Effective Waste Management for Today and Tomorrow's Foodservice Industry
Tractor fuel. Fertilizer. Carbon output from transportation, refrigeration, preparation and hot-holding equipment.
When consumers throw out a grab-and-go sandwich, they impact all of these environmental areas, including agriculture, shipping, storing and cooking processes. And that's just the beginning. Discarding just one uneaten sandwich has profound consequences on "downstream," meaning waste, processes, including landfills and sewers, impacting the air we breathe and fresh-water sources we drink and use on a daily basis, according to Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of LeanPath, Inc., a Portland, Ore.-based software and data collection company which provides waste tracking solutions for foodservice operators.
Poor waste management takes a toll on operations of all shapes, sizes, and segments. Inefficient food ordering and unchecked energy and water use can result in escalating bills. Costs to store and haul waste continue to rise, making waste production and removal a critical issue for operators.
"Studies suggest total food waste equates to almost 30 percent of total food purchases," Shakman says. "And, 4 percent to 10 percent of the food purchased in noncommercial foodservice operations alone ultimately becomes kitchen waste before ever reaching a customer."
Waste management can involve food-waste tracking, menu planning, pre- and post-consumer waste, composting, recycling, pulping, disposing, biodiesel, food donations, and more. This article focuses on strategies to reduce, reuse and recycle (and/or compost) waste in foodservice operations.
Foodservice operations generate three types of waste: pre- and post-consumer food waste, packaging, and operating supplies. Pre-consumer waste constitutes trimmings, spoiled food and other unused kitchen byproducts that operators discard. Post-consumer waste is trash left behind by the consumer.
The first thing an operation should do to lower the amount of waste it ships to a landfill is to reduce the waste it makes, Shakman stresses. "There are two different worlds in terms of waste management: One world is waste reduction and the other is waste diversion."
Waste reduction depends on what Shakman calls the "waste hierarchy"--reduce first, then reuse, then recycle and compost what's left.
"My concern is that people are often going straight to waste diversion, and missing the reduction opportunity," Shakman says. "It's like coming home and finding your kitchen flooded. What's the first thing you do? Look for the source of the water, find the leak, fix it, and then mop up the kitchen. What people tend to do in the food world is the opposite.
"It's a little backwards, but understandable," Shakman continues. "Reduction, by its very nature, is hard to see. The only way you can understand reduction is through measurement. In our world, we believe reduction and tracking are closely linked concepts if not the same thing."
Operators can choose a macro or micro approach to reduce waste. On a macro level, source reduction, a term coined by the EPA, refers to altering the design, manufacture or use of products and materials to reduce the amount and toxicity of what gets thrown away. That can mean switching from plastic to biodegradable materials or by producing more bulk-packaged products than the smaller units which rapidly accumulate in landfills.
And, used cooking oil can be converted into "yellow grease" for use in biodiesel, an initiative through which that Wash.-based chain restaurant Burgerville has led the nation.
Tracking the Waste
On a micro level, kitchen managers and staff can work to reduce their own waste by logging where, when and what is ultimately discarded. Then, using specialized software or other forms of analysis, staff can see where purchasing, menu planning and waste-sorting procedures might be adjusted to minimize waste generation.
In addition, some forms of analysis will indicate which day part the food waste originated, a helpful tool for those looking to understand how the operation uses labor or reshape their menus according to how much is selling and when. The more detailed approaches to tracking will chronicle where the food waste goes next, be it a donation center, a composting or recycling bin, the garbage, or if it can be used in another menu item.
Detailed waste tracking also can track reoccurring event food waste, pre- and post-consumer waste, and type of food such as dairy, and, beyond that, what type of dairy product. The latter has been helpful for operators looking to examine their ordering practices as food costs, especially for dairy products, increase, Shakman says. "You need to know where you started to see if you're doing better or worse, and that can really only be accomplished by tracking the waste somehow," he adds.
Shakman says that operators new to food-waste tracking don't need fancy software--a calibrated scale works just fine, as will a piece of paper on a clipboard with check-off boxes and space to record numbers.
For large operations, tracking-software reports operators plan their menus and develop incentives for staff to monitor their waste. Software also helps users identify spikes in waste activity, Shakman says, that might be the result of unsold menu items, purveyors sending spoiled product, or simply ordering more food than is needed.
