A Data-Driven Approach for Reducing Food Waste, Part 2 – in Your Restaurant


Last week I talked about a –driven approach to reducing food waste at home. I’m still in the process of collecting data to see if changing the plate and bowl size helps us reduce our food at home. Even though I’m a data geek, due to time constraints I won’t be weighing our household waste before putting it in the garbage bin.

This week I want to talk about ways we can use data to reduce food waste when we eat out in restaurants, waste that is otherwise known as “post-consumer waste.” Even as I’m writing this entry I’m thinking about how I didn’t finish all of my vegetables recently while eating out during a business lunch. I thought the vegetables had a copious quantity of sugar in them so I tossed them without a lot of thought. I was talking to a business associate and so my uneaten vegetables met their fate in the trashcan like the other 25 million tons of post-consumer waste does each year in the U.S.

The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in the U.S. in theory helped lower the liability restaurants have when they donate food. However, the food we throw away when we enjoy a restaurant meal often cannot be donated because local health regulations trump federal regulations. And as one food-safety lawyer pointed out a position I hadn’t previously considered in a 2013 Los Angeles Times article, “Just because people are poor, they shouldn’t be subjected to food that no one else would eat.” However, third-party food rescue non-profit groups such as the Food Donation Connection in Tennessee can be started to ensure the leftover food is safe before donating it.

But since we can’t necessarily control what restaurants are or are not doing, we need to make sure we are taking home any uneaten food and eating it all ourselves. When we take it to go, we’re doing our part to reduce food waste from the consumer standpoint. That’s the story we’ve been told, Laura, but is there any data to back that up? After all, you yourself claim to be an informed data skeptic.

Starting March 2014, 11 restaurants in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland participated in an 8-week formal food waste reduction pilot program calledGoodtoGo “Good to Go.” The main objective of the pilot was to identify whether the availability of a formal branded and promoted take-home container scheme would encourage diners to take uneaten food home. It also sought to measure the amount of waste that could be diverted from landfills by identifying the extent to which the food taken home was actually consumed.

Over 1,400 containers were given to consumers during the pilot program and 520 pounds (240 kg) of food was taken home. An estimated 92% of this food was consumed once taken out of the restaurant. Nine restaurants saw a reduction in their plate waste, with the average percent reduction being 41.8% across all 11 restaurants.  About half of the restaurants in the pilot saw a ‘substantial’ uptake in take-home containers, though it’s unclear how much ‘substantial’ is. This Good to Go program is a great beginning to quantify outcomes of a formal ‘doggie-bag’ style food waste intervention.

In addition to taking home and eating our restaurant leftovers, we could also encourage our local restaurants to sell half portions of food if their serving size is too big at the same price as full-sized portions. An Austin-based nonprofit organization named Halfsies started in 2012 to do just that. The model encouraged restaurant to donate profits from the sale price of half-sized portions hunger alleviation charities. I’d love learn more about this post-consumer food waste model. Perhaps it’s another approach to reducing the food we eat out.

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