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19 June 2019
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Sustainability in the contract catering sector has historically focused on the procurement and sourcing of food, but pressure is increasing to deal with food waste at the end of the cycle too, reports Kevin Stanley.

© Richard Gleed

03 December 2018 | Kevin Stanley

Emma Potter

Contract caterers, by the nature of the contractual agreement, have to operate on their clients’ sites, which makes them largely beholden to the available waste streams at that location – ordinarily managed by the client. 

However, this does not mean the contractor is unable to suggest alternatives. Indeed, this is what Mike Hanson, head of sustainable business at BaxterStorey, advises. “The contractor should always encourage the client to enable a food waste recycling stream, which ideally would be processed through anaerobic digestion.”

Anaerobic digestion refers to microorganisms – naturally occurring bacteria – breaking down food waste and converting them into biofertiliser or biogas – the latter can be used to generate electricity and heat, or processed into transportation fuels. The process happens in the absence of oxygen (which is what anaerobic means) inside an anaerobic digester, which is small enough to fit inside a standard commercial kitchen.

Moving on from that brief definitional review, should the client be willing to adopt the contractor’s suggestions for change, the latter will need to 

take responsibility for segregating food waste from other waste streams. 

“It’s vital our teams understand the requirements in terms of separation and segregation to avoid contamination as it’s not economically viable for recycling facilities to sort, which inevitably results in recyclables going to landfill or incineration,” says Hanson.

The good news is that the cost of recycling food waste is in businesses’ favour. The average price to dispose waste – including general waste collection, separate waste collection of recycling and onsite macerators – equates to approximately 35p a kilogram. “Environmental impacts and cost efficiencies are encouraging a change in attitudes to reducing waste and recycling behaviours,” says Hanson. 

While there is a responsibility among contractors to improve their capabilities and performance as recycling-friendly providers, finding suitable recycling facilities can be problematic. Consider that every year in the UK, more than three billion paper cups are sent to general waste. 

Yet some contractors are finding ways to improve the situation and this often comes in the form of inter-organisational collaboration. Sodexo’s partnership with Waste Knot, an organisation that connects businesses with surplus food, and Ferryfast, a cooperative of farmers in Worcestershire, helps the catering provider serve rescued fruit and vegetables, which are delivered in recycled banana boxes, at its various client sites across the country.

It’s known as the ‘Wasteful to Tasteful’ project – or the wonky veg initiative – and Sodexo is trying to reduce the volume of Class II fruit and vegetables being thrown away or left to rot. 

“It doesn’t matter what they look like before they are prepared and cooked, these wonky veggies are perfect for use in a range of dishes including soups, stews and puddings, as they still retain their nutritional value and delicious taste,” says Catrin Thorndike, category and sustainable procurement manager at Sodexo UK & Ireland.

Recycling is a collective effort

Tasty vegetables aside, for waste reduction and recycling initiatives to succeed, the various stakeholders – including the caterer, client, landlord and waste contractor – need to engage in the best course of action. 

Anthony Bennett sums it up succinctly. “Lasting impact is only achieved if food waste is seen as everybody’s business. Understanding exactly what happens to the food waste generated by your workplace restaurant, and communicating it, helps us to make better decisions on reducing overall environmental impact.”

This is what Bennett Hay did with its client Landsec. “We worked with Bywaters to tackle consumer food waste and packaging at the same time,” he says. “We moved all our packaging to compostable packaging and ran a month-long communications campaign to educate our customers and encourage them to send waste food to anaerobic digestion.” 

Education and training, for any behaviour change, is always a challenge and one way to tackle it is through adopting a holistic approach, says Yeshna Mistry, lead sustainability and CSR at independent caterer Vacherin. 

This starts with ensuring that all employees receive training on reducing, reusing and recycling waste streams. The next step, Mistry explains, is developing partnerships with clients. “We have worked collaboratively to create campaigns to encourage customers to recycle effectively with clear bin signage, talks and workshops,” she says. 

