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Waste not, want not: tackling food waste in the industry

The UK produces an estimated 9.5 million tonnes of food waste each year, according to food waste management charity WRAP. Holly Patrick finds out how the events industry is tackling this issue.

Many of us recycle at home, some of us might even find creative ways to prevent peelings from going in the bin. But how do these gestures to create a greener planet translate to the events industry?

The issue

In the Beyond Food report, published in chapters by Lime Venue Portfolio in association with BCD Meetings & Events, a reported 15 to 20 per cent of food at an event is wasted. In addition to this, at banqueting events, on average 10 per cent, more food than required is ordered. This means that at an event of 1,000 guests, at least 100 plates of food will go to waste.

To a non-event professional, ordering extra food to cater for last-minute attendees or menu choice changes may seem ludicrous. But, as the Beyond Food report points out, the success of an event is largely quantified by the quality and availability of the food, with 20 per cent of event feedback based on the catering.

Straight to the source 

According to the food recovery hierarchy, reduction is the preferred method of tackling food waste and right at the bottom is landfill – the last resort. Reducing food waste at its source should be the first option for event planners. This means that, in practice, an event planner should not order, cook or serve surplus food at an event.

“When we are organising buffets for large congresses, we under-order, making sure there is enough crockery available – asking for smaller plates, so delegates don’t overload ­– and reduce the choice,” explains Worldspan managing director, Sophie Morris.

Morris adds that it’s important to look at the types of food you reduce. “It’s well known that both salads and puddings are a high percentage of the food that is wasted on a buffet, so consider reducing these considerably.”

 Changing delegate expectations

Delegates expect plenty of choice and additional helpings. This is something culturally ingrained in the events industry, as Abena Poku-Awuah, founder of sustainable events agency Legacy, explains.

Abena Poku-Awuah

“Some of those cultural expectations include wanting to be seen as generous at events, wanting to be seen as flexible and providing choice. Until we deal with some of those cultural aspects, it’s going to be difficult to deal with the food waste questions because nobody wants to be at an event where you’re seen as stingy or inflexible or not catering to your attendees’ food choices.”

Debunking the cultural expectations of an abundance of choice and availability begins with education. As Poku-Awuah puts it: “You need to sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

John Kelly, senior director marketing EMEA, BDC M&E explains: “It’s about educating people on the food journey from farm to plate and after that too. Once people have the facts then they will be more engaged to get on-board.”

Maxine McMahon of Legal & General Investment Management suggests that the best way to educate delegates is by communicating your catering policy and the reasons behind it from the outset.

“We need to engage the message from the word go and explain that you are tackling food waste by providing one portion per person. This might not work straight away, but it will eventually.”

The Letter of the Law

Communicating with venues and rethinking the ‘norm’ of venue contract negotiation can also reduce food waste. While a signed contract is considered watertight, there’s always room for negotiation, especially if there is cost-saving for both sides involved. Kelly suggests planners need to be braver when it comes to contract negotiations and reaching out to the supply chain to say: “We have fewer delegates than expected, you don’t need to buy and prepare all that food.”

Another man’s treasure

Preventative measures are the best course of action, bar none. But when prevention is simply not possible, a planner must communicate with their supply chain and understand the journey of the unconsumed food.

“We have to accept to a degree that there might be food waste, but we’ve got to be more pragmatic and proactive about what we do with that food waste,” suggests McMahon. “Stop thinking food waste is dead money.”

It’s a question of asking what the venue is doing with the leftovers and even the usually-deemed scraps in the kitchen. Twickenham Stadium’s head chef, Tom Rhodes is pioneering this in event catering by maximising the outcome of every ingredient used on the menu. “A good example of this is the use of our celeriac, which we peel, bake in salt and serve as a plant-first option,” he explains. “The peelings of the vegetable are ground down with the excess salt to create a veggie salt for other dishes; the offcuts are used for a jus on a different part of the menu, and anything else left over we reuse in stocks and soups.”

Lime Venues Portfolio also announced in early 2020 that it had chosen FareShare as its charity partner. “FareShare are fighting hunger in this country, using surplus food, and giving needy people a basic human right. It’s a brilliant initiative, which we’re delighted to be involved in,” explains Jo Austin, sales director, Lime Venue Portfolio.

Stuart Coleman, founder of Eventism, explains that food waste charities are part of the solution to reducing waste, but it’s important to pick the right charity for your business. “Each of them has their own niche including how they distribute food, what food they’ll take and how regularly they need donations.” Often a conversation between planners, venues and the food waste charities needs to be had to ensure the most fitting partnership is created.

Olympia London has sent zero waste to landfill for over a decade, and managed to reduce 17 per cent in three months after the campaign with Guardians of Grub last year.

A new beginning

In some cases, reducing or reusing isn’t viable, particularly when cooked food has been put out but not eaten. However, this doesn’t have to equal going to landfill as ICC Wales demonstrates through its initiative of turning food waste into energy. “We send our food waste to Bryn power anaerobic digestion facility to generate low carbon electricity for the South Wale grid,” explains Russell Phillips, vice president, facilities and development at the Celtic Collection.

Similarly, The Royal College of Physicians in London has partnered with coffee grounds recycling company, bio-bean, to transform the 3,500kg of waste coffee grounds it produces annually into sustainable bioproducts. “The coffee grounds, which formerly went into the RCP’s food waste and were processed by anaerobic digestion into compost, are now diverted and recycled into eco-friendly fire logs,” says Natacha Allen, head of commercial events at the Royal College of Physicians.

“Open that communication channel with venues and caterers so that they understand that the information is important and they should be providing it to the event planner,” explains Michael Foreman, managing director, Don’t Waste UK.

Foreman explains that too often an event planner will trust the venue has sustainable methods of food waste disposal, but it’s important to “ask the questions that matter and make sure you’re comfortable with what they’re doing if you really want to make an impact.”

The industry doesn’t yet have all the answers to the question of food waste, but it’s certainly working on the formulas.

What to ask venues

  • Do you have a policy document that outlines your commitment to minimising food waste?
  • Can you show me data that demonstrates how you’ve successfully been able to reduce your food waste?
  • Which food redistribution organisation are you partnering with?
  • Which food waste removal service do you use and how is it used once removed?
  • Do you compost your food waste?
  • How do you manage your different waste streams? For example, flows of specific waste, from its source through to recovery, recycling or disposal.
  • Can we set up a system to update you on event number changes and special diet changes close to the event?

Partner up   

Bio-bean is the world’s largest recycler of spent coffee grounds.

OLIO offers a Food Waste Heroes programme which picks up and redistributes surplus food from professional kitchens to local communities.

Fareshare saves food destined for waste and sends it to charities and community groups who transform it into nutritious meals for vulnerable people.

The Trussell Trust supports a nationwide network of food banks, supporting people locked in poverty.