How technology is helping the hospitality sector address food waste



Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, explains why food waste remains a major challenge for the UK’s hospitality sector and how state-of-the-art technology could offer a future-proof solution.

Every year, the hospitality sector contributes upwards of £93 billion directly to the UK economy, and a further £121 billion indirectly. With a total combined staff force of more than 3.5 million, it’s the nation’s third-largest employer (after retail and social work), with 1 in 20 Brits aged 16 and over (7% of employed adults) working within the hospitality environment.

The sector is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 5.9% – almost double the rate of the wider UK economy – and demand for staff is increasing 17% year-on-year on average. In 2019, the sector was responsible for 3% of all national business investment, with growth and development considered a key long-term priority. All in all, it’s safe to say that the industry is pivotal to economic success and remains a key contributor to the UK’s financial performance.

Philip Simpson, ReFood
Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood.

However, while the statistics paint a perfectly charming picture of resilience, robustness and acceleration, hospitality businesses have endured a bruising few years. Covid-19 effectively brought many venues to their knees and the long road to recovery remains far from plain sailing.

Indeed, footfall may be up tenfold compared to the dark days of 2020’s national lockdowns and the infamous “Eat Out to Help Out” initiative, but total covers remain subdued for most venues. Add to this escalating food costs, volatile energy prices, a widely publicised staffing crisis, rent increases and continued supply chain disruption, and the seemingly serene swan is shown to be paddling frantically below the surface.

As a result, data from the Hospitality Market Monitor reveals that almost 23,000 hospitality firms have closed their doors permanently within the past three years, 6,000 of which in 2023 alone. What’s more, with cash reserves being called up to pay bills and wages, investment is at an all-time low. The sector is struggling and – with 99% of the market made up of SMEs – there’s little chance for corporate bail-outs.

With alarm bells ringing for many venues, discussing waste management may therefore seem in poor taste. However, amid the immediate priorities of tightly managing overheads, planning for change, expecting the unexpected and avoiding unnecessary costs wherever possible, it’s important to note that embracing a sustainable approach can deliver widespread financial and environmental benefits.

Is food waste really such a big issue?


While historically overlooked as “part and parcel” of the job, one of the highest costs faced by hospitality businesses is food waste. 2021 figures from WRAP showed that food waste cost the hospitality and food service sector around 1.08Mt per year and the majority, 800,000 tonnes, could have been eaten. 

But it’s not just the financial cost of food waste that makes for concerning reading. The environmental impact is just as alarming. After all, food waste left to rot in landfill creates greenhouse gases considered 21 times more damaging to the environment than CO2 – yet another challenge for a sector bound by sustainability and decarbonisation targets.

It must be said, however, that waste is nothing new to the hospitality sector and there are numerous ways to tackle the issue head-on. From improving stock control and using leftovers to simplifying menu choices, forgoing garnishes and streamlining portion sizes, a few simple changes can have a significant commercial impact without damaging the dining experience.

Harnessing tech advances to minimise avoidable food waste

food waste

The most forward-thinking hospitality firms are now readily embracing next-generation technology to accelerate waste reduction and improve cost efficiency through process automation. The most exciting of these include solutions to leverage big data and AI to tackle previously complex operations.

Tenzo, for example, is a management and forecasting app that collates weather data, growth trends and all of a restaurant’s past data to generate footfall projections that are 50% more accurate than using traditional methods. More accuracy means less waste.

Winnow is another company that demonstrates the power of data. A weighing scale and AI camera equipped with computer vision algorithms record the weight and the type of food as it is thrown into the bin.

The most forward-thinking hospitality firms are now readily embracing next-generation technology.

The staff member then selects an option from a touchscreen on the wall above to indicate the reason for the waste (for example, a kitchen error or a customer complaint). The result is data that, if used well, can cut food waste in half.

Automated inventory management systems, like Choco, are another great example, providing a cost-effective way to tackle food loss and waste through more accurate demand forecasting and real-time stock level monitoring.

Elsewhere, self-ordering technology can help restaurants avoid mistakes that lead to wasted food, while redistribution apps (like Too Good To Go) provide a mechanism for consumers to buy leftover food at discount prices.

What about the unavoidable fraction?

food waste

While tech-based solutions can help to tackle food waste in the supply chain, there will always be a small percentage of unavoidable waste. Rather than relying on landfill disposal, we need to think hard about the best possible solution for unavoidable waste products – both from an environmental and financial perspective.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution – food waste recycling. Delivered on an industrial scale, food waste recycling harnesses the anaerobic digestion (AD) process to capture the biogas released during the natural degradation of food. This gas can either be combusted to generate renewable electricity or upgraded and injected directly into the gas grid. 

Nothing goes to waste during the process. Even the resulting digestate can be used as a sustainable liquid biofertiliser by farmers. All in all, a highly sustainable option for hospitality businesses to consider.

A future-proof solution?


The environmental benefits of food waste recycling are clear, but what about the financial impact? Surely “going green” is expensive and time-consuming? Well, with no costly landfill tax to pay, hospitality businesses can expect to save c.50% on waste management costs by implementing food waste recycling services. What’s more, the whole process is quick and simple to integrate – it’s a win-win situation.

So, with overheads pinching and improving sustainability credentials an essential consideration, I’d implore any hospitality business that isn’t already doing so to consider recycling their food waste – the benefits are countless. It’s greener, safer and, most importantly, cheaper!

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