Can reducing food waste help to cool the planet?

This recent article about food waste in the United States, and the energy it represents, offers reminder that this is an area worthy of focus for event professionals and their suppliers. Indeed, a recent session at the MPI WEC conference offered practical actions to reduce carbon emissions related to events.

Reducing food waste is by no means a new concept. Yet, many industry professionals who have interest in saving money while reducing the environmental impact of their events employ only a minimum of tactics to reduce food waste.

Every event is different and it’s difficult to identify a single list which applies to all. Still, we try. Here’s a hardly-exhaustive list of tactics planners might consider when creating an event which offers food and beverage:

The supplier: Caterer success has much to do with how effectively they eliminate waste. Established processes and team trainings can help. Effective purchasing and storage and rotation can all reduce food spoilage or breakage. Menu design, as well, can influence rates of waste. There are some software solutions that have proven helpful in some cases, such as LeanPath. Planners should ask prospective suppliers about their practices and how their practices can support the no waste agenda.

The venue: The type of venue selected may influence how effective is the support for food waste reduction. Hotels, because they serve many meals in many different outlets, can often re-allocate safe, un-served food completely. Ask. If the supplier advises that no waste is experienced, then this should inform the negotiation for how they’ll charge if the planner doesn’t meet the guaranteed number (savings opportunity). Exhibition halls often have no food and beverage service of their own and contract with local providers. They may have suggestions for who can perform best to help reduce food waste, so planners should ask.

The counts: Old news, perhaps but still a challenge. Many hotel venues require planners to commit to a number 72 hours in advance and then charge the planner that minimum, even if fewer people attend (see ‘venue’ above for the disconnect) Large events have benefitted from requiring delegates to indicate meals they’ll attend during the online registration process.

Donations: For the recent EWEC 2010 conference in Warsaw, planners worked hard to successfully overcome the barriers to donate food to the regional Food Bank. Concerns about food safety were mitigated with written agreements between parties and participation from Food Bank representatives whose equipment and on-site presence allowed them to immediately collect safe food product for same day distribution. Their efforts resulted in 2,900 meals being donated to a ready infrastructure in need, rather than discarding them as waste. Note: the Iceland volcano eruption caused attendance reductions and food count challenges the first few days of the conference, making the Food Bank initiative especially important in this case

Type of service: plated meals are more labor intensive and more costly but can mean less waste under most circumstances. Effectively monitored buffets can control waste but, in most cases, everything left on the table gets discarded. Bold suggestion: invite staff, volunteers and even visitors to grab a plate before the catering team clears the room. Box lunches are normally a big waste but sealed beverages, whole fruit and packaged snacks can all be re-used if not consumed, but only if they’re not left in a heap on top of the tables. Consider placing a separate receptacle for such re-usable items at the service location.

For planners that are looking for specific actions and practical steps to improve sustainable event performance, can the above actions be a place to start? Who knows? You might just help cool the planet.

What examples have you seen be effective? What are some solutions for different kinds of events?

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the post Michael. Lots of great ideas for source reduction. For those still throwing their food away I thought I’d share an tool created by the USEPA that helps facilities measure the carbon benefits of alternate forms of waste disposal and source reduction: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/waste/calculators/Warm_home.html

    Putting out a plea facilities will start using it (or haulers that use it) on behalf of every meeting planner who wants to measure the environmental benefits of less waste!!

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