Foodservice operators are demonstrating that food waste recovery is a viable alternative to landfill dumping.
When it comes to waste, "food recovery is still a blip on our radar," says Ron VAnce, chief of the materials conservation and recycling branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Two years ago, the EPA decided to do something about it and started the Food Recovery Challenge. The competition recognizes foodservice operators who are finding innovative ways to reduce the amount of food that goes into the waste stream.
In February, the EPA announced the winners of the 2014 Food Recovery Challenge awards. Twenty-one U.S. foodservice operations, including universities, hospitals and stadiums, were recognized for their efforts—many of which were implemented without sizable investments in equipment or technology. Additionally, one company and government agency were also honored as “endorsers” of food waste recovery.
“It wasn’t about who spent the most money, but about the manner in which the winners educated people with the entire spirit of food recovery,” says Vance, who oversees the Food Recovery Challenge with a staff spread across 10 regional EPA offices.
It’s also not about “checking the boxes to complete an annual sustainability report, but about communicating and broadening the message,” says Vance.
Here are four non-commercial operations that won or received an honorable mention for their efforts.
Source reduction award winner: University of California at Irvine (UC Irvine)
Dan Dooros, associate vice chancellor of student affairs at 30,000-student UC Irvine, says the campus has been on a “zero waste” quest for several years, both within the university’s seven residence halls and in eight foodservice operations.
“[It’s been] a culture shift for a campus our size,” Dooros says. “We place an emphasis on communicating what students can accomplish by handling the small things. The big challenge is measuring your progress and communicating it back to the students you are working with.”
After the last of UC Irvine’s dining facilities reached zero waste and 95 percent (or higher) waste diversion in 2013, Dooros says, “we realized there were additional steps [we could] take to maximize our sustainability efforts.”
Since then UC Irvine’s zero-waste initiative reads like an impressive report card:
- 549 tons of waste converted through anaerobic digestion (where bacteria convert organic compounds to biogas in an environment without oxygen) in 2014, up from 508 tons in 2013.
- 76 tons of food source reduction (purchasing, storage and handling) in 2014.
- 1.48 tons of food donated since 2013 via UC Irvine’s partnership with Food Donation Connection, an international organization that helps coordinate the donation of prepared food from foodservice providers in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom.
“Every day we’re trying to do something a little better,” says Jack McManus, the director of hospitality and dining services at UC Irvine, who oversees three dining commons and more than 20 separate retail outlets.
Some of the strategies and tactics that have made a difference include:
- Trayless dining. “We did not know what the impact would be,” McManus says. “The first night that we took away trays we served about 150 pounds less food and are trying to keep an eye on how to do this even better.”
- Weigh the Waste events. Student leaders are named green captains, and sort food waste and recyclables into separate bins. The program now includes a Beat The Waste competition—where the pounds-of-waste per student is calculated and students compete to see who can produce least amount of waste.
- Smaller portions. At the front of the dining facility, UC Irvine’s staff encourage guests to ask for smaller portions, or sample items before ordering a full portion. “Often a guest might throw an item away if they don’t like it,” Dooros says.
- Back-of-the-house efficiency. Color-coded bins with signs in English and Spanish alert staff to where various types of waste should be placed.
- Batch preparation. “We are always making sure we’re ordering the correct amounts of food, and rely on an ‘overlap system’ with the ingredients used,” says Tyson Monagle, sustainability coordinator for Aramark, which manages the dining program at UC Irvine. “Chicken is a great example because there are so many ways to prepare it. If we don’t use the chicken intended for enchiladas on a Tuesday it becomes chicken Marsala the next day.”
- The use of anaerobic digestion. “We partnered with Waste Management Inc.,” Monagle says. “Food waste is converted into a slurry by the local water reclamation district.” Not only do the bacteria remove contaminating compounds from the effluent, they also produce green energy in the form of biogas.
- Constantly communicate zero-waste initiatives. “It’s a culture shift for a campus our size,” Dooros says. “We place an emphasis on communicating what students can accomplish by handling the small things. The big challenge is measuring your progress and communicating it back to the students you are working with.”
Even with all of these changes, Monagle says one of the challenges is making sure there is consistency and accuracy within the system. “We find that continuous training
is required,” Monagle says. “But luckily our employees are very passionate.”