’s Efforts

Sodexo intends to reduce its food waste by 50 percent by 2030, as well as to eliminate all avoidable landfill waste by 2025.

“We can’t always install solar panels or install rainwater cisterns at our clients’ accounts because we don’t have control over those decisions, but we can control how we help manage waste and what we buy,” says Nell Fry, senior manager of sustainability and corporate responsibility field support at Sodexo.

Sodexo’s waste reduction efforts focus on tracking. It has even developed a proprietary program to facilitate these efforts. While not all operations currently have the software and hardware set up, Sodexo’s goal is to roll out the program to all of its applicable foodservice sites (meaning the group that does not include Starbucks-branded outlets or smaller convenience stores) by 2025. In addition to its tracking program, Sodexo offers education, training tools and services, including a waste management tool kit, recovery tool kit and other guides with best practices for choosing disposables, composting/recycling/digester programs and equipment, and more. The company also hosts webinars and in-person training.

Just as Sodexo takes a hands-off approach to its clients — offering a variety of services but letting the client make the final decision — it does the same with its waste management efforts. Each client makes the decision about programs based on the infrastructure that exists or does not exist in their geographical areas.

“There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all program,” says Fry. “We try to help our clients determine their goals and priorities in terms of waste management, whether that’s consumer education or donating food or better tracking, and we assess those variables first before pulling from our tools and resources to help them craft the best solution.”

Still, reduction seems to be the top priority among most clients, and tracking serves as the first step toward establishing baselines and discovering patterns and problems with overproduction, training or sourcing. Addressing issues in any of those areas can lead to a reduction in food waste.

“In places where we have head chefs, they are much more focused on food waste in the kitchen, but with other clients where you might not have trained culinarians, tracking is very important to raise awareness,” Fry says.

The concept of tracking is one thing but incentivizing and having a system of accountability to encourage actual, regular and consistent tracking is another. “We use key performance indicators to track compliance and hold clients accountable,” Fry says. “We make food waste tracking a part of standard operating procedures, just as we encourage the use of recipes from our culinary team or require financials to be turned in.”

Sodexo also works with clients to donate food as a next step beyond reduction. Packaging represents another area of focus for waste reduction in the kitchen. “We worked with an athletic dining facility where we realized people were using to-go containers to eat their food in the dining hall and then throwing the containers away,” Fry says. That facility now serves dine-in meals on reusable plates, and offers a to-go box on the side. The facility also added plastic recycling containers when tracking data showed that athletes were bringing in and finishing their bottles of water and sports drinks in the cafe, and then throwing them in the garbage there.

Sodexo realizes that infrastructure development can be a huge hindrance to landfill diversion. In cases where nearby composting facilities don’t exist, or if the institution is willing to make a bigger investment up front, Sodexo might recommend sourcing an on-site anaerobic digester and help determine the ROI to the client.

It’s all about getting closer to a circular economy, Fry says, and helping establish what that means for the foodservice industry. “When we think of ‘circular economy,’ we think about it being more of a mindset in terms of discovering ways to maximize our resources,” he says. For example, “We think about how we can work with our suppliers to make packaging more recyclable, returnable, reusable and about how to utilize everything we’re buying to reduce food waste. Even if compost doesn’t come back to that individual producer for use in the gardens, the idea is that it’s still put back into circulation for the benefit of others.”

Compass Group’s Efforts

Producing an estimated 9.8 million meals in the U.S. a day, Compass Group remains committed to cutting down on its food waste. The company aims to reduce waste by 25 percent by 2020.

“We wanted to focus on our people and the back of house but also educate front-of-the-house guests so we can make greater changes in waste reduction,” says Becky Green, senior manager of sustainability.

The company has done this through various ways, with back-of-the-house tracking and training at the top of the list. Through a proprietary Waste Not tracking program, Compass Group can determine baseline levels for production waste, overproduction and expired, soiled or overcooked inventory. Green says the company incentivizes staff to track waste by celebrating food waste champions in each location, using key performance indicators as an overall efficiency and training tool. “Chefs use tracking to show their staff how to properly cut tomatoes, for example, so they are not wasting the product,” she says.

In addition, Compass Group launched a social media and on-site campaign, Stop Food Waste Day, in April last year. The program was a partnership with ReFED, a food waste-focused collaborative; Eatable, a food waste management consultancy, and other food waste-minded organizations. It included multiple competitions, signage and other education for back-of-the-house staff and front-of-the-house guests. The raised awareness led to a 20 percent reduction in front-of-the-house plate waste at Portland State University. The event has also helped change company culture to encourage more tracking.

“This event was very impactful for people to see what is being wasted, especially at all-you-care-to-eat cafeterias at colleges and universities where there’s a thought that maybe all of the food is free and you can take as much as you want and throw it away,” says Green. The company used a visual of piled up food waste in a large clear container to show students just how much, and what, was being thrown out.

Compass Group has also developed a comprehensive food recovery program with Eatable, ReFED, Feeding America and other national and local food banks and recovery organizations.

JW Marriott Marquis Miami’s On-Site Biodigester

Since installing an on-site biodigester a few years ago, the JW Marriott Marquis Miami hotel in downtown Miami has saved thousands of dollars on trash removal costs and has significantly reduced its carbon footprint.

The biodigester converts solid food waste into drain-safe, odor-free wastewater in 24 hours. Since installing the biodigester, the hotel has saved $15,000 annually on trash removal costs, diverting 34 tons of food waste from landfills and reducing CO2 emissions by about 124 tons per year, according to Raymond Linares, director of engineering at Marriott who led the sourcing and installation of the machine.

Serving the hotel’s four kitchens, the fully enclosed machine digests food waste in a clean and odorless manner. Slowly rotating mixing paddles maximize the contact between the food particles, aerobic bacteria, enzymes and air which, along with infusions of hot and cold water, accelerate the process of decomposition. Within 24 hours, the waste decomposes into environmentally safe, nutrient-rich gray water, which meets or exceeds the city’s requirements and pipes into any municipal drain line.

“I even get information online about how much food waste the machine is processing daily as well as how often the kitchen staff is adding waste, and a wealth of other useful data,” says Linares. The hotel’s unit sits near the main dishwashing area.

When Linares researched alternatives to disposing of food waste, Marriott’s environmental commitment was paramount. “The landfill waste problem will not take care of itself,” he says, “but if more hotels, schools, factories and facilities with restaurants or cafeterias do what we did, we can make a difference together in solving this problem.”