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Beyond the Menu: Food Waste in America's Restaurant Industry

April 12, 2023

The aroma of sizzling steaks and simmering sauces wafts through the air while mountains of untouched food pile up in the kitchen, destined for the dumpster instead of diners' plates. The environmental and economic impact of food waste in the restaurant industry cannot be overstated, with billions of dollars and tons of greenhouse gas emissions going to waste each year. The USDA reports that annually, “U.S. food loss and waste embodies 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions – equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.”

Food waste is a significant problem for the restaurant industry, with an estimated 11.4 million tons of food being wasted every year in the United States alone. The consequences of this waste are both financial and environmental, with significant cost implications for businesses, and a negative impact on the planet. Despite the dangerous extent and consequences of food waste in restaurants, there is still hope for potential solutions to be implemented that can address the issue. 

 

Food waste from restaurants makes up 15% of all the food that ends up in landfills.
-
NPR
 

How much food is actually wasted in restaurants? 

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants generate an estimated 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste annually in the United States. Modern Restaurant Management reports that the restaurant sector produces 915,400 tons of food waste every year. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that “32 percent of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted.”

85% of the food that goes unused in a typical American restaurant is thrown out while only a small percentage is recycled or donated. GreeBlue reports that half a pound of food is wasted per meal in restaurants, whether it’s from what is left on a customer’s plate, or in the kitchen itself. According to NPR, “food waste from restaurants makes up 15% of all the food that ends up in landfills.” 

 

 

 

This is likely due to the fact that full-service restaurants typically have more complex menus, which can lead to more waste. Similarly, restaurants that offer buffets or self-service options can also generate a significant amount of food waste, as customers often take more food than they can eat. According to a 2016 ReFed report, nearly 40% of food waste is generated by consumer-serving businesses like hotels because buffets have to prepare for an unpredictable number of customers each day, and at the end of the day they have a significant surplus of food that gets wasted. 

Half a pound of food waste is created for every meal served in a restaurant.
-
GreenBlue
 

How food waste in restaurants affects the hunger crisis

As diners across America indulge in a seemingly endless array of menu options, one fact remains largely hidden from view: the staggering amount of food and water that goes into creating these meals, only to end up in the trash. 

From an environmental perspective, food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of landfill waste. When food waste is sent to a landfill, it decomposes and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane is estimated to have a global warming potential that is 28 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Globally, landfills and wastewater emit 67 million metric tons of methane — that's 20% of methane emissions, according to the United Nations

 

 

From a financial perspective, food waste has significant cost implications for businesses. A report by Champions 12.3 found that reducing food waste in the hospitality and food service sector by just 20% could save businesses up to $7 billion annually. This is due to the fact that wasted food represents a loss of both the food itself and the resources that went into producing it. Restaurants may also incur additional costs associated with disposing of food waste, such as landfill fees or the cost of hiring a waste management company.

In addition, food waste can also impact a restaurant’s reputation. In today’s socially conscious environment, customers are increasingly aware of issues, such as food waste, and may choose to dine at restaurants that prioritize sustainability. Restaurants that are seen as wasteful may therefore be at a competitive disadvantage.

A survey conducted by Deliverect revealed that “43% of diners would pay more for takeout food that was sustainable; 68% said restaurants should have processes in place to avoid waste.”
 

20% of methane emissions comes from landfills and wastewater.  
-
United Nations
 

Solutions to food waste in restaurants

There are several solutions that restaurants can implement to reduce their food waste. One approach is to implement better inventory management practices. By accurately tracking inventory levels and ordering only what is needed, restaurants can reduce the likelihood of overproduction and spoilage.

Additionally, restaurants can consider donating excess food to food banks or other charitable organizations, rather than sending it to landfill. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, if just 30% of the food currently wasted in the United States was recovered and donated, it could feed every food-insecure American.

A step in the right direction: San Diego authorized a bill that legally requires all restaurants and grocery stores to donate edible food to food rescue organizations instead of throwing it away. The law is aimed at reducing toxic organic waste disposal in San Diego by 75% by 2025. Read more here

Another approach is to reduce portion sizes. By offering smaller portions, restaurants can reduce the amount of food that is wasted when customers are unable to finish their meals. Similarly, restaurants can offer half portions or allow customers to order side dishes, rather than full meals, to reduce the amount of food that is wasted.

In addition to the solutions restaurants can implement to reduce food waste, individuals can also play a role in combating this issue. By reducing food waste in your daily life, you can help alleviate the burden on already-overloaded landfills and contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

 

If just 30% of the food currently wasted in the US was recovered and donated, it could feed every food-insecure American.  
-
National Resources Defense Council
 

What Can YOU Do?

Reducing restaurant food waste is an essential step toward building a more sustainable future. Here are a few simple things you can do to be part of the solution. 

1. Ask for a To-Go Box

By taking uneaten food home, you not only save money by having another meal, but you also help reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills, which contributes to greenhouse emissions. The following few tips provide some guidance on what to do with leftovers after you’ve taken them home.  

2. Store Your Leftovers Properly

Leftovers from restaurants will go bad sooner if they are kept in the typical styrofoam containers. By transferring your take-out food to airtight containers, you can help prevent it from going bad and ending up in the trash.

 

 

3. Use Leftovers to Make Other Meals

Instead of throwing away leftovers, consider using them to create new meals. For example, you can use leftover vegetables to make soup or stir-fry. Meat and poultry can be added to salads and stews, or used as a sandwich filling. 

4. Compost Leftovers That You Don’t Want

Instead of tossing leftovers in the trash, compost them instead. Composting is an environmentally friendly way to dispose of organic waste, and it creates nutrient-rich soil that can be used to fertilize plants. Many cities and towns now offer curbside composting programs, or you can start your own compost bin at home and use it to enrich your garden.

Reducing food waste is an important step toward building a more sustainable future. Remember, every small action counts, and together we can make a difference in creating a more sustainable world.

You can read more about reducing your own food waste here!