This was the case with Seattle-based Swedish Medical Center, a nonprofit heathcare provider with three hospitals and multiple satellite centers. First Hill, the hospital's flagship location, operates a kitchen providing à la carte room service for patients and catering services. First Hill also has four retail outlets that include a cafeteria and physicians' dining facility. A pre-consumer waste-tracking system initiated in April 2008 found that overproduction in the kitchen's chili/soup area was a major source of food waste, according to Kris Schroeder, director of nutrition services.
On a macro level, a year's analysis showed trim waste as the biggest culprit, generating $23,645 in pre-consumer waste; retail overproduction amounted to $26,152 in waste; and patient-meal surplus cost the facility $18,755.
From April 2008 to April 2009, the chili/soup food waste amounted to 10,536 pounds, or $23,129 worth of product. That's 27 percent of the total food waste tracked at the hospital, recorded at 90,530, or $86,299 worth of wasted product. Vegetable and fruit waste accounted for about 17 percent and 12 percent of the total, respectively, while bakery food waste clocked in at 9 percent.
"Our fresh-fruit tray is one of the more popular items on our room-service menu," Schroeder says. "So what happens is the staff will come in the morning knowing they need to make 20 fruit trays, but they'll make 30 just in case.
Swedish's food waste isn't going into the garbage; it's picked up by a local compost vendor or donated to one of several food-recovery programs conncected with the hospital. Schroeder says that the software makes tracking her department's charitable contributions (a requirement to maintain nonprofit status) much easier. For the 12-month span, Swedish's donations totaled $12,372, mainly in the form of pre-packaged sandwiches and salads.
Moving from large- to small-batch soup production was helpful, as was working more closely with the hospital's bakery purchasing agent. "It was just a matter of having the buyer clue into what our surplus was," Schroeder says.
Swedish's kitchen staff has responded well to the tracking program and many, acknowledging tough economic times, are motivated to participate, Schroeder says. Developing games or prizes also helps get employees on board, such as a contest to see who could weigh (track) the most food.
"We've reduced our food waste by 36 percent for the year," Schroeder says, a savings of about $45,000, and the hospital hopes to do even better. Systems now are in place at Swedish's two smaller hospitals, Ballard and Cherry Hill.
At Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich., Chef-instructor Kevin Gawronski makes it a daily priority to not only creatively reuse food scraps but also to educate students. "In all of our classes, production sites and dining outlets ... we try to find ways to utilize all the food," Gawronski says.
Gawronski's initial concern wasn't the environment or even saving money—it was the amount of garbage cans in the kitchen. "They're unsightly," he says. "I didn't want to waste stainless-steel space by sticking a huge garbage can under the counter or next to the worktables.
The first step was asking students to set aside the scraps they habitually discarded. "We found we were throwing away a ton of food trimmings--cores of onions, green peppers, fruit cores, pits, ends of carrots.
"If we told them to julienne green peppers for a dish, by the end of that task they'd have 12 ends of the green pepper, just sitting in the supposedly unusable pile," Gawronski says. "So I'd have them dice up what they had leftover and put them in a stir fry." He notes that puréed soups, chili, and other menu items not requiring perfect knife cuts are good ways to use trimmings.
Gawronski encourages students' ideas on how to reduce waste, and their reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. He credits the college's older, second-career students for their support.. "Since we have 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds standing right next to the 20-year-old, they can educate their peers," he explains. "There is a process of critical thinking that (the younger students) go through."
By repurposing scraps, Schoolcraft was able to use smaller garbage cans and cut the frequency of trash pickups in half. "Plus, we're saving money by using fewer garbage-can liners," Gawronski points out.
The school's ordering processes also were examined, and menus were adjusted to use more seasonal products, he says. "Here in Michigan we have a lot of apples. We'll buy them in bulk and then think of alternative uses for them, like taking all the leftover apple peels and cores and making jelly because there's a high amount of pectin in the skin and seeds."
Operators interested in food-waste reduction should ask themselves some questions, Gawronski says. "Look at how you're moving food through your operation. How does it get from the coolers to the prep station? How much are you pulling out? Do you need to prep all that food? What are you doing with the food when you're working with it? ... The idea is to keep it small, keep it visible, and do a faster turnover with what's left over."
Once in a landfill, food waste decomposes in an oxygen-deprived, or anaerobic, environment, and produces methane, a toxic gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfills represent the largest human-related source of methane gas in the United States, accounting for 34 percent of all methane emissions, according to the EPA.
Composting, or aerobic digestion, incorporates air during decomposition by repeated turning of the waste material, which prevents the release of methane gas.
