Approximately one-third of all the food produced in the world is wasted, costing about $1 trillion per year. ReFED, a nonprofit focused on food waste, reports that the US restaurant industry alone generates 11.4 million tons of food waste a year, costing more than $25 billion. ReFED further estimates that every dollar invested in waste reduction can generate about $8 in cost savings.
Food waste is also a major contributor to climate change; National Geographic reports that the energy that goes into the worldwide production and distribution of wasted food generates more greenhouse gases than any entire country, save only the US and China.
Whether for economic reasons, environmental ones, or both, there is a compelling case to reduce food waste, and new technologies are emerging to help restaurants do just that. It’s a big industry with lots of approaches, and I can only skim the surface here, but will highlight a few methods and companies I found interesting as I researched this week’s article.
There are two major categories of technology products for reducing food waste and its impact. One category focuses on preventing waste in the first place, typically by measuring discarded food and applying analytics to help chefs understand what is being wasted and why, and perhaps offering some suggestions for reducing it. This is important because waste can occur in the kitchen (spoilage, excessive trimming, overproduction of commonly used items, mispreparation), on the buffet line, or because diners don’t eat everything on their plates.
The waste prevention technologies I looked have been cited by customers (using multiple products from different vendors) for reducing food waste by about 50%, with some as high as 70%; food cost savings can range from 2% to 8% depending on the type of restaurant. These savings don’t happen overnight, but rather over a period of several months as the technology begins to provide actionable insights and chefs make changes based on them.
The second category seeks to reduce the cost and environmental impact of disposing of food waste. Recycling and composting are common and useful techniques but may not be feasible depending on factors such as local regulations on food donations or the cost of transporting waste to the nearest composting facility. Composting also means storing food waste on premise between pickups, which can create messes and odors and attract vermin.
The companies I mention this week are all reasonably established and starting to get traction in the hotel industry. I’m covering them this week less because they are disruptive innovators (although some of them are) and more because they aren’t on the radar of most technologists in the industry – and they should be!
Leanpath is an example of a prevention technology. Kitchens make a quick entry into a terminal when discarding food, and the weight, date, and time are captured. This works best with institutional food and buffet lines, rather than made-to-order restaurants where some of the waste comes from uneaten food on diners’ plates. Analytics help to identify what items are wasted the most. The software focuses on highlighting the cost and environmental impact; it can then set goals to reduce waste of specific items over time, making it easy for chefs and management to track progress and communicate with line staff.
Leanpath may suggest techniques for reducing waste. For example, the software may detect that a on average, a full pan of scrambled eggs is discarded every day at the end of the breakfast buffet, and may recommend techniques such as closing one buffet line earlier (if there are two), using a half-depth pan when replenishing towards the end of the buffet, or developing a new item that can reuse the leftover eggs at a later meal. One customer discovered they wasted a lot of orange peel (oranges aren’t cheap!) and decided to repurpose it into a custom marmalade. Leanpath emphasized the aspect their approach that focuses on engagement of front-line kitchen staff, largely by communicating the environmental impact of each item wasted, and by setting and monitoring achievable goals.
Winnow Solutions offers a similar product, but also recently launched a new one, called Winnow Vision, that goes further by automating the capture of waste using cameras, and then applying artificial intelligence to identify and weigh everything that is discarded. This can be used not only in the food prep area, but also for plates of unfinished food returned from the dining room; these types of solutions may be better for full-service dine-in restaurants as they can more easily capture waste of food that occurs because diners don’t like it or portions are too large. Accor Hotels implemented Winnow Solutions in 19 hotels in the United Arab Emirates in 2016 and reported a reduction of 69% in food waste worth $1.3 million, and 800,000 meals saved.
Organic food waste that is disposed of in landfills is costly, messy, and produces methane as it decomposes anaerobically. BioHiTech and Power Knot offer products that address food waste disposal using similar if slightly different technologies. Both have significant and growing presence in hotels and/or cruise lines. These products are biodigesters that can be put right in the kitchen to dispose of organic waste cleanly and greenly. Biodigesters are essentially metal “stomachs” that digest organic waste aerobically, producing only carbon dioxide and gray water as by-products; the gray water can be safely and legally flushed down the drain. In the digester, the food is mixed with microorganisms and enzymes, water, and air. The largest models can handle 1200 pounds of food waste daily. Biodigesters can save significant costs as well as the mess of traditional disposal. Savings are greatest in locations that require trucking to a compost facility that may be some distance away.
The economics of food waste technology will vary depending on factors such as the cost of organic waste disposal and the profile of the restaurant or catering operation. The technologies are not cheap, but between food cost savings, disposal costs, and in some cases labor savings, paybacks in the range of 12 to 24 months should be feasible in many cases.