Food waste in restaurants: What we know

By Andreas Mettler|May 2, 2023|12:16 pm CDT

Food waste is a global problem that has significant economic, human, and planetary implications. In the US, around 84.3% of unused food in restaurants is thrown away while only 14% is recycled, and only 1.4% is donated. According to Green Restaurant Association, a restaurant can produce up to 25000-75000 pounds of food waste a year.

Globally, we waste one billion tons of food annually, according to UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In the US, around 40% of all food is wasted—with 66 billion pounds consisting of commercial leftover food waste. While in the UK, around 9.5 million tons of food waste are produced yearly, with 1.1 million tons (12%) coming from the hospitality and food service sector. In Australia, 7.6 million tons of food is wasted, costing their economy $36.6bn. These alarming statistics highlight the need for a combined effort to reduce food waste in restaurants through food recovery practices like recycling and food donation. In fact, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimates that global food waste equates to $1.5tn in squandered potential value.

But the source of the problem is complex as food waste comes from many other sources: households (43%); grocery stores, restaurants, and food service companies (40%); farms (16%), and manufacturers (2%). Interestingly, as the amount of food waste increases yearly, so does the number of people suffering from food insecurity (reaching over 800 million). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average American consumer spends over $3000 on dining out annually—contributing to the astonishing amount of food wasted in restaurants. It’s also estimated that 17% of a diner’s meal is left uneaten and 55% of leftovers in restaurants are edible, according to Food Print. This costs the US restaurant industry over $162bn in food waste yearly.

Consumer expenditures, selected categories, 2018

Moreover, according to National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 21% of agricultural water resources and 19% of US croplands are wasted for every food that’s thrown away.

Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill

Source: NRDC

This problem is likely to get worse as the demand for food grows 1.5 to two times more in 2050 compared to 2005. But demand isn’t the only contributor, it’s also the businesses, households, and the restaurant and food service sector’s habit of disposing of produce for superficial reasons, throwing out food past or near its expiration date, and letting stored food decay. With over 300 million diverse people in the US, food waste is becoming an embarrassing problem that we all contribute to—regardless of status, age, and gender. But before we go further, let’s talk about the two main types of waste.

The two common kinds of waste

There are two categories of wasted food: food loss and food waste (FLW). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, FLW are hurting food security and nutrition and contribute largely to gas emissions, pollution, and degradation of the ecosystem. Let’s define what they mean below:

Food waste and food loss make up 21% of urban solid waste in the US. It’s also responsible for the increase in methane emissions—a strong greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. It’s clear that there are opportunities for improvements and that reducing food waste by 15% or more could potentially feed over 25 million Americans.

Restaurant food waste statistics

According to NRDC, the US produces the most food waste globally. Although most waste reduction strategies have focused on household waste, the restaurant industry has a huge potential for reducing costs. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) currently predicts the food service industry workforce to increase by 500,000 more jobs for total industry employment of 15.5. million this year.

A recent study on reducing food waste found restaurants waste 4% to 10% of the food they bought, and 30% to 40% of the food they serve to customers is never eaten. This results in a substantial loss for the restaurant industry, according to the United Nations Department of Agriculture (USDA). Overproduction, lack of awareness, improper employee training, improper food storage, and lack of access to composting facilities are some of the reasons for this waste.

Fortunately, 72% of US diners are also becoming increasingly aware of this issue and 47% are willing to spend more at sustainable restaurants with active food recovery and waste disposal programs, according to a Unilever study.

What are the reasons for restaurant food waste

Many factors contribute to the amount of food waste in restaurants and below are the six reasons you need to know about.

  1. Excess inventory: Having excess inventory and poor stock rotation can result in overordering and overstocking. Many restaurants still manage their inventory the traditional way through manual methods, such as using pen and paper or spreadsheets. Without an inventory management system, it can be challenging to track the amount of food that’s needed accurately, with food going to waste if not used.
  2. Improper storage methods: Poor storage processes can result in expired or spoiled ingredients that need to be discarded. And throwing away food scraps and trimmings at restaurants are also contributing to restaurant food waste. Clear guidelines for food storage and handling can ultimately reduce restaurant food waste.
  3. Overproduction: There’s a constant need to have more than enough food during serving hours, especially buffets. Add to this the legal restrictions regarding waste disposal and the inability to accurately predict the quantity of food needed for the day, and you have a recipe for food waste. Predictive order management systems and clear procedures for food planning, prep, and production can reduce overproduction and optimize ingredient usage.
  4. Absence of data and insights: The inability to accurately predict the quantity of food needed can contribute to food waste in restaurants too. Without accurate data on food usage and inventory, the kitchen staff can’t properly forecast demand, leading to over-ordering and overproduction. The right demand forecasting tools backed with sufficient data can remove the guesswork from menu creation, ingredient usage, and costs.
  5. Inability to track food waste: The inability to track and stay on top of food waste in restaurants adds to more waste. Without a proper system in place to track and monitor food waste, it can be challenging to recognize areas where waste is occurring and take steps to reduce it. Moreover, without clear procedures for food waste management, staff may not be aware of how to properly dispose of waste, leading to inefficiencies, and unnecessary waste.
  6. Human mistakes: Lastly, mistakes made during order taking or food preparation often lead to food being sent back to the kitchen, automatically resulting in restaurant food waste.

