Food waste in restaurants: out of home, out of mind?

This blog was originally written by Brook Lyndhurst for The Guardian Sustainable Business portal. It can be found in its original location here:

potato chip on fork

In a recent survey most people identified chips as the food they left uneaten and many saw salad garnishes as purely ornamental Photograph: Alamy

Q. How many people leave food at the end of a ‘meal out’?
A. 27%

Research (pdf) we did for WRAP last year revealed that more than a quarter of respondents left food the last time they ate out. When asked generally about whether they were concerned about leaving food, close to three fifths said they were not concerned.

UK pubs, restaurants, take-aways and hotels generate 600,000 tonnes of food waste. While some of this is made up of things like peelings and bones, the majority is perfectly good food – and it’s estimated that a third (pdf) of it comes from diners.

Avoidable out of home food waste costs more than £720m a year. Combined with the 4.2m tonnes of household food and drink thrown away annually – the equivalent of six meals every week for the average UK household – at a cost of £12.5bn (pdf), the financial cost of food waste is substantial. The environmental impact is significant too – the lack of oxygen in landfill causes food to break down anaerobically producing methane a greenhouse gas considerably more potent than CO2.

Efforts to influence people’s eating-out behaviour need to be carefully composed, to reflect our complex relationships with food. Many people eat out of the home as a treat, and don’t want to feel guilty about what they’re eating or leaving. Some 59% of people surveyed agreed with the statement ‘I don’t want to have to think about leaving food when I eat out’. So providing information in restaurants and pubs about food waste is unlikely to be effective or appealing.

Q. Which food do you think is most often left uneaten?
A. Chips

Of the 27% who claimed to leave food, 32% said they left chips. Food considered as plate fillers like chips, vegetables, and salad are most likely to remain uneaten. Some also thought of salad garnishes as ornamental, rather than something to eat.

Food waste graph

Most commonly left food items when eating ‘out of home’. Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP (2013) Photograph:

Q. What is the main reason people leave food when eating out?
A. 41% said portions are too big.

This was the most popular reason for leaving food. However, the reason for leaving food is more complex with a mix of habits, values and social norms all at play:

• If eating more than one course, people will often leave part of their main dish and accompanying sides so they can eat a starter or pudding.
• People who said that they were eating out for the experience as opposed to “refueling” were more likely to leave food.
• There is also the possibility that some people just value food less than others. Those who left food when eating out were also more likely to leave food cooked at home.
• Who we eat meals with also has an influence. Nearly a quarter of respondents agreed with the statement: “When eating out, how much I eat depends on who I’m with” and some participants spoke of not wanting to appear greedy.

Working towards clean plates

What can be done to make sure customers remain satisfied, but less food ends up being wasted? Action is well underway in the food and hospitality sector, with dozens of organisations signed up to WRAP’s voluntary agreement to reduce waste. Last year Unilever also launched an app facilitating food businesses to look at food waste generation. By identifying what kinds of food are being wasted, and why, businesses can adapt their processes.

Greater menu flexibility may also help to tackle those wasted chips and vegetables. Making it evident that requests for food customisation are encouraged (eg swapping chips for mashed potato, or salad for vegetables) ensures customers are less likely to receive items they won’t finish.

Offering different portions sizes is another option, as some businesses already do by providing light or starter sized versions of main courses. Customers naturally expect to pay less, 83% liked the idea of a cheaper, smaller menu option.

What about the good old doggy bag? Well, though 42% of people agreed with the statement ‘asking for a container to take leftovers home is embarrassing’, there was still enthusiasm for venues to proactively offer doggy bags for taking away leftover food. 74% of respondents were in favour of being offered doggy bags, and the Sustainable Restaurant Association has championed this option as part of their Too Good to Waste campaign.

By addressing the provision and communication of different portion sizes, both technically with industry and behaviourally with staff and customers, we can achieve cleaner plates at the end of a meal out.


  1. Posted September 23, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Even if you didn’t do the meal yourself at home, you still paid even more than you could have, if you prepared it alone. Plus, the majority of restaurants just takes everything outside in the trash. The food that is wasted in UK and US alone yearly could be more than enough to feed all the malnutritioned people from Third world countries. What you could do is know approximately how much you need in order to fit it all in your stomach and don’t be afraid to ask the waiting staff to put the leftovers in a box for later.

  2. Posted October 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The cost for the removal of the food waste is paid by the restaurant. Any private enterprise is legally responsible to pay for waste removal. The restaurants have 2 choices. Put all the waste in a general waste bin or rent a separate food waste.The likes of Biffa or Veolia absolutely hate food waste being put in a general waste bin because it’s heavy (and remember they pay landfill tax by the tonne) AND it contaminates everything else in the bin. A lot of which is usually recyclable and therefore avoids landfill tax (if not contaminated with food). In light of this most wheelie bin firms are imposing weight limits (especially on food establishments, usually under 66kgs is the limit for an 1100ltr wheelie). If the limit is breached then they will refuse to empty the bin until a surcharge is paid. And waste removal is already a considerable cost to most businesses. As we move forward it will become economically unwise for businesses to put food waste in the general waste bins and will instead have to use food waste only bins. This will allow the waste companies to dispose of the food in a better way, composting or waste to energy.

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