At one Brooklyn restaurant, the scraps of carrots, beets, and cilantro that come from making one item on the menu are made into a second $15 dish. Other chefs have created dumplings or ravioli or burgers from scraps that would otherwise be wasted–or have started to offer smaller servings, so customers are less likely to leave food on the plate. Many restaurants are thinking about food waste more than they did in the past. But by one estimate, restaurants in the U.S. alone still throw out 22 billion to 33 billion pounds of food each year.
A new study suggests that it’s good for business–not just the environment–for restaurants to tackle the problem. The report looked at financial data from 114 restaurants in 12 countries that took actions to reduce food waste, and found that for each dollar invested, restaurants saved an average of $7.
“All restaurants want to be as cost effective as they can,” says Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director for food loss and waste at the nonprofit World Resources Institute and one of the authors of the report, which was created on behalf of Champions 12.3, a coalition of business leaders and others working on the UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which aims to cut food waste in half. “Some restaurants aren’t aware of this opportunity, which is part of the reason for doing this report.”
The restaurants that saved the most food and money usually started by carefully measuring waste and then found ways to reduce production when needed, order less food from suppliers, or repurpose scraps into new meals. Most saw changes very quickly. When Ikea started investing in digital scales and training employees in its in-store restaurants to weigh and track food waste–so that they could then adjust how much food they made–the company saw a return on investment in 23 weeks. The company, which aims to cut food waste in its restaurants in half by 2020, has saved roughly 3 million meals so far.
Overall, restaurants in the study cut food waste by an average of 26% in a year, and 58% over three years. That’s in line with the UN goal to halve food waste. Of course, restaurants are only part of the problem; in the U.S., consumers throw out far more food at home, with the average American tossing 400 pounds of food each year (a typical household wastes $1,800 in the process). But restaurants, as businesses, may recognize the financial incentive more quickly. Each piece of the food industry, from farms to cafeterias and consumers, will also need to change to begin to address the fact that around 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions–far more than the emissions from the airline industry or any country other than the U.S. or China–comes from growing, shipping, and storing food that we ultimately don’t eat.