Practicing Better Food Waste Management

Minimizing Restaurant Food Waste

Whether it's buying energy-efficient equipment, investing in sustainable dinnerware, or switching to eco-friendly take out containers, restaurant operators are seeking ways to lessen their environmental impact. This increase in environmental awareness has likely been encouraged by the trendy "going green" movement, but most restaurants still don't address one major problem eating into profits: food waste.

Because of the massive amounts of food being thrown out each year, the food waste problem across the globe is also a major environmental concern. Wasted food that degrades in a landfill releases methane, a greenhouse gas with an estimated Global Warming Potential (GWP) of between 28 and 36; in contrast, carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas used as a reference for the GWP scale, has an estimated GWP of one.1 Although this problem is seen each day by restaurant employees who prep and serve food or bus tables, it might be difficult to recognize the full impact of this food waste without seeing statistics.

The Restaurant Food Waste Problem

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that global food waste amounts to 1.3 billion tons of food each year, or approximately one-third of all food meant for human use.2 The National Resources Defense Council estimates that Americans waste 40 percent of their food, which adds up to a $165 billion loss every year. A 15 percent reduction of this amount could help feed as many as 25 million people3.

While industrial, residential, and grocery store food waste makes up a little more than 50 percent of the 80 billion pounds of food that ends up in landfills each year, restaurant food waste makes up 37 percent and institutional facilities like hotels and schools are responsible for another 11 percent.4

In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans for a 50 percent decrease in food waste by 2030, marking the first time the United States has set a national goal for reducing its food waste.5 Because restaurants and institutions account for more than 45 percent of the country's overall food waste, the participation of these foodservice operations is a vital part of successfully reducing food waste in America. Practicing more responsible food waste management in your restaurant or facility can seem like a daunting task, but it might be easier than you think.

Ways to Minimize Restaurant Food Waste

The EPA's food recovery hierarchy suggests five ways to prevent food loss before sending it to a landfill. These are, ranked from most to least ideal: source reduction, feeding hungry people, feeding animals, industrial repurposing, and composting.6

1. Reduce Waste at the Source

Source reduction is the EPA's top suggestion because it helps prevent waste from ever being created. Buying more than you need to ensure you don't run out of an ingredient often results in purchasing food that never gets used, which wastes money and food. To help avoid buying more than you need, keep track of what currently gets thrown away and adjust your next order. If you do find yourself with a surplus of an ingredient, make an effort to use it up before it expires by creating a special menu item.

You can also reduce the amount of food waste created by customers by tracking what's ordered and what's actually eaten. You might find that a particular side item isn't very popular or that the portion sizes for some entrees are too large. For example, salads and sandwiches might not make appealing leftovers and can be offered in smaller portions, particularly during lunch hours.

2. Feed Hungry People

The goal of any restaurant is to feed hungry people, but the EPA's next recommendation aims to encourage donations to organizations that serve meals to food-insecure individuals and families. Some establishments hesitate to donate food because of legal issues that may arise, but the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act provides protection for those making food and grocery donations. Get in touch with a food bank or nonprofit organization in your area to find out what they need, what you can donate, and how the donation will be received. As an added incentive, your donations might also be tax-deductible.

3. Feed Animals

After feeding people, the EPA suggests using food scraps to feed animals. Because the legalities of this food recovery option vary from state to state, you'll need to make sure you comply with any guidelines or requirements your state has in place. If there is a farm conveniently located to your restaurant, this might be a viable option for dealing with some of your food scraps. The EPA recommends contacting your local agricultural or public health agency or solid waste management service to find out more about the availability of this option in your area.

4. Contribute Food for Industrial Repurposing

Next, the EPA highlights industrial uses as an option for disposing of fats, oil, and grease. Industrial uses include rendering, creating biodiesel, and anaerobic digesters. To participate in a rendering or biodiesel service, you'll need to find a local company or manufacturer and reach out to make arrangements. However, anaerobic digesters might be available through your local wastewater treatment plant.

5. Compost

The EPA's last method for reducing food waste is composting, which is becoming an increasingly popular way to deal with food that cannot be eaten or donated. If you have the space to compost in your building, which is a benefit for any restaurant or facility that has an on-site garden, it's important to know what is and is not compostable. For example, some materials often found in a commercial kitchen – such as limes, meat, coal or charcoal ashes, and grease or oils – aren't ideal candidates for composting. 7 If off-site composting is necessary or preferred, contact farms in the surrounding area that might compost for you or use a website like Find A Composter to search by location and material to find a nearby composting site that can accept your unusable food waste.

It's incredibly challenging for most establishments to produce zero waste, but you can still use the EPA's food recovery hierarchy to practice better food waste management, lessening your restaurant's environmental impact and financial loss.

Reducing Food Waste in Europe

Although a "trash" luncheon served at the UN headquarters in New York City featured menu options like a vegetable scrap salad and starchy corn fries, the United States isn't the first country to bring attention to the global food waste problem. In 2012, European leaders set goals to cut food waste in half by 2025 and dubbed 2014 the year against food waste.8 Denmark has reduced its food waste by 25 percent in just five years, thanks in part to the Stop Wasting Food organization that began in 2008.9 France, hoping to provide restaurants with more efficient food waste management options, now requires restaurants to provide take-out boxes to customers. France also passed a law that forces supermarkets to donate unsold food rather than tossing or destroying it, a law that supporters hope will be replicated in the rest of Europe and the world.10


1. Understanding Global Warming Potentials, United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed January 2016.

2. Food Loss and Food Waste, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed January 2016.

3. Best Practices and Emerging Solutions Guide, Food Waste Reduction Alliance. Accessed January 2016.

3. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, Dana Gunders. Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessed January 2016.

5. USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation's First Food Waste Reduction Goals, United States Department of Agriculture. Accessed January 2016.

6. Sustainable Management of Food, United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed January 2016.

7. What You Can and Cannot Compost, Composting Instructions. Accessed January 2016.

8. Europe Declares War on Waste, Wasted Food. Accessed January 2016.

9. Denmark Might Be Winning the Global Race to Prevent Food Waste, Sidsel Overgaard. NPR. Accessed January 2016.

10. French MPs vote to force supermarkets to give away unsold food, Kim Willsher. The Guardian. Accessed January 2016.