How to Reduce Food Waste in the Events Industry
The events industry is experiencing a reckoning with its carbon footprint. On average, an event wastes a fifth of all its food. More and more businesses are looking for ways to reduce their food waste and cut down on costs on everything from conferences and meetings to staff parties and corporate lunches. Here’s how they’re doing it.
Research has shown that the food and drink emissions from a 100-person event are equivalent to driving up to 2,929 miles in a petrol-powered car, or charging 140,000 smartphones to full battery. The recently published report from the Net Zero Carbon Events initiative breaks down five key action areas for the events industry, with food waste appearing as one of the top five alongside the sustainability of events’ energy, production, logistics and, of course, travel.
Tackling food waste is a crucial step to reaching Net Zero by 2050, but it can be hard to know where to start. We’ll tell you exactly what you can do to make a difference.
Whether we’re putting on a 1,000-person summit or a small team outing, we all know that catering is a much-loved part of any gathering. Let’s take a closer look at how we can reduce its climate impact.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Why your food choices matter
- How to reduce the climate impact of food at an event
- Key takeaways
- What you should be asking caterers and venues
- Venues that are making a difference
Why your food choices should be on your sustainability agenda
There’s been a lot in the media about the environmental benefit of choosing low-meat alternatives but this isn’t the only way your catering decisions can impact the planet and your business.
High carbon food
Food production contributes to a staggering 37% of global greenhouse emissions, releasing 17.3 metric tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere per year. To put that into perspective, the carbon output of food production is nearly 19 times than that of the commercial aviation industry.
When it comes to sustainability, not all food is made equally. It may not surprise you to hear that animal-based foods produce roughly twice the emissions of plant-based ones. Even within this binary, there are nuances. Rice, for example, has the highest plant-associated emission rate, whilst beef production proves the biggest contributor to animal-associated emissions.
‘Rice, for example, has the highest plan-associated emission rate, whilst beef production proves the biggest contributor to animal-associated emissions.’
Planes, trains and automobiles
Understanding how your event’s overall environmental impact means taking the supply chain into account. Much to our despair, food does not simply appear on the plate.
Transporting food within, to and around the UK produces 19 million tonnes of CO2 annually – equivalent to 5.5 million cars choking up the country’s roads and motorways. From farm, processing plant, wholesaler to kitchen, each step that your event’s food has to go through comes at an environmental cost.
While distance is one factor, mode of transport is another. Flying in food typically creates around 10 times more carbon emissions than transporting it the same distance by road and around 50 times more than shipping.
Bad for budget
From ESG policies to yearly budgets, food waste affects more than just one aspect of a business.
From a purely financial standpoint, food waste is a budget loss. According to a report by food charity WRAP, the UK hospitality industry spends roughly £2.4 billion a year on food waste.
Those untouched breakfast pastries and sandwiches not only end up in landfills and contribute to greater emissions, but they also contribute to wasted funds that could have been funnelled into other resources.
From the big picture to the day-to-day details: there are some easy steps you can take while planning, running and after an event to minimise its carbon impact.
How to reduce the climate impact of food at events
Reducing and, ultimately, eliminating food waste at all the events you book can seem like a daunting task.
Here are a few simple actions you can take.
1. Stay local and plan ahead
Choosing local suppliers and setting a radius limit for food transportation can bring a significant reduction in emissions, and on a grander scale builds a rapport between you, your business and the local community. The suppliers who’re most in touch with the local area can also be good sources of knowledge, with their fingers on the pulse of what’s grown and raised in season in that region.
Understanding the amount of food you’ll be needing is a great way to get ahead of any potential wastage. Where possible, ask guests to RSVP and choose their meals ahead of time. They are more likely to let you know whether they’re attending so you can better cater for the right numbers.
Remember to take into account last-minute drop-out figures when thinking about numbers. Roughly 10% of guests won’t turn up on the day for business events and up to 20% for social gatherings. You’ll probably need less food than you think.
