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Food Waste the Elephant in the Room for the Hospitality Industry

Image Credit: Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler

Energy, water, waste, chemical consumption and support for local communities are now issues that hotels may take into consideration when adopting a sustainability approach, whether they do so for ethical, financial, or branding reasons. However, one fundamental aspect of hotel operation remains neglected - one with a staggering environmental impact that’s not included in the criteria for the most advanced green hotel certification schemes. And it can cause tremendous damage to a hotel’s income statement. Too often considered a necessary evil by hoteliers, food waste is the elephant in the room that the vast majority of operators still try hard to ignore.

When I get to share what we at LightBlue do to help hotels to address their Food Excess issue, people often ask: “What, do you get hotels to reduce the variety of food?” or “you can’t force people to finish their plates, can you?” The answer is a clear no - we cannot and will not do that, as guest satisfaction and brand standard are central in every improvement offered to our partners. However, we realized that by implementing a food excess monitoring system with clear categories (spoilage waste, preparation waste, buffet waste and customer plate waste), we’ve been able to help properties reduce their food waste by 45 percent.

Food waste has been generating attention internationally and countries all over the world are beginning to realize the true negative impact of food waste. The United States plans to cut its food waste by 50 percent by 2030; and the European Union is being even more ambitious, planning to do the same by 2020. The impetus for these programs is clear. As a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) states, “The impact of food waste is not just financial. The vast amount of food going to landfills makes a significant contribution to global warming.” As such, the United Nations just recently set eliminating food waste as one of its Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 12.3).

If Public Organisations, international bodies, and business media recognize the severity of the food waste issue, then why aren’t hotels willing to address it?

The word “hotel” typically conjures up images of luxury and relaxation – a getaway, an escape from daily stress and responsiblities. Hotels have to fulfill these expectations when it comes to pleasing their guests, and oftentimes that means serving an abundance of food. Whether via an a la carte restaurant or an overflowing buffet, with this abundance of food comes a significant amount of food waste.

We’ve proved this through the implementation of our Food Excess Audits: A hotel we assessed in Bangkok, Thailand wasted over 1,300 kilograms of edible food in just seven days, which amounts to a shocking 70 tons per year. After implementing our Food Excess Solution Program, the hotel saved 5,635 kilograms of food within 5 months, coupled with an average savings of 2.29 percent off of monthly food costs. The financial savings for that property are in tens of thousands of USD per year, and the positive impacts resulting from the decrease in food waste is a great marketing/communication opportunity as well, as these 5.6 tonnes represent 840 days worth of food for a family of four.

Reducing food waste is so much more than just reducing loss of edible resources. Look beyond the waste and into what is really happening by scrutinizing the whole food chain: Where are we sourcing our food? How much energy is needed to harvest, process, package and transport that food? Food waste adds up to a significant amount of resources being wasted, specifically needless energy, labor and water, not to mention land pollution and more.

A breakdown of the cost of food waste by cost element: 62.0% Food Purchase; 26.0% Labour; 7.2% Energy; 2.2% Administration; 1.4% Waste Management; 0.8% Water; 0.2% Transport; 0.1% Consumables.
Click to enlarge. | Image Source: WRAP UK, The True Cost of Food Waste within Hospitality and Food Service, Nov 2013.

We can’t expect every hotelier to wholeheartedly embrace sustainability, even though those who have are harvesting the benefits in terms of staff retention, reduced operational costs (energy, water, disposable and recyclable wastes, chemicals), higher guest satisfaction, and branding. But how can we continue to ignore the issues when small resorts have been found to waste up to 150 tons of edible food per year? Or that a staggering 36 percent of all food purchased ends up in the bin? That when taking into account energy and water used, labour cost, mis-allocation of financial resources and loss revenue for that food that could have been sold, the actual true cost paid by a hotel for food waste can reach a stunning $800,000 for one large (300-room) resort? You might think no one who understands business and has a sense of responsibility could ignore this, but the truth is, hoteliers are still turning a blind eye on their food waste situation. Classic KPIs such as the Food Cost percent and Total Revenue from Food and Beverage remain almost exclusively the only indicators of financial performance of food outlets and banquets, instead of looking as well at what is being lost between the purchase of food through to the end of service.

Business is business, and the bottom line remains the same: how much does it cost, and how much can I save. Through tools such as our Food Excess Solutions program, hotels can gain an unprecedented understanding of their food waste situation, a practical way to monitor food excess, and actionable solutions along the value chain. It helps move the issue of food waste higher up on the hotel general agenda - a clear benefit from an environmental perspective that can also be measured while building the capacity of your employees, and helping you save a lot of money (with a very short payback period). And in this situation, greed is good for everyone.


Benjamin Lephilibert is the Managing Director of LightBlue Consulting and an expert in hotel food waste prevention, employees/guests participation, and certification.

Benjamin holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva), and a… [Read more about Benjamin Lephilibert]