Restaurant kitchens during both World Wars operated under the gospel of the clean plate. "Don't Waste Any Food. Leave a Clean Dinner Plate," read one 1917 propaganda poster for the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) anti-waste campaign. We may not need to conserve food in order to send meals to troops overseas, but the message is just as important today — the US throws away more than any other country in the world, with nearly 80 billion pounds of food wasted per year, an estimated 30 to 40% of the country's entire food supply. Seventy five years after the second war, the ideals of the wartime thriftiness are largely forgotten; food waste has skyrocketed in a world where leftovers are too often left behind, food scraps are tossed, and composting isn't part of the process.
The cost of food waste is inconceivable and irreversible: wasting food wastes money, along with the water and energy it took to produce that food. Agriculture accounts for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and those climate impacting gases are even more senseless when the food is wasted. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), US food waste is responsible for the equivalent of the emissions of 37 million, or one in seven, cars. At a time when one in four Americans struggle with food insecurity and the impacts of climate change are worsening, this is not food we can afford to waste.
The state of food waste in restaurants
Traditional food waste reduction strategies have focused at the household level, which accounts for nearly 40% of national food waste. But the food service industry has huge potential for savings, with more than one million restaurant locations, employing 10% of the US workforce and earning a projected 4% of the country's Gross Domestic Product. A new study focused on reducing food waste in the restaurant industry found that anywhere from four to 10% of food purchased by restaurants never gets to customers, while 30 to 40% of the food served to customers never gets consumed.
All that food waste is expensive: according to the USDA, the restaurant industry loses $162 billion annually thanks to wasted food. Some of the many reasons for this waste: overproduction, lack of awareness, unsuccessful employee training, improper food storage; and lack of access to composting facilities. "We put together a program that's based on a set of design interventions," says Christina Grace, co-founder of Foodprint Group (no connection to FoodPrint.org), which helps restaurant and hospitality groups look at all of their waste streams and implement zero waste procedures. "We're going to change the colors of the bins so that they are color coded, as clear visual cues [for staff and customers]. We're going to make sure the waste stream is set up and has clear signage. We're going to make sure there is storage space for food donations every day. We'll put in a daily tracking form for food waste."
While implementing new systems can be tricky, especially in the chaotic world of restaurants, the cost-to-benefit ratio should be a convincing reason to make change: for every dollar spent on food waste reduction, restaurants will see an average of $8 of savings. It helps that customers care about the issue and are primed to spend more at an establishment that responsibly manages food waste: A study by Unilever showed that 72% of diners in the US care about how restaurants handle food waste, and 47% are willing to spend more at restaurants with an active food recovery program.
Reducing waste in the kitchen
Considering how serious the problem is, it's not surprising that various legislative bodies, agencies and organizations are all working to combat food waste in the restaurant industry. Six states — California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont — have passed laws restricting the amount of food waste that can go to landfills, helping to create millions of dollars in economic activity, hundreds of jobs, and drastic declines in food waste tonnage. And Vermont became the first state to pass a Universal Recycling Law in 2012, essentially banning disposal of food waste, which led to a 40% increase in food donations in the state.
On a national level, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency set a goal in 2015 to reduce food waste by half by 2030. Through programs like their voluntary Food Recovery Challenge and resources from organizations like the NRDC, which provide food waste action tools, restaurants can perform their own waste audits, track food waste and promote food waste reduction to consumers. "We want to be sure that restaurants have the tools to do well," New York City's former sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, told the New York Times in late 2019, referencing the city's donation programs, food waste fairs and food-waste challenges. "There are some seriously committed chefs out there ensuring that nothing gets wasted."
As we've reported previously, the West Coast-based organization Zero Foodprint (ZFP) is also helping restaurants get to zero waste. They start with a life cycle assessment for restaurant partners, providing guidance on the areas of change needed, from packaging to storage to waste. To further reduce their footprint, the participating restaurants also add a small fee onto their bills, 1%, which helps fund grants for regenerative agriculture projects. This acts as a carbon offset for the small amount of unavoidable trash still produced by the businesses, and helps restaurateurs support a sustainable food system.
Grace's Foodprint Group works to implement operating standards in restaurants and hospitality groups, helping to reduce waste at every step. Foodprint Group, which has worked with roughly 100 sites since launching in 2017, including clients like Google, Eataly and Dig, uses a daily waste tracking tool, along with signage and other tools, to help restaurant and hotel partners implement zero waste procedures, reducing their waste across all streams to reach the global definition of zero: 90% or better. Only 10%, or less, goes into the trash stream; the remaining — food, packaging, and everything else — is reused, recycled, composted or donated.
"When you look at the difference between composting organics versus donating food, or reducing food waste through better inventory management and changing your purchasing habits, [the difference] is so dramatic, and the dollar value is even more dramatic," says Grace, citing research from ReFED that shows that while composting surplus food can reduce emissions and provide some economic return on money lost to food waste, the savings are exponentially greater when food waste is avoided in the first place. "In one year, you are looking at something like $2,000 a ton [in savings] for inventory management and donations, but then you're talking in the single digits for a ton of compost."