2. Choose low-carbon food
Knowing which ingredients come with a larger carbon footprint can help you to work proactively with venues and caterers, leading to a menu that puts responsibility at the heart of its dishes.
It probably comes as no surprise that switching to predominantly vegetarian or vegan menu options works to reduce emissions by up to 73%. Transitioning to as many meat-free options as possible and cutting out dairy is a priority. Don’t forget, oat milk goes with coffee just fine, thank you very much.
Transitioning to plant-based meals isn't as complex as some presume, and while preparing them at the events, you will have to ensure that the meals are well-balanced and wholesome. If you find yourself struggling with what to serve, you might be surprised at the array of options available from vegetarian meals delivered services. Not only are these meals eco-friendly, they also provide a variety of nutritious and hearty options.
Seasonality is also a key aspect to consider. Building event menus around ingredients which are in season is going to reduce the travel distance of produce. It’s also a great way to bolster your locally sourced ingredients – seasonal and local go hand in hand when it comes to suppliers.
Choice is great but is also a sure-fit way to increase the risk of carbon output and food waste. Having multiple menus requires more ingredients, which leads to a higher risk of extended supply chains and more ingredients going to waste. Plus, all the best restaurants have limited menus anyway.
3. Redistribute leftover food
While there are precautionary steps that can be taken, leftover food will still be a part of many events, at least for now. With events ending with surplus meals, food-sharing apps like OLIO provide a solution and help ensure that no food goes to waste.
A HeadBox partner, OLIO works by connecting businesses and individuals who have surplus food with those who want and need it.
The B Corp-certified and carbon-negative company offers a free and easy-to-use app that collects surplus food from businesses, events, offices, schools and hospitality. Those in need of food - from individuals to food banks and shelters are then able to find what’s on offer near them, saving it from going to waste. Currently, they’re operating with an average pickup time of 28 minutes in London so it’s easy to see what you’ve got left over once your event has finished and give it away at that point.
While these are valuable rules of thumb that you can use in conversation with a venue or caterer, you don’t need to be an expert. Choosing a venue or catering partner where the staff are already clued up will save you a lot of time. Keep reading for some questions you can ask to help you find a supplier that will make your life easier.
What should you be asking caterers and venues?
1) Do you source your food locally?
2) Are your menus seasonal?
3) Do you have a redistribution model or a donation program in place for leftover food?
4) Do you have composting facilities onsite?
Do you source your food locally?
The further food has to travel, the greater the emissions and negative impact on the environment. Sourcing local food not only results in fewer food miles but it supports the local economy.
Are your menus seasonal?
Choosing seasonal ingredients means fresher and tastier produce that hasn’t had to be hothoused to grow out of season. It’s cheaper to produce and cheaper to purchase – a win on all sides.
Do you have a redistribution model or a donation programme in place for leftover food?
Using a food-sharing service to redistribute leftover catering means that food that’s already been produced doesn’t have to go to waste.
Do you have composting facilities onsite?
Composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions from landfill and helps to close the loop, providing compost for the next generation of food to be grown in.
We work with a number of venues that have already proven their commitment to caring about reducing food waste. Next time you’re planning an event, keep these in mind.
The Roof Terrace, Ham Yard Hotel – Head to Ham Yard Hotel’s leafy Roof Terrace for top London views, and dishes and cocktails prepared with produce from their very own fruit, veg and herb garden and beehive. It’s available for private hire and hosts up to 100 guests.
BMA House – The historic Grade II listed building has an on-site garden to grow herbs for each of their dishes. Beyond that, the venue champions food sustainability – prioritising local suppliers, food redistribution (via food banks), plant-based and seasonal menu options and sustainable wines.
Silo London – From furniture to production and transportation, Silo is a zero-waste restaurant committed to closing the loop, proving that great meals don’t have to cost the earth. It’s also available for private hire.