Have your cake and eat it too—hotels can serve buffets and still cut food waste

Getting the hospitality industry on board to halve food waste by 2030 is a tall order. But the business case speaks for itself, British waste expert Richard Swannell tells Eco-Business.

A hotel buffet
A hotel buffet. By rethinking portion sizes and replenishment rates, buffets do not have to be the massively wasteful experiences they tend to be today. Image: Sergey Melkonov, CC BY-NC 2.0

In an industry known for lean profit margins and high staff turnover, cost is a key concern for hospitality companies. That is why reducing food waste is a convincing business case for hoteliers.

A new report launched last week, The business case for reducing food loss and waste: hotels, found that for every dollar invested in food waste reduction, hotels get $7 in return.

Surveying data gathered from 42 hotels in 15 countries including Singapore, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, the report found that hotels that invested in food waste reduction solutions managed to achieve a 21 per cent reduction in food waste by weight within the first year, and 70 per cent had recouped their investments.

The report is deep-dive into the industry and a spin-off from the original report by World Resources Institute and UK-based charity Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) on behalf of Champions 12.3, a coalition of organisations works towards achieving target 12.3 (reducing food waste by half by 2030) of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

You need an area the size of China to grow the food that’s thrown away every year.

Richard Swannell, development director, Waste & Resources Action Programme

WRAP’s development director, Richard Swannell told Eco-Business that meeting this target is important “given the scale of benefits that reducing food waste could bring to the planet and how it would help achieve the other SDGs”, such as SDG 2, zero hunger, and SDG 13, on climate action. 

In this interview, Eco-Business asked Swannell about “common sense” tips to cut food waste, whether buffets should be banned, and how legislation can better manage the amount of food in the hotel industry.

Hasn’t the business case for cutting waste already been established for the hospitality sector?

No, and what we did a year ago is produce a report that looked at the business case for food loss and waste reduction across the world at every stage of the supply chain. It showed that there was a really strong business case: more than half of the 200 businesses surveyed were getting a $14 return to every dollar invested in reducing food waste.

That was all really good, but the feedback was: what does it mean for my specific sector? So we went to specific sectors and looked at it in more detail. 

Last year’s report showed a 14:1 return per dollar invested in food waste reduction, but the one for the hotel industry reported 7:1. Why the difference?

One of the reasons was, in the overarching report, there were a few businesses, particularly in the food service sector, that had phenomenally high returns on investment, way over 100:1. We also included work we’d done in helping regular citizens reduce food waste, which produced awesome returns on investments as well. That gave you this 14:1 return overall. 

What we got with this report is a much tighter data set. The best result was a ratio of just over 30:1. We had two sites that didn’t quite get their money back, and [these figures are] very specific to the hotel sector and North America, Europe and Asia, which are the regions WRAP is active in. 

Is there a difference in the way food is wasted or in the attitudes towards food waste across these regions?

WRAP started working in this space in 2011, and when we first started talking about it there was a lot of scepticism in the UK as to whether there really was a big issue with food waste. What we’ve found in discussions over the last few days is that a lot of Asian businesses are already aware of food waste, and the question is more about how they can move faster to bring about savings.

What’s also striking is that a year ago, I couldn’t really say that anywhere in the world has managed to reduce their food waste by half. The Sofitel in Bangkok is one Asian example of a hotel that has reduced food waste by 50 per cent. We’re beginning to pick up quite a few [examples] from the hospitality and food sector, so I believe the momentum is building.

Hotels are using technology-based solutions like Winnow, which introduces smart metres to measure and track food waste and its impact, to reduce waste. What are your thoughts on the role of technology?

People often think that the trick to tackling food waste in hotels should be a simple, technical solution. But a lot of it is being aware of the scale of the problem and working out simple solutions to make a difference. One pub in the UK simply changed the way it peeled potatoes. There are certain peelers that take out a lot of the potato, and another peeler that takes out a tiny bit of potato. Shocker, if you go for the latter and you sell a lot of chips, then you can reduce food waste by a really big amount! 

