The food service industry must act in order to protect its own interests
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, gets straight to the point in her foreword to the Food Waste Index Report: "Food waste burdens waste management systems and exacerbates food insecurity, making it a major contributor to the three planetary crises of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste." If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And to make matters worse, it also costs the industry money.
When it comes to our planet, our climate goals and even our food service industry, it's clear that dealing with food waste is a matter of survival. Yet today’s food service businesses actually contribute to the problem by failing to recognise food waste as a valuable resource. The solution seems simple: an intelligent system of waste management that can reduce operating costs while also helping to protect the environment. Hannes Braun is confident this will eventually become standard practice in the industry. If there's one thing the pandemic has made clear, he says, it's that the market needs to rethink its approach in order to protect its own interests.
Braun works as Head of International Sales at Meiko Green, the market and technology leader in food waste management solutions. We talked to the industry expert about recent global developments in food waste – and asked him why the food service industry often ends up shooting itself in the foot.
Mr Braun, cooking has always produced waste, so what's so different about what we're seeing today?
The whole industry is under immense pressure. It's a perfect storm of rising energy and raw material prices, government climate targets, staff shortages, changing consumer behaviour and, above all, a pandemic that has been destroying people's livelihoods for the past two years. So a lot has changed! That's why it's so alarming to see the irrational ways in which people deal with kitchen waste and leftovers. The food service industry is stuck in its old ways, even though technology has improved by leaps and bounds, and it simply can't afford to go on like that.
Why do you see the current approach as irrational?
We'll always have leftovers in food service, that's just inevitable; but the problem is that they are treated like waste – and waste is treated differently to raw materials. Yet food waste should be treated as a resource because it constitutes a valuable source of energy! It makes no economic sense to ignore that fact, and it’s simply not sustainable. In fact, it's quite the opposite, because food waste costs money to dispose of and leads to hygiene problems. Ultimately, the food service industry is paying to make carbon reduction targets harder to achieve – and will suffer in the process. That just doesn't add up.
I understand the sustainability concerns. But how much will a change in mindset really pay off?
Let's start with the cold rooms / separate refuse chambers that businesses are required to have – that valuable storage space which they are filling with food waste bins! They could be saving the cost of renting and powering those facilities. In the long term, a suitable storage tank solution is always going to be cheaper, whether it's inside the building or under the ground outside. On top of that, you have the time savings. Smart food waste management takes the burden off staff and streamlines your workflows. The waste is simply disposed of at its point of origin, all with the touch of a button! So you can say goodbye to dragging heavy bins through the kitchen and the rest of the building and having to clean and disinfect the floor afterwards. There are clear benefits for staff, and the ergonomic design of our systems leads to far greater job satisfaction.
As well as being a more attractive place to work, kitchens with a food waste management system also helps tackle the issue of staff shortages. When the tank is full, it's simply emptied and cleaned by a service provider. There are no nasty smells, because it's all handled from the outside, away from the kitchen operations. Storage capacity also goes up, because the volume of the homogenised waste is lower. That means the waste can be collected at longer intervals, which reduces disposal costs. It’s a much more sensible solution.
Can you give us a concrete idea of the savings?
Absolutely, though there are a lot of factors to take into account. A survey of our projects indicates that Meiko Green systems pay for themselves within three to seven years. Our team of experts will happily carry out a no-obligation evaluation of a site and calculate the cost-effectiveness of a tailor-made solution. And they can also work out technical alternatives if the regional infrastructure doesn't cater to the disposal of homogenised waste.
Surely the size of a business is also a determining factor in whether the investment makes sense?
Every kitchen is unique and deserves a personalised approach, so it's hard to generalise, but the investment can pay off from as few as 200 meals a day. Our experts always begin by analysing all the on-site factors, including the infrastructure, workflows, type and quantity of food waste and much more. They use that as a basis for recommending whether to make the investment and calculating the ROI. Operators often focus solely on their current operating costs and fail to take the wider disposal process into account. But by taking a closer look, it's possible to pinpoint the weak points and unnecessary costs. And that applies to smaller businesses, too.
How does the type of waste fit into this equation, for example is the waste is sorted?
That can be an important issue, especially in the food processing industry. There are big differences between bones, fish skin and coffee grounds, for example, but fortunately we have suitable systems for every kind of waste. We specialise in finding tailor-made solutions for both sorted and unsorted waste; that's our bread and butter! And it's this personal touch that keeps Meiko Green ahead of its competitors.
When you talk about hygiene benefits, do you mean eliminating the bins?
Absolutely, and replacing them with a self-contained system. Hygienic solutions need to be simple but reliable. Waste bins create unnecessary risks when it comes to collecting waste and transporting it through the building. Even the delivery of new bins can pose a risk when the old ones are being collected, because the empty bins are likely to come into contact with full bins from other businesses in the back of the service provider's lorry. So a supposedly clean bin could be contaminated before it even arrives at your business. After the pandemic we're going to see heightened awareness of hygiene issues, and professional systems can bring a company's HACCP approach to a whole new level.
Yet bins are still the most popular choice. How do you explain that when they have so many disadvantages?
Old habits don't just disappear overnight, especially if new approaches require investment. We need to make it clear to operators that they are shooting themselves in the foot and paying for it in the process! In terms of the climate, we're likely to see governments putting stricter carbon targets in place in the future. Consumers are also changing their behaviour, because sustainable consumption is becoming a much bigger issue, especially when it comes to food.
So managing food waste properly will become a question of self-preservation. That will even extend to kitchen planners, because their clients will increasingly expect hygienic, efficient kitchens that feature all the benefits of a sustainable, state-of-the-art facility.
So you believe these developments are inevitable?
Absolutely. Europe is beginning to shift its mindset. You can see that people are recognising the value of food waste and starting to channel its energy back into the loop. It's something that's changing worldwide, and it's partly driven by governments. Landfills and composting plants are gradually being converted into biogas plants in order to turn waste into a source of green energy. Meiko Green is busy supporting this transformation and optimising the entire process chain from field to fork to field.
So you think Meiko Green will continue to grow in the future?
Climate change, hygiene, sustainability and food waste can only be addressed from a global perspective. That's why we already have over 1,500 of our systems installed on ships as well as in leading hotels, small restaurants and sophisticated, large-scale catering facilities. So yes, we're going to continue heading in this direction. We've already built up quite a fan base in the US, China, Southeast Asia, India, Australia, Israel and Europe. And we keep getting the same feedback from operators: "We should have taken this step sooner!"
The problems we're looking to solve are global, so our solutions need to be global, too. But we're keeping our think tank and the hub of our innovation work in Germany. We're already working on new developments that will help us achieve major optimisation of the entire process chain in commercial kitchens. In the long term, the key is to keep an eye on the big picture – and I think we have some interesting times ahead!