Despite the potential impact that food donations could have, the large majority of food that isn't eaten or used is thrown away, rather than being composted or donated. The biggest concerns for most restaurants when it comes to food donations — listed by 41% of respondents to a ChefHero survey — are liability and transportation. But, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, passed in 1996, protects donors in many cases, and all businesses are eligible for tax credits for food donations, which many restaurants do not take advantage of.
Organizations like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine and Rethink are helping make the liability issue more clear, and getting surplus food to those in need. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine brings excess food from restaurants, hotels and catering companies to nearby homeless shelters, while Rethink helps restaurants and food service partners repurpose surplus food into meals for food pantries and other organizations in need.
Choosing different packaging
Plastic lined disposable coffee cups, Styrofoam takeout containers, single-use plastic lids and straws — along with the food wasted in restaurants, plastic pollution is also a big problem. And it's not just containers; there is a lot of plastic use in the kitchen as well, from food storage to prep. "We try to remind clients that they don't need gloves for everything," says Grace, lamenting that with COVID-19, the use of disposable items like gloves has increased exponentially. "We say, 'If something's going to get cooked, you don't need to be wearing gloves, because it's going to get heated to a high temperature.' We try to help them think about how to use less gloves." Services like Terraycle, which help collect and process hard-to-recycle items, have made things easier Grace says. She suggests operations with multiple units combine collections of niche items, such as plastic gloves, to meet a minimum for pick-up.
Despite best intentions, food packaging that may look compostable — those "green" seeming, plant-based fiber containers — are unlikely to be processed properly, which actually makes them worse for the waste stream. This type of packaging needs to be processed at a facility with an anaerobic digester, and collection bins for these types of composting sites are few and far between, unlikely to be found at the restaurants using the packaging. When thrown in the trash stream, the bowls end up in landfills, where they emit more methane, thanks to their plant materials, than plastic would. Adding to the concerns, a 2019 investigation by The Counterfound that these bowls, used by several fast-casual restaurants, including Sweetgreen and Chipotle, contained toxic PFAS, also called "forever chemicals" which never break down. If they did find their way into the compost stream, the bowls would leach these PFAS into the compost, and eventually the soil the compost is applied to.
For these reasons and more, both Grace and green chemist and Safer Made co-founder Marty Mulvihill say that the best packaging is no packaging, followed by reusable packaging. "I wish that brands and retailers had a better line of sight into the materials used in packaging," Mulvihill told us. "With more information and transparency, I believe they would do a better job providing what consumers are already asking for: a safe and sustainable food system."
Grace promotes the use of reusable containers at restaurants she consults with like Dig, but it's not a solution for every customer or establishment. Foodprint Group also helps clients identify the right haulers and contractors for their needs, she says, and is constantly looking for new solutions. Sweetgreen and other fast casual restaurants are on the hunt for compostable, disposable options, and luckily new solutions for plant-based, PFAS-free containers are quickly emerging.
What can consumers do
As a customer, you might not be able to check if the kitchens making your takeout are composting or using every part of the produce, but there are some steps you can take to help reduce food waste when dining out. First up, be thoughtful. Choose restaurants that align themselves with these goals; those participating in projects like Zero Foodprint, a city-sponsored challenge or their own initiative will likely make it known that food waste is a concern for them. If they don't, ask the server, manager or other employee you engage with: "How is your restaurant working to eliminate food waste?" Let them know, in a customer comment card or email, that reducing food waste is important to you.
On a practical level, order less food to reduce leftovers and food waste. Always take leftovers home, and make sure to eat and/or use them. Bring reusable containers when possible. Additionally, you can cut back on food waste at home with these tips.
You can also take part in some recent efforts to rescue food like YourLocal and Food for All projects, which alert customers when neighborhood shops have surplus food available for sale. These sites can be used to find food that might be otherwise tossed into the garbage, sold at a reduced cost, saving both the consumer and the restaurant money. "We realized many bakeries and restaurants already discounted their food in their last hour and saw in Food for All the opportunity to do this at scale, while helping to promote these responsible businesses and creating a tool to generate awareness around food waste," the app's co-founder, Sabine Valenga told Edible Brooklyn in 2018.
Although strides are being made, the US is still behind many other countries when it comes to managing food waste. In France, supermarkets are required to donate edible food that would otherwise be thrown away. Swedish cities convert food waste into biofuelsto help power public bus transportation. YourLocal and the similar project Too Good to Go, were both started in Denmark, in 2015 and 2017, respectively, and branched out into Europe and the US, helping to reduce food waste by connecting local shops and restaurants with consumers.
Stateside, there is some proposed legislation on the table that could help reduce the amount of food waste produced by restaurants in the US more quickly. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Mass.) has been particularly active on this front, having submitted two bills, the Food Recovery Act and the Food Date Labeling Act, to Congress. While similar versions of the bills stalled in Congress in the past, with a new administration and legislators more understanding of the problems of food waste and climate change, there is potential that the bills could be signed into law in the future. In New York City, a new bill would require businesses that produce a certain amount of food waste to donate or recycle it.