THE PROGRESS made in recycling rates is impressive, but should businesses be doing more to reduce the amount of waste they create? Jamie Pitcairn and Rupert Carrick certainly think so.
In the last 20 years a huge focus across the UK has been placed on recycling yet it's the second worst option for managing our resources, behind reuse and reduction. Recycling will not fix the UK's dependency on primary material use or reduce its exposure to resource scarcity or inevitable commodity price rises.
Don’t get us wrong – recycling targets have played a very important role. They were a necessary step to embed greener behaviour within society, and the fact that recycling is a physical act that the public and businesses could all participate in certainly helped.
Waste prevention, on the other hand, is only a success if you can’t see it – but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored, especially for those in the food sector where margins are already being squeezed as material and energy input costs increase.
There is no better example of where prevention is better than recycling than food waste – large amounts of energy are required during the production and processing stages. Reducing food waste at source and better management of the residual material can make a major contribution towards improved sustainability.
Grown but uneaten food has significant environmental and economic costs due to its enormous embedded energy content. Consider this statement from a recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation: if we ignore greenhouse gas emissions from land use change, the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated to be 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after the US and China.
In addition, cities are playing a much bigger role as a result of greater urbanisation in the UK and elsewhere. The concentration of people within our urban areas means that a city’s demand for food has become increasingly important – so too has the amount of food waste arising in cities.
It is no surprise to find that food is the single biggest item in household waste bins and accounts for between 35% and 40% of all the waste thrown away. Readers will be well versed in research by the Sustainable Restaurant Association, among others, which has found that food waste, health and nutrition, and locally sourced produce are the three top issues that diners want restaurants to focus on.
Seven million tonnes of food waste is produced every year in the UK, making it a priority waste stream for businesses and local authorities to tackle. In Scotland, the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012, which came into force in January 1st 2014, require businesses to present metal, plastic, glass, paper and card for separate collection, while food businesses producing more than 50kg of food waste per week must present it for separate collection. In the longer term there will be a ban on biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill from 2021.
These regulations are potentially the most significant development in UK recycling since the introduction of targets in the late 1990s, and a clear guide to how the Scottish government wants to address the waste issue.
This has already led to businesses and local authorities in Scotland taking action on implementing separate collections and driving forward on food waste prevention and collection methods.
According to a 2013 report published by WRAP, entitled “Overview of Waste in the UK Hospitality and Food Service Sector”, approximately 18% of all food purchased in the sector is wasted and three-quarters of this was avoidable and could have been eaten.
The cost of food waste is now a staggering £2,800 per tonne. This includes not only the cost of the food and ingredients, transportation and disposal costs, but also lost revenue to the business, and food preparation and service costs. Given that even a modest café, in our experience, may produce about eight tonnes of food waste a year (about 150kg a week), this represents a significant potential saving of thousands of pounds per year by making some simple changes.
So what does this mean for businesses?
There needs to be more focus on food and packaging waste prevention. In focusing on the opportunities to improve waste prevention, businesses can add the savings benefit straight to their bottom line.
During recent audits we carried out of hospitality businesses (which included cafés, restaurants, pubs, quick service restaurants, B&Bs and some of the UKs largest hotels) it was apparent that food waste is treated as a higher priority issue than say five years ago. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
For instance, although there were many encouraging instances of good practices, a significant number of businesses still did not appreciate of the size of the issue, how much food and packaging waste they produce and how much it costs them. Some of the measures and improvements we helped them to implement were done at either no or low cost.
In our experience staff awareness of food and packaging waste prevention varies widely, and it only takes a quick inspection of waste bins to find evidence of how much valuable food and packaging material is being discarded.
Conducting a simple review of how ingredients are purchased and improving the way stock is rotated can help to reduce spoilage waste. By doing something as simple as monitoring plate scrapings, businesses we worked with were able to identify wasteful menu items (such as salad garnishes) and adjust portions accordingly.
A number of premises even considered offering doggy bags – last month Zero Waste Scotland launched a Good to Go campaign, with restaurants in four major cities offering doggy bags so diners could take away their leftovers. Some leftover portions and ingredients can be reused in other dishes, by either incorporating into daily specials or staff meals.
Packaging waste was also reduced in a number of the businesses audited by implementing a range of simple measures. These included reviewing their packaging waste to identify which could be prevented, specifying to suppliers to use returnable plastic trays, and agreeing with suppliers to take back material such as cardboard boxes.
There are substantial opportunities for businesses to save money by implementing measures to prevent food and packaging waste. Businesses are certainly more aware of this issue now than they ever have been.
However, waste prevention can only go so far. For the waste that is inevitably generated, there is still plenty of scope for businesses to manage it more cost- effectively through source segregation, collection and treatment in a dedicated anaerobic digestion facility, for example.
Recycling has taken us a long way down the path to a more sustainable food sector, but there is much further to go.
With a booming population, limited resources and rising input costs, waste reduction needs to become the norm – and quickly.
Collaborative recycling approaches
Collaborative schemes are becoming popular across UK cities with restaurants, hospitality businesses and other SMEs joining up to procure new and improved recycling contracts. More than 300 restaurants and hotels across Manchester have signed up to a local food waste collection scheme and the Glasgow Restaurant Association, representing more than 80 establishments, has signed a deal with Glasgow City Council. This means a dedicated team will collect food, glass, dry recycling materials and other waste from a number of eateries. Council officers will carry out individual visits to new restaurants that join the scheme to create a tailor-made service best suited to their needs. It is through approaches such as this – businesses working collaboratively and driving waste prevention – that the greatest financial and environmental benefits can be achieved. The challenges are great, but the opportunities are there and momentum is building.
Jamie Pitcairn is Scotland director and Rupert Carrick is a senior consultant, both at Ricardo- AEA