"The most important thing for operators considering a composting program is to take one step at a time, but at least begin to look at what's being generated as far as waste goes," says Allyson Ruppenthal, education and outreach specialist for the Department of Water and Waste Management in Olympia, Wash.
While Ruppenthal has helped schools, universities and roughly 90 restaurants in Thurston County, Wash., implement composting programs, she is surprised that many business aren't taking advantage of available recycling opportunities. No. 10 cans of tomatoes aren't regularly recycled because people don't bother to do the step of rinsing them out first, she says. "Then you may have Styrofoam cups, which can't be recycled, but many people don't know that the plastic bags they come in can be recycled. Even plastic film that's used for wrapping other products could be recycled."
Another problem, she says, is that recycling regulations differ from state to state and people often are misinformed on what can and can't be recycled.
An operator interested in composting should contact their local solid-waste agency and find a facility that accepts food waste for composting, then determine what kind they will take--pre-consumer, post-consumer or both? Facilities may accept both materials, but there's no one to haul it, Ruppenthal says.
The work associated with establishing a composting program is the reason it hasn't caught on, Ruppenthal says. "Unfortunately, it's just not mainstream enough yet. We're all used to recycling, but we're not used to the organics component yet, so there are going to be a lot of mistakes and fumbling, but we have to keep pressing forward."
"On-site composting seems to have struck a chord and I think there are a lot of people investigating it," says consultant Rod Collins, principal of Rod Collins Associates. Collins also reps a line of pulping and dehydrating equipment. "A number of colleges have been the first to jump on board with this."
Some equipment will compost on-site. One manufacturer makes a dehydrator that collects pulped food waste and extracts the moisture through a heating element, producing a dry, dirt-like material that's a third of the original size and suitable garden use.
The dehydrators are costly and can take up a lot of space, Ruppenthal says, but costs may be driven down as more operators purchase the equipment.
If composting is not an option,disposers provide an alternative, where allowed. (New York City's Manhattan borough, Las Vegas, California, and Austin, Texas, have outlawed disposers because of sensitive sewer systems and water treatment challenges.)
"In most cases waste water treatment operators measure solids in waste water by PPM (parts per million)," Collins says. "This means that water-conservation features on disposers and recirculating water in a pulping or collector system can sometimes be counterproductive. ... On one hand, manufacturers are asked to reduce water consumption but, if you understand that in order to meet the PPM requirement of the local waste water treatment plant, increased fresh water consumption may be required to dilute the discharge from the waste system. Not exactly the answer we are looking for in areas of the country where water is in short supply.
"It's not that either party is wrong, it's just, where do we go from here? How do we make things better?" Collins asks.
While manufacturers are creating eco-friendly disposables made from corn, soy and other natural products, it's not a complete solution, says Phyllis Ann Marshall, founder of FoodPower Inc., a restaurant management consulting firm. Reliance on corn for nonfood products rewards large commercial farms but has hurt smaller businesses, says Marshall, straining their production and forcing them to raise prices for food-based corn orders.
Many resist using biodegradable disposables because of the higher price. "They say, 'Oh my gosh, I can't afford that,' but if we recommend that the customer eat the cost, it's usually only like 10 cents per item, which is hardly noticeable," Marshall says.
Switching from disposables to permanent supplies, such as silverware, can be benefit an operation that doesn't rely on takeout business, as can having staff use permanentware during their shifts.
Composting will become more accessible and affordable as eco-friendly products catch on, Ruppenthal says. "Just in the last year, disposables have really exploded. ... People want to do the right thing, and it looks really good for a restaurant to advertise that they're going green."
Styrofoam currently is banned in Seattle, a law Collins feels will someday extend across the country. Two years ago, San Francisco because the first city to ban plastic shopping bags.
"Recycling in general is being heavily legislated throughout the country," Collins says. "Progressive cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and others are making this a priority."
Certainly, other states will follow when it comes to recycling legislation. Until then, getting involved early will only help operators offset the challenges of getting on-board with waste management much later in the game. Being proactive in effective waste management techniques, whether its tracking and reducing waste, composting, recycling, switching to biodegradable plastics, recycling frying oil, or a combination of these things, may cost a little more upfront. But, bottom line, taking these steps to reduce overall garbage supply will simply save operators money. And, at the same time, they'll be saving the earth too.
For additional information and resources on waste management options, visit the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, www.epa.gov.