Food Waste in Restaurants: a Global Problem

Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Growing up in the family restaurant business and working with environmental management for restaurants in both Rio and Monterey, California, I’ve observed the absurd amount of food that is thrown away every day in this industry. Some estimates attribute a statistically significant share of total global food waste to restaurants.

Alfonso Stefanini

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

According to Carlo Petrini, from Slow Food International, about forty percent of the total daily global production of food is thrown away. Some estimates are as high as fifty percent and the majority of the food waste is linked to the perverse subsidies in the global food commodity matrix.

There is no doubt that there is waste in the general global food system when we consider that more calories are spend in food production (such as with transportation) than the actual calories our bodies absorb from such food items.

In Brazil, like in the U.S., there are strict laws preventing restaurants from giving away food to poor families or homeless shelters. There are also sanitary obstacles preventing restaurants from properly separating organic residues for making compost.

Cultural biases about recycling organic matter and a lack of education are two big factors preventing people from bio-composting. While there are challenges in the utilization of leftover food, there can be economic gains for those working in this field.

While attending the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, I got a chance to meet business entrepreneur Álvaro Oliveira from VideVerde, a company that specializes in composting. Oliveira collected approximately fifteen metric tons of leftover organic residues from all the concession stands selling food at the summit.

According to Oliveira one-tenth of the organic residue collected can be made into healthy composting material. Their composting facility is within city limits and takes advantage of the food discarded by companies and organized events such as Rio+20.

VideVerde asserts that one of the biggest obstacles in managing the discarded food is education. Workers and restaurant owners know very little about the proper handling and destination of organics leftovers. For example, separated organic residues need to be independent of non-food residues, such as plastics.

Proper storage can also be problematic in on-site operations, such as restaurants, but VideVerde has incorporated a specialized type container or “bombona” with the labeling “organic residues” in their collection that insures that workers know where to put the organic matter.

Residues can be left without removal for up to five days in these sealed bombonas. Moreover, VideVerde provides classes and seminars to ensure workers are handling food properly. The company insures that workers and the restaurant owners visit their bio-composting facility to visualize the end product: healthy compost.

Pedro Alberto Protasio, Environmental Consultant for R3ZIS and owner of Apoena Ambiental in Rio, attributes about 300 grams of lost food per client in restaurants and estimates that between 27-47% of all residues produced by a restaurant are organic in nature.

Restaurants can reduce costs associated with garbage collection when they minimize the amount of waste they produce. With the separation of organic matter and recyclables there can be an estimated saving of ten to ninety percent in garbage collection according to Protasio. Not to mention that in plastic garbage bags alone a restaurant can save up to R$200 BRL or about US$90 per month.

I’ve seen this first-hand working in the environmental management of restaurants in Rio. Medium size to large size restaurants can produce between 200 and 1,000 kilos of residues per day. Some restaurants like sushi bars produce an incredibly rich source of organic matter that could even be used for making animal feed for dogs and cats.

It is not on the garbage companies benefit for restaurants to recycle or reduced their garbage production because they essentially loose money on collection at the end of the day. If you take out the organic residues and recyclables they are only left with contaminated matter that typically goes in the landfill. I believe this is a very delicate topic for people working with organic residue and recyclables in Rio and in the world.

We have to create programs where restaurants, residences, and industries recycle their organic waste and bring it to composting centers and agricultural areas inside and outside of the city despite the garbage industry power.

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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com

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