There are many reasons why people decide to compost food waste. In some cases, you might be trying to proactively make your operation more sustainable. In other cases, you might only be trying to ward off a group of riled up activists who are approaching your office like villagers storming the gates of Frankenstein’s castle, pitchforks and torches in hand. Regardless of why you are composting food waste, when people think of food waste, they sometimes only think about post-consumer plate scrapings.
Yet, even though pre-consumer food waste doesn’t get nearly the same attention as its post-consumer sibling, it might have a bigger impact. Think of it as the Nikki Hilton or Ashlee Simpson of composting.
When we talk about pre-consumer food waste, we are essentially talking about two things:
- Prep Waste
- Unserved Leftovers
Pre-Consumer Prep Waste
This is basically the food waste that comes from preparing your meals.
Sounds simple right? Not necessarily. What makes this a bit tricky is that the prep waste might not be at your facility. The amount of prep-waste that you have on-site can vary greatly depending on how you purchase your product. For example, if you are buying all your produce whole and unprocessed, you are likely to have a lot more peelings and trimmings on site. If you buy your produce already peeled, chopped and stored in nitrogen-filled plastic bags, that prep waste is somewhere else at a processing facility off-site. Because of that, it is not something you are going to be collecting for compost.
If you are composting as part of a bigger foodservice sustainability program, keep in mind that if you buy more local produce, you are likely to have more prep waste. Most local growers do not have the same ability to prepare and package items the way that larger wholesalers do, at least not initially. If you are willing to invest in a long-term partnership with a local grower, they may be willing to invest in the equipment needed to prepare food to your specifications, but at least initially, plan on additional food waste from buying local.
An advantage in collecting prep waste is that it is generated and handled by your kitchen or foodservice staff. That gives you a level of certainty and control that you don’t have with post-consumer waste. If getting your diners to scrape their plates into a compost bin sometimes feels akin to herding cats, you might be pleasantly surprised by the level of control you have over pre-consumer food waste.
To oversimplify, if you prepare or cook more food than you serve, you are going to have leftovers.
Leftovers don’t necessarily mean immediate food waste. I have seen some foodservice professionals work miracles and have seen some leftovers make more comebacks than The Who. I have seen dishes that seem to go from baked chicken one day to chicken cacciatore the next to a soup another. Yet eventually, even if a leftover has transformed more times than all the Autobots combined, you are eventually going to have some waste.
The degree to which you have leftovers often depends on how certain you are of your customers’ dining preferences. That essentially means when they want to eat and what they want to eat. How certain are you of your customer counts? If not as certain, there are likely to be more times that you prepare or cook for a rush that never arrives.
This is something that can be significantly impacted by nearby events. Is there something happening on the other side of town that will mean fewer than expected customers? Keeping abreast of nearby events and adjusting expectations accordingly can significantly reduce food waste.
The other factor that will adjust food waste from leftovers is the appeal of your menu. If you prepare food that diners don’t want to take or order, you are going to have leftovers. Whereas post-consumer plate scrapings may be an indicator of food quality, this is more of an issue of visual appeal.
One last variable is your donation program. Do you donate unserved leftovers to a local shelter or food pantry? If so, that food will no longer be on site when it becomes waste.
I encourage you to look at donation options. There are plenty of people in need who are more than grateful to receive meals that you would have otherwise thrown away. You need to be very careful that you are working within board of health guidelines to both ensure that no one gets sick (and to ensure that you don’t have to deal with the repercussions of having made someone sick). You also need to make sure you effectively communicate with a charity about what they will and will not take. You want to make them a long-term partner, not a dumping ground for your wastes.
In that vein, just remember, the devil is in the details. I have seen a few too many cases in which someone quotes the traditional EPA waste hierarchy, and makes a blanket statement that “reusing” food waste by donating it is automatically better than “recycling” it via composting. You need to do a little more looking to make sure this is true. Most charities can only take certain leftovers for reuse. You need a certain amount of food waste to make your composting program viable. Just make sure before you donate that you are not cheating yourself out of food waste that you need, only to find out that it is of such marginal quality that the charity just throws it away. You don’t want to find yourself in a “road to hell is paved with good intentions” situation.
There are a lot of benefits to composting food waste. There are also some pitfalls that you need to avoid. Are you prepared?