“We reduce waste by sending peelings and trimmings to anaerobic digestion to produce biofuel and fertiliser as well as sending used coffee grounds to be processed into biomass pellets and coffee logs,” adds Mistry.

Bartlett Mitchell’s quality standards manager Sally Grimes also notes the value in communicating with clients to change behaviour. The caterer’s ‘Waste-ed’ programme informs clients about ways to maximise the use of resources, minimise waste, and practice responsible recycling and disposing behaviours.

“By using the simple message at the napkin dispenser, ‘Only take one napkin at a time’, we’ve saved 1,200 napkins a month at some sites,” says Grimes. “These small and simple actions can have a huge impact. It’s important we work with our suppliers to ensure we purchase items where zero waste is encouraged.”

Reporting food waste

Changing behaviour is often best achieved when actors are aware of it. This is why record-keeping and reportage of food waste are essential as it will help identify the scope of the problem and measurements against which to aim for improvements. And with technological advancements, reportage has become more streamlined.


“Our till systems can accurately record the wastage at the end of each service, outputting powerful data that is sent to our management information analyst,” says Allister Richards, managing director of Gather & Gather.

The automated process, says Richards, allows his company to produce waste reports for clients that can be referenced against sales data. This helps to inform the caterer’s purchasing decisions – buying the most popular products and dishes to reduce waste and improve food efficiency.

Atalian Servest Food Co has also seen the benefits of using technology to improve waste reportage, says business director Tony Winterbottom. 

“We use SmartWaste environmental site monitoring and reporting software, as well as other apps and technology such as Olio,” explains Winterbottom. “We monitor our waste as part of a KPI regime with our clients and collaborate closely with our supply chain. Our efforts to reduce catering waste are in line with our clients’ corporate social responsibility agendas.”

While reporting waste is vital, Paul Cowie, head of catering at OCS Group UK, Ireland and Middle East, says the industry has a lot more to do.

“It [reporting food waste] is often seen as a measure of inefficiency that can be used by clients to reduce costs or identify poor-performing sites,” he says. To combat this, contractors should inform clients about the benefits of reducing food waste and environmental impact – especially where the contract caterer doesn’t manage the waste contract.

Of course, technology is not always a necessary component to bring about change. Managing portion size is effective in reducing food waste, especially as attitudes towards portion sizes are shifting, notes Bennett. “An abundance of food was once seen as positive, but perceptions have changed. Food waste is now a reputational issue for food service providers,” he says. 

This repetitional concern is often driven by clients’ internal customers, says Cowie, which can bring about contractual change – some tenders stipulate food waste as a KPI. This is a welcome change, but Cowie warns that KPIs need to be achievable. This requires agreement between client and contractor on many issues such the definitions of and differences between production waste, spoilage and plate waste.

Plastic policy

Public concern and political interest about waste have never been more closely aligned than during this past year, says Robin Latchem, and governmental policies are reflecting this too. 

If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the US. And, after David Attenborough’s Blue Planet in 2017, we all know the challenges plastic poses for us. 

Public perception about plastics and waste is shifting. A survey for the Green Alliance think tank found nearly 90 per cent of consumers “strongly believed” society should be more resource-efficient. Even if a drastic shift towards resource-efficiency changed their own lifestyle, more said they would support this shift (60 per cent) than oppose it (13 per cent).

This means reinventing how we design, produce and market products, and rethinking how we use, consume, reuse or recycle them. For example, can the same levels of food safety and protection be achieved with fewer plastic types and less use of laminated materials? What measures are needed to boost the quality – and the value – of materials recovered for recycling? We must all be involved, particularly when it comes to food and plastic packaging.

At the end of October, the chancellor proposed a future tax on plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30 per cent recycled material. Properly introduced, it will have a direct consequence on the design and use of the 2.26 million tonnes of plastic used in packaging in the UK every year. 