The other thing you can do is to say, let’s do skin-on chips. Then you can reduce it even further at a stroke. It’s not complicated.

Customer satisfaction is a priority for hotels. How can they prevent food waste without affecting the customer experience? Wouldn’t it be easier to tell hotels to stop serving buffets?

Start by thinking about your replenishment rate, the size of the plates and even portion sizes of the food on display. In a buffet, you can have a full pot, but does it have to be an enormous pot, or a moderately sized pot that you can fill up regularly so people don’t feel like they’ve been shortchanged if they come for dinner late.

Why can’t you have your cake and eat it? In this case, you can. You can have a really good looking buffet that also minimises food waste. You can still provide great customer service and a great customer experience, while reducing the cost and impact on the environment.

A lot of solutions that we’re talking about—talking to your staff, thinking about how much time you have left in your buffet—seem like common sense. So if hotels are aware of the problem, why aren’t they moving faster?

I don’t think hotels have been fully aware of the scale of the problem, until now. The oft-quoted figure is a third of all food that’s produced on the planet is wasted, and you need an area the size of China to grow the food that’s thrown away every year.

Now we’re getting into the phase where people aren’t questioning whether it’s an issue, and now into the practicalities of how do we make a difference that’s gonna work for our operations in a business sector where there’s high staff turnover.

Is it rocket science? No. But you have to think about it and find ways for it to work for you and your operations. At its heart, it’s target, measure, act. Have a clear target to halve food waste, measure it so you know the scale of the problem, and act to reduce it. Keep doing that and get as far as you possibly can towards that goal.

Tips for hotels fighting food waste

- Target, measure, act. Set a food waste reduction goal, keep track of your performance, and act to cut waste. 

- Think simple solutions. Instead of removing the potato skin when making chips, can you leave the skins on?

- Size matters at the buffet. Offer your customers smaller plates, which encourages them not to take more than they can finish, or smaller portions of food. They can always come back for more. 

- Consider your buffet replenishment rate. Are you still refilling your trays completely close to the end of service?

- Reduce overproduction. Hotels tend to consistently overproduce at least one food item and can make savings by simply preparing less of it.

- Engage your staff. Kitchen staff are critical for identifying areas where food waste reduction savings could be made, and need clear leadership.

- Repurpose excess food. Be innovative with excess produce. If you have leftover fruit from breakfast, could you use that to make smoothies later in the day?

What about legislation? France and Italy have laws against food waste, in some countries like South Korea you pay to dispose of domestic waste, and some buffet restaurants charge you for the food you can’t finish. Could regulation curb food waste faster?

You can always think of a regulatory solution, but I personally think, let’s start with the business case and see how far that takes you.

What’s held back work on food waste is that when people look at their bills, they see an electricity bill, a water bill, and a waste bill, which is a waste disposal bill. And they say, waste is not costing me very much money, but that’s not the true cost of it.

It’s what it cost you to buy the food, plus the labour, energy and water that goes into preparing it. When you add that up, it’s at least 10 times the cost of disposal.

To give you a rough idea, the real cost of food waste in the hospitality sector, based on UK figures, is about S$4,800 per tonne—substantially more than the cost of collection and disposal. If you are clear about the true cost of waste, then you can go an awfully long way before you need to think about the potential role of legislation.

What is the most innovative solution you’ve seen a hotel use to reduce food waste?

There’s a fantastic example in a hotel called Crieff Hydro, which made over £10,000 (US$14,300) in savings from one restaurant, and bread was one of the areas they looked at. The savings came from thinking carefully about how much food you put out, and if you have leftovers, how you can repurpose that food? What’s clever is how they were thinking: ‘I’ll have bread for breakfast and make bread and butter pudding using leftovers.’

Can I take fruit and make smoothies? Can I take vegetables and make a stew? It’s about planning your menu so if it doesn’t get all used up, it can be safely repurposed for another meal. 

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