By Christopher Leonard
Friday, November 28, 2008
Experts in the food industry are thinking a lot about trash these days.
Food waste has been a chronic problem for restaurants and grocery stores -- with millions of tons lost along the way as crops are hauled hundreds of miles, stored for weeks in refrigerators and prepared on hectic restaurant assembly lines. But the historically high price of commodities is making it an even bigger drag on the bottom line.
Restaurants, colleges, hospitals and other institutions are compensating for the rising costs of waste in novel ways. Some are tracking their trash with software systems, making food in smaller batches or trying to compost and cut down on trash-hauling costs.
"We have all come to work with this big elephant in the middle of the kitchen, and the elephant is this 'It's okay to waste' belief system," said Andrew Shackman, president of LeanPath, a company that helps restaurants cut back food waste.
The interest level in cutting food waste "has just skyrocketed in the last six to nine months," he said.
Roughly 30 percent of food in the United States goes to waste, costing some $48 billion annually, according to a Stockholm International Water Institute study. A 2004 University of Arizona study estimated that 40 to 50 percent of food in the United States is wasted.
Wholesale food costs have risen more than 8 percent this year, the biggest jump in decades, according the National Restaurant Association.
Freshman students at Virginia Tech were surprised this year when they entered two of the campus's biggest dining halls to find there were no cafeteria trays.
"You have to go back and get your silverware and your drink, but it's not that different," said Caitlin Mewborn, a freshman. "It's not a big hassle. You take less food, and you don't eat more than you should."
Getting rid of trays has cut food waste by 38 percent at the cafeterias, said Denny Cochrane, manager of Virginia Tech's sustainability program. Before the program began, students often grabbed whatever looked good at the buffet, only to find at the table that their eyes were bigger than their stomachs, he said.
That same phenomenon often happens at Oregon's Portland International Airport. Busy travelers often discard half-eaten meals into trash cans, adding dozens of tons of waste that the airport must pay the city to haul away.
Now the airport is ramping up a three-year-old program to install food-only trash cans. The food waste is collected in biodegradable bags and given to the city to use as compost, said Stan Jones, aviation environmental compliance manager at the airport.
Besides being environmentally friendly, the changes may save the airport money. It costs about $82 to have one ton of trash hauled from the airport to the city landfill. But food waste costs about $48 a ton to haul. Last year, the airport was able to divert 165 tons of food out of the trash stream, which would add up to $5,600 in hauling fees alone. That's an increase from the year before, when about 157 tons were composted.
But biodegradable bags "cost a fortune," Jones said. Ultimately, it's more expensive to compost the food than throw it away. But the airport is continuing the program with an eye on the future.
Cutting back on the waste can require spending money on software and training.
LeanPath, based in Portland, Ore., sells a software system to track food being tossed out. More than 75 institutions including hospitals, restaurants and hotels use the system, which costs about $600 a month, to track waste in high-volume kitchens. Employees put food waste on a scale and use a touch-screen computer to record what type of food it is. The system calculates the cost, and tracks what is being pitched.
Steve Peterson, head chef at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas, said he was surprised when he installed the LeanPath system and saw the value of food that was going out the back door. Much of the waste came from sauces, dressings and trimmings that weren't eaten.
To cut costs, Peterson decided to reduce serving sizes. He said customers weren't bothered by the switch, which has helped him trim food waste by between 15 to 20 percent over 18 months.
"The reality is the consumer is more value and cost conscious," he said, "so they're not necessarily looking for more food. They're looking for food at a better value."