War on waste: The consultants’ view


Food waste is a subject generating heaps of debate in the catering equipment sector, particularly as more equipment becomes available to tackle the problem. But how should it be tackled from a strategic management and kitchen design perspective?

One of the biggest problems with food waste is that people misunderstand what it actually is, according to Matthew Merriott-Harrison.

And the director of Guildford-based Merriott-Harrison Catering Consultants should know better than most after recently gaining a MSc in international hospitality design and management consultancy that saw him submit a thesis investigating the food waste produced by hospitals and its effects on the efficiency of patient food services.

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“There are basically three sorts of food waste,” counsels Merritt-Harrison. “The first is the food waste which is absolutely unavoidable, such as the peelings from the fruit, the bones and those sorts of things; it is a by-product of catering. The second is production waste, where basically portions aren’t sold or they are left over at the end of the week when the fridge is cleared out. And the third area is plate waste.

“The biggest challenge, we find, is that caterers don’t actually know how much waste they are producing and most of the time it is underestimated, so in terms of equipment one of the main issues is actually sizing it correctly and having the right piece of equipment — whatever the solution is — to do the job required.”

Planning a food waste management system into the design of a commercial kitchen is taking on added significance for consultants as pressure mounts on operators to find alternatives to the two traditional means of eliminating waste, namely using waste disposal units and sending it off to landfill.

The Zero Waste Scotland initiative has certainly put this issue firmly in the spotlight, with food businesses generating more than 50kg of food waste a week obliged to adhere to new kerbside collection processes from January 2014.

Duncan Hepburn, director of Hepburn Associates, says that new legislation, mixed with the existing emphasis on recycling from most local councils, commands greater consideration to the way that dishwash areas are planned.

“Normally all the dishwashing would be crammed in the back and there would be a small drop-off table and then the dishwasher; actually when you have to separate all that waste and all those different waste streams so that it can be recycled or disposed of separately there is a lot more to consider. If they have separated it, where is it going to go and how is it going to be transported? And what do you do if you have got wet food waste within that? These are all things that need to be properly considered from a design perspective.”

Hepburn says there are a whole host of kitchen hygiene and logistics factors to take into account, too, especially if it involves the areas of composting or biogas storage.

And he suggests the availability of vacuum waste systems, for instance, are helping to provide a level of automation that would otherwise made food waste management a burden.

Merritt-Harrison regards Mechline’s Waste 20 digester system as one of the “most effective” solutions on the market today but, like the vast majority of experts in the field, he stresses that there is not one specific solution capable of fitting all situations.

Instead, he subscribes to the theory that responsible and successful food waste management is not just about investing in the most appropriate systems to eradicate it, but implementing the right practices in the first place to lower the volume of wastage.

“While caterers clearly have to address how they get rid of their food waste, the key is to reduce it. What we have found is that where caterers actually quantify their food waste they then start reducing it. Most caterers are very good at managing their gross profit, so their production waste tends to be good, but it’s the plate waste which creates the problem. If you think about the ‘value’ offers you see with some of the pub chains, which are all about how much you get on the plate, the consequence of that is you get waste as well because people put more on the plate than they actually eat.”

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One of the other issues, says Hepburn, is that it is harder for some operators to reduce food waste than others for operational reasons.

“It is very difficult for hospitals and airlines to manage the volume of waste they receive back because [contract caterers] are not in control of how much is given to the customers — they produce to a required amount and they are paid on that basis. How much is fed to the patients or the passengers is somebody else’s risk. I am sure that if they were managing it end-to-end it would be slightly different.”

While suppliers can advise customers how to reduce the amount of volume they produce, the reality is that no operator will ever have zero wastage. Merriott-Harrison stresses that it is therefore vital for the supply chain to measure the amount and type of waste that is being produced on a daily and weekly basis before taking any decision on the most suitable equipment to specify.

“It is about making sure that it is fit for purpose, but that it also has the capacity to cope with the volumes that are being produced,” he explains. “Those are the key things — it is about capacity against volume, but also simplicity. I know at the moment there are a lot of kitchen porters with degrees but that is because they can’t get jobs anywhere else. Normally it is not fair to ask kitchen porters to operate the highly technical controls of a [food waste] system.”

The overarching message, it seems, is that a restaurant doing 50 covers twice a day will require a completely different solution to a contract caterer processing hundreds of meals a day.

“I know a hospital client which was paying £1,000 a month to empty skips full of food waste,” says Hepburn. “A large automated system might cost upwards of £20,000 but on that basis there is the potential for a sound investment and a way of dealing with the food waste because as well as it costing them £1,000, they have a stinking skip sat outside their back door full of waste that has to be separated. A big hospital has the potential to save some money or at least make their investment very cost-neutral versus what they are already paying.”

Food waste facts

260,000: The amount of outlets producing food waste in the UK, ranging from cafes to hotels and hospitals.

600,000 tonnes: The amount of landfill product which is food waste.

3.4m tonnes: The amount of waste produced by UK pubs, restaurants, takeaways and hotels.

4m tonnes: The associated carbon impact in CO2e of commercial waste that is sent to landfill.

£722m: Estimated costs associated with avoidable food waste.

Tags : catering equipmentconsultantsfood wasteWaste management
Andrew Seymour

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