By the end of the year, Defra is expected to publish its ‘Resources & Waste’ strategy with the likelihood that those responsible for waste throughout the value chain will have to contribute much more to the cost of retrieving those materials. 

One anticipated policy is ‘full net cost recovery’, an idea included in the EU circular economy directives that the UK government has signed up to. The principle is a switch from local authorities paying for the retrieval of municipal packaging waste to the value chain picking up perhaps 95 per cent of the bill.

Such measures will take several years to implement in full but this extended producer responsibility should drive more sustainable practices from manufacturers, brands and retailers – and the food and hospitality sector too.

The government is also likely to want businesses to attain greater sustainability through voluntary actions. For example, the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement cut food and associated packaging waste by 11 per cent when the original target was 5 per cent. But the proportion of waste that was recycled, sent to anaerobic digestion or composted grew only from 42 to 56 per cent – around half the increase hoped for by those signing up to the agreement, which ended three years ago. Is it time to reinvigorate the aspirations behind that agreement? 

Others signed up to the Courtauld Commitment 2025, the first voluntary agreement to tackle the entire food chain from primary production on the farm to the point of consumption in a bid to eat into the 920,000 tonnes of food thrown away each year. 

Another recent example with specific targets is the UK Plastic Pact, which has a membership responsible for more than 80 per cent of plastic packaging on products sold through UK supermarkets and over 50 per cent of the total plastic packaging placed on the UK market. 

But improved sustainability brings other challenges. The UK cannot currently process all the waste we produce domestically so nothing less than a transformation in infrastructure will be needed to manage these waste streams for secondary use – but that’s a debate for another article.

More businesses are understanding that driving down waste is both practicable and makes financial sense. In the coming weeks, we will see how ministers propose to get that message across to those that don’t.


Menu design

Flexible design is aspirational in most corporate processes, including flexible contracts, flexi-time and agile workplaces. But the value of flexibility extends to food management too. 

Being able to adapt menus at clients’ sites will assist with the reduction of food waste as catering teams can provide specials or alternative dishes that use excess ingredients before they turn to waste. This is helpful when using products with a short shelf life such 

as dairy and bread. 

“Kitchens need to be more aware of wasteful dishes and have a plan to use that waste. A perfect example is fondant potatoes that create a lot of trimmings that could be used in soups [thereby] eliminating waste,” Cowie explains. “Rather than using central menu cycles, we give onsite teams the autonomy to develop their own menus based upon their own experiences of their customers.”

If food waste remains an issue even after implementing the types of initiatives listed above, contractors and clients will need to find alternative solutions. Using ‘rocket composters’, for example, Richards says food waste can be processed into fertile organic matter faster and with less waste than conventional composting heaps.

The future looks positive though. Anaerobic digestion and efficient composters are becoming more ubiquitous and contract caterers are working hard to bring about meaningful changes through training staff and educating clients. It’s working too, with customers increasingly willing to accept smaller portions and help to reduce waste and recycle. Waste providers are also showing their willingness to engage with catering contractors to improve recycling processes. 

It almost seems too simple, but the real solution to the problem of food waste is to first reduce the waste and then deal with recycling the small amount that remains.  

Key campaigns

Gather & Gather

Removed plastic straws from its 276 catering sites, eliminating more than 80,000 plastic straws from going to landfill every year.

‘Save our Serviettes’ campaign introduced 100 per cent recycled napkins and a like-for-like reduction in serviette waste of 6.69 million napkins in one year.


Worked with WWF since 2013 to create a range of plant-forward and plant-based recipes to fulfil its veg pledge (part of Food Foundation’s Peas Please initiative) to procure 10 per cent more veg by 2020 and 16 per cent more by 2025.


The ‘Food Waste Costing the Earth’ programme launched in 2014 and has resulted in 40 per cent reduction in food waste and has reduced environmental impact to the equivalent of almost 47,000 tonnes of CO2.