Zero Waste in the Food Service Industry

I have been a professional cook for over 10 years now, and I am making an effort to reduce my waste as much as possible when working. I think the food industry is one of the most important areas to try and change as far as waste is concerned.

There are many reasons that a professional kitchen can’t be completely zero waste, such as all the health and safety laws that need to be followed at all times, and the way in which products are packaged and delivered. Until companies start changing their packaging, there’s no way to tell when something is going to come double or triple wrapped in some sort of plastic. There’s nothing quite like buying a box of boxes of bags and the whole thing is wrapped in plastic shrink wrap.

Here are some of the ways that I try to reduce the waste I produce while cooking professionally:

  1. Use as little plastic wrap and bags as possible. 
    I try to identify the areas is which plastic wrap can be cut down. Maybe we don’t need 3 long sheets to cover the entire thing. Maybe one can work well enough. If something gets bowled up very close to the meal, I don’t even bother wrapping it at all. There’s no point wrapping something only to rip it off and throw it out 15 minutes later. I also try to use as little inches as possible. I want to use exactly what I need to get the job done, and never have excess waste.

    Sadly, it’s impossible for us to reuse plastic bags, and when there’s no other way to cover full sheet pans of food, It’s just what has to be done. In some places, they might use a disposable plastic piping bag to fill a squeeze bottle of sauce. I would always use a funnel that can be reused. No matter how long it took, or how much harder it was than using the plastic, I would not let myself produce that waste. Whenever possible, I do try to find a better way, but bags and plastic wrap are probably the hardest thing to replace in a commercial kitchen.

  2. Reuse plastic buckets and containers
    Not something that I personally have had to work at doing, because thankfully where I work currently, we have always done this. Whenever a container is emptied, it gets put through the dishwasher and stacked up on a shelf, ready to store leftovers.
  3. Reduce single-use plastics
    I hate plastic cutlery. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I know there are many kitchens where cooks use plastic spoons to taste their dishes and throw it away immediately. Whenever I have found myself in that situation, I tried to remember to go grab a metal spoon and then just take it to the dishpit afterwards. It always felt like the biggest waste of plastic to me. If you have to have disposable cutlery, I encourage all restaurants out there to at least buy something that won’t harm the earth. There’s many different options out there, whether it’s compostable plastics, paper, or bamboo.
  4. Use reusable cloths and towels
    There are many places that use disposable cloths to clean, and I honestly cannot understand why. You are literally throwing away money and resources, and increasing waste exponentially. Either do your own laundry, or only have cloths supplied from your linen company. Don’t just buy cloths to be thrown away immediately.
  5. Utilize leftovers
    Not a revolutionary idea, but I think it still has to be included. Always try to reuse the food what can be safely reused. I love finding a new way to turn leftovers into something wonderful. I do it at home, and I will happily do it at work when possible. Some things don’t work to be reused, there are many ingredients out there that can be reused in multiple ways, and often people will never know that it’s leftover.
  6. Challenge others
    Sometimes I will ask why someone is using plastic wrap on certain items, or challenge the way things have always been done. This often makes me seem annoying and rude, but I am not sure I care anymore. Obviously I don’t want people to be upset at me, but if someone doesn’t feel passionately about change and improving the way things are done, where will the world be?

There’s so many things that I end up doing differently because I have the mindset of trying to reduce waste and try to do my part in correcting the global warming problem that faces us all.

Even when there are slightly faster and easier ways to do something, I am forcing myself to change, and do things in a way that produces little to no waste at all, and let me tell you that it has been a difficult transition. I never used to think like this, and I have been in food service for over 10 years. It’s not easy to change what you are used to, and what you have learned over the years, but sometimes it has to be done. Change is a good thing, whether it’s just a menu change, a different way of dealing with product, or trying to reduce waste in your own environment.

I am always eager to learn new ways of trying to make my work life as zero waste as possible. Trying to have this mindset while working in a food service environment that has to abide by specific laws and regulations and also maintain quality AND do it in an efficient way has been incredibly difficult, and it is also really hard to get others on board.

Changing the world is not an easy task, and most people don’t care enough to try, especially since it involves a little more thought and effort. It’s one of the battles that I often fight alone, doing what I can and changing my own personal style of working, eagerly awaiting the day when others join me in caring enough to reduce waste in our industry.

Check out my wife’s blog about reducing waste in an office environment.

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