How can restaurants reduce food waste

Reducing restaurant food waste may seem like a daunting task but there are steps you can take to reduce food waste slowly but surely. Here are the four quick steps to follow to reduce waste at your fine dining, casual, or fast-food restaurant:

  1. Conduct regular restaurant waste audits: A food waste audit helps identify the amount and types of waste produced to plan proper actions and waste management systems. Without an effective waste tracking system, businesses may lose between 1% to 6% in potential sales.

To conduct a food waste audit in your restaurant, ask relevant questions, set goals, decide on the frequency and amount of data to collect, select suitable dates, assign champions, conduct the audit without notifying staff, and adopt integrated and purchase-to-pay management solutions.

  1. Set up an inventory control program: Investing in an inventory management solution is crucial for reducing food waste, but this alone isn’t enough. A robust inventory control program is also vital, aiming to ensure the availability of products and supplies based on consumer demands. Start by creating a long-term inventory management plan, reviewing shipments, assigning qualified team members, balancing inventory costs, and choosing comprehensive inventory management systems. It’s also important to constantly improve and update your plan based on factors like local and national events.
  2. Implement zero waste policies: Implementing zero waste policies for composting, reusing, and recycling resources in your restaurant can greatly reduce food waste and make your business profitable and sustainable. The aim is to prevent 90% of restaurant food waste from going to landfills. As per the National Restaurant Association’s report, diners care about sustainable options. To start, clearly label your supplies and storage, scale back on less popular options, reduce portions, use leftover baked goods, donate spent grains, and use trimmings and scraps to create condiments and seasonings. Technology can also simplify and automate waste tracking. To ensure accurate data analysis and a clear understanding of the true cost of waste, restaurants need a fully integrated inventory management solution that’s tailored to their specific needs. From sourcing ingredients to managing inventory and forecasting demand, technology can help you avoid over-ordering and over-portioning.
  1. Set up recipe management procedures: Implementing a recipe management process can help maintain food consistency, reduce costs, and set accurate menu prices, thus reducing food waste. At the same time, an integrated recipe and menu management software is essential to do this. When selecting a solution, look for features, such as automation of cost calculation, the ability to share a main recipe hub, and the production of detailed reports to help you understand profitability and reduce food waste .
  2. Implement a first-in and first-out (FIFO) process: This method involves organizing and rotating inventory so that older items are used first, minimizing spoilage-related food waste. For example, if you received a shipment of bread or fruits on Monday and Thursday, you should use the items received on Monday first. Although it may take longer to unload shipments, adhering to this method ensures that older stock is used first and unused food is not thrown out due to the order of consumption.

Tackling food waste is a concerted effort

It will surely take some time to close the gap between the amount of food waste and the food waste programs currently in place by various businesses. Moreover, it remains possible that around 2.1 billion tons of food could be lost or wasted this year while 840 million people will still go hungry. Fortunately, the restaurant industry can make a positive impact in closing the food waste gap by implementing zero waste policies and conducting a food waste audit, for example.

More importantly, restaurants can move away from using outdated processes and tools and invest in comprehensive inventory management solutions that help eliminate waste by providing data and insights necessary for forecasting demand, calculating the cost of recipe and menu changes, and improving profits by 2%. Are you ready to reduce food waste in your restaurant?

Read our in-depth guide on how to reduce food waste in your restaurant to learn how you can contribute to tackling food waste.

Food waste in restaurants FAQ

  • Why do restaurants waste so much food?
    • Restaurants waste so much food due to various reasons, such as leftover food, food that has gone bad, expired food, and legal restrictions related to food safety regulations that prohibit some restaurants from giving away food due to health risks to the consumer. Moreover, the lack of access to inventory management technologies prevents restaurants from accurately forecasting demand and reducing errors in recipe engineering and more.
  • What percentage of food waste comes from restaurants?
    • 22-33 billion pounds of food waste are produced by American restaurants yearly and up to 85% of food that isn’t used in an American restaurant is thrown away.

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