Less is more – How food re-use and zero waste help cut waste in the catering industry

Less is more – How food re-use and zero waste help cut waste in the catering industry

The catering industry generates 1.9 million tonnes of food waste a year. Waste from overproduction offers one of the greatest potential sources for savings. That’s where trends like “Zero Waste” and “Food Re-use” take their cue, and show how waste reduction can work.

A woman recycles organic kitchen waste in a green container.
Eight years ago, the United Nations adopted its 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Under Goal 12, “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, item 12.3 aims to cut global per-capita food waste in half by 2030.1 Germany has committed to achieve that goal with its National Strategy for Reducing Food Waste. In 2020, the year’s total food waste in Germany came to some 11 million tonnes, 17 percent of that in the catering industry.2 Most of this waste in hospitality and institutional catering at company canteens, schools, kindergartens, or restaurants arose in storage, in production, from overproduction, and from orders rejected by customers. This is where waste reduction solutions like the “Zero Waste”3 and “Food Re-use”4 trends can step in.

Measuring waste provides transparency and enables comparisons 
In 2019, to achieve SDG 12.3, several of the world’s largest food retailers and providers committed to the 10 x 20 x 30 Initiative, based on the key figures from the SDG. The roster includes the Ingka Group, the largest IKEA retailer. At the end of 2022, food waste at the restaurants at 32 IKEA markets had already been cut 54 percent, and thus more than halved.5
Steve Finn, Vice President of Sustainability and Public Affairs bei Leanpath, Steve Finn, Vice President of Sustainability and Public Affairs at Leanpath, Copyright: Steve Finn

One key player here was Leanpath, a B Corporation dedicated to using digital tracking tools to measure and prevent food waste. Leanpath Vice President Steve Finn explains: “Our tools gather a wealth of information about every food waste transaction. The information ranges from the kind of food wasted, its weight and cost, and the reason for waste (like overproduction, spoilage), to the form of disposal (like donation, composting, landfill) and the associated environmental impact figures.” That measurement is used to detect problem areas and develop focussed solutions. Of course it’s also useful in assessing and reporting progress. Plus, the measurement method includes all the kitchen staff, so that each individual has to confront the challenge of food waste, and can base their actions on a zero-waste approach.




Focussing on a holistic approach

Another actor in the fight against food waste is a non-profit initiative called United Against Waste e.V. It has been conducting comprehensive analyses of food waste in the catering industry since 2013, taking a holistic approach. “Measurements won’t bring long-term change by themselves,” says the organisation’s latest interim summary.6 That’s why every business should use waste measurements to develop specific, practical steps that they then consistently apply. But since the catering market is very complex – every business has different kitchen procedures, work sequences, guest structures, recipes – the potential for food waste savings can vary widely, and must be considered case-by-case. United Against Waste assists with consulting. Its 2020 interim status report also shows that waste from overproduction offers the greatest potential for savings. The crux here lies in the kitchen operators’ attitude. “Much too often, businesses accept a high level of waste as a safeguard against food shortage. That mindset reflects a deeper problem: by and large, food isn’t properly valued in the world,” Steven Finn adds.

Creative kitchen concepts: The Food Re-use trend

The approach they take at the HAPPA restaurant in Berlin is something completely different. This organic restaurant is a showcase project for preparation that appreciates the value of food. Its cooking, aligned with  growing seasons and the region, focuses on an appreciative, holistic processing of foodstuffs. Co-founder Sophia Hoffmann has made a name for herself as a cook, author and restaurateur, and has been advocating for climate protection, sustainability and feminism for years. Since her restaurant opened, its collaboration with Querfeld has already saved 2,500 kilos of food from the waste bin. She’s completely sold on the concept of this organic supplier, who rescues non-standard organic foods and sells them to restaurants: “We have to get away from the gigantic amounts of waste caused by the expectation of having too much of everything always available. A lot of businesses still follow the principle of ‘as much as possible for as little money as possible’ – and that’s not ecologically viable.” This is where the Food Re-Use concept sets in, revealing the potential of food leftovers. Menu planning at HAPPA is designed so that vegetable leaves are incorporated into its recipes. The restaurant ferments its own products from watermelon rinds and makes seasoning pastes from vegetable parings. “We’re a very small concept, but we think a lot of our components can work as best practices for bigger operations,” Hoffmann says. “Greater flexibility in menu planning, and the courage to let a menu item run out occasionally – those are factors that I’ve repeatedly found to be the biggest lever in my consulting jobs for big companies.”


Rethinking how to deal with food

The catering market is thought to have great potential for preventing food waste. Success stories show that food waste can be reduced 50 percent. But advancing the catering industry’s reduction of annual food waste will call for not just practically feasible measures and support from the political side, but also a change in attitudes. Rethinking in the direction of a greater appreciation for food as a precious resource can be the key to achieving SDG 12.3 by 2030.

Portrait Sophia Hoffmann Cook, author and restaurateur Sophia Hoffmann © Annabell Sievert-Erlinghagen

3 questions for … 
Sophia Hoffmann
Organic and vegan cook, author and restaurateur

“We need to ease people’s fear of contact with organic products, and challenge narratives that treat them as elitist and negative.”

 Sources and footnotes 

1 Engagement Global (n.d.). Ziel 12: Nachhaltige Konsum- und Produktionsmuster sicherstellen. https://17ziele.de/ziele/12.html  

2 Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. (2023, 21 June). Lebensmittelabfälle in Deutschland: Aktuelle Zahlen zur Höhe der Lebensmittelabfälle nach Sektoren. 

3 “Zero Waste” in the food industry means conserving resources through responsible production, aware consumption, re-use, and minimal packaging. Source: Zukunftsinstitut (n.d.). Zero Waste: Zukunft ohne Müll. www.zukunftsinstitut.de/artikel/umwelt/zero-waste-zukunft-ohne-muell/

4 “Food Re-use” means making creative use of surplus food and leftover ingredients in thrifty cuisine. The trend stands for working carefully with food and avoiding waste. Source: Zukunftsinstitut (n.d.). Wie wir morgen essen werden. www.zukunftsinstitut.de/artikel/wie-wir-morgen-essen-werden/ 

5 Rützler, H. (2023). Food Report 2024. 

6 Borstel, T., Prenzel, G., & Welte, B. (2020, September). Food Waste 4.0. United Against Waste e.V.www.united-against-waste.de/downloads/united-against-waste-zwischenbilanz-2020-kompakt.pdf 


Sofia Macarro

Sofia Macarro

PR Consultant | modem conclusa gmbh