Serving up a solution for restaurant food waste

Doggy bags could soon be back in fashion as restaurants look to cut down on the amount of food waste left by diners. It's all part of a new campaign, as Tom Tanner explains

You know the old joke about buses? You wait ages for one and then three come along all at once. Well it’s a bit like that with restaurant food waste. The figures still shock us.

The average UK restaurant throws out 21 tonnes of food every year – the weight of three double-decker buses. Perhaps even more shockingly almost a third of that, almost seven tonnes, or one bus worth, is waste swept off diners’ plates into the bin. In total UK restaurants produce 600,000 tonnes of food waste a year.

The figures surprised us when we conducted our survey in ten London restaurants last year, especially when we calculated that it translates as almost half a kilo of waste per diner. That’s what got us thinking. While it is restaurant food waste, customers do bear some of the responsibility.

The old adage eyes bigger than your tummy, immediately springs to mind. But, as our consumer research in April this year showed, the vast majority of diners have no idea about the scale of the problem. When confronted with the figures they voiced strongly their desire for something to be done about it.

Whether it’s natural British reticence or an aversion for all things American, half of consumers also told us that they were either too embarrassed to ask to take home leftovers or thought restaurants weren’t allowed to let you.

So armed with the information about the scale of waste and consumer attitudes towards it, we hatched a plan and our campaign ‘Too Good To Waste’ was born. It aims to raise customer awareness, empower them to ask to take home leftovers and help restaurants reduce food waste with a package of back-of-house measures.

The vehicle – the humble doggy box. We knew from the off that our biodegradable, recyclable cardboard container wouldn’t solve the problem on its own, but we reckoned that supplying 25,000 of them to participating restaurants would awaken interest in an important but not very attractive issue.

We also figured the timing was right. We find ourselves in an age of austerity similar to the one in which our wartime, ration-living relatives lived, when they eked out a chicken for a week. So when you’ve paid good money for a meal, have enjoyed, but just can’t finish it then a doggy box provides the perfect solution – think inside the box and take home tonight’s dinner to have for tomorrow’s lunch.

At the risk of sounding smug, we weren’t wrong. All but a handful of the boxes have been delivered and there’s been a great response from diners, chefs, the media and the wider food industry. We’re asking more of participating restaurants than just boxing up customers’ leftovers. For a start, we’ve given them some useful advice on how to make diners feel comfortable asking – even making the first move.

As well as a carton of doggy boxes they’ve also received supporting information and advice from us, with a range of useful tips on how to cut their waste. We estimate that by implementing a small number of straightforward measures restaurants should be able to reduce their waste by about 20%, or four tonnes.

There’s a genuine financial incentive for restaurants too. That 20% reduction translates as a £2,000 to 4,000 saving when you factor in the cost of the wasted food, the labour costs in preparation, opportunity costs and the waste management costs. It all adds up to what should be a no-brainer.

It’s one thing reducing the amount of food restaurants throw out. We think it’s equally important to shine a light on how restaurants dispose of it. Some restaurants have historically blamed their local authority of waste contractor for failing to dispose of their waste responsibly. But, there is now an almost UK-wide network of waste management operators offering a range of disposal methods – all a step up from dumping it in landfill along with all other waste.

The campaign launched in London in October and initially is limited to London restaurants. We are looking to roll out across the UK early next year.

Tom Tanner is from the Sustainable Restaurant Association

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