Your organization can start taking a bite out of office food waste

There’s an international problem that is costing close to $1 trillion in economic losses and contributing an estimated 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If you look in your kitchen garbage bin, you’re seeing a part of it. It’s the loss and waste, from farm to plate, of one-third of all food intended for people. In a world where more than 800 million people go hungry, that’s not just a problem. It’s a travesty.

Yet food loss and waste is something that everyone, and every organization, can do something to solve. Even offices can play a role.

I am a member of Champions 12.3, a coalition of executives dedicated to achieving Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals — the target that calls for halving the rate of food loss and waste by 2030. To walk the proverbial talk, my own organization started taking steps to help make that aspiration a reality. In just one year, we reduced our office food waste by 75 percent, demonstrating that a dedicated effort pays off. Our example also shows that getting started doesn’t have to be complicated.

First, we set a target. Targets set ambition, and ambition motivates action. To keep things simple and align with global ambition, we adopted Target 12.3 and aimed to cut our office’s food waste by half. 

Second, we measured. The adage "what gets measured gets managed" applies to food loss and waste. Using approaches consistent with the Food Loss & Waste Protocol, we established our base-year levels of food waste at our global office in Washington, D.C., where more than 400 World Resources Institute employees work. In July 2017, a small team of staff volunteered to sort through the trash to figure out how much and what kind of waste we produce. They found that our office was sending about 14 pounds of food to the landfill each day. That may not sound like a lot, but it adds up to more than 1.5 tons of food in a year for just one office.

Third, we started to act. Armed with information about the type and source of food waste, we went after the hotspots in our office: leftovers from catered events; uneaten lunches by staff; and forgotten food in the office kitchen refrigerators. 

To address catering waste, our office events manager instructs staff to cut the amount they think they need to order for an event by 25 percent. Over-ordering is common but is a waste of money and food.

We also continue the tradition of making food left over from events available to staff. If one sees a bee-line of interns rushing toward our conference facilities around 2 p.m. in the afternoon, it’s a good bet that one of those "free food outside the conference center" emails was just sent. Any food that remains afterward is donated to a nearby charity. 

To address lunches staff didn’t finish, we started a composting program. Our kitchen and coffee break areas all have green composting bins with clear, visual instructions on what can be composted. In addition, we have increased our education of staff on tips for saving food.  

To address leftovers in the refrigerators, our office facilities manager informs staff by email further in advance of when refrigerators will be cleaned out so staff uses up their food in time. And these reminders are sent repeatedly in the run-up to the monthly refrigerator cleaning. We also asked the building janitors to put the remaining food they do clean out into the composting bins rather than the trash.

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the impact. Our most recent food waste inventory found that the amount of daily food waste has plummeted to just under three pounds.

We’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how relatively easy the food waste reduction effort has been. Staff volunteered to conduct the periodic inventories. The effort triggered excitement around the office because everyone had a role to play in making a difference. Moreover, the effort did not add costs to our budget, the solutions were relatively easy and straightforward, and we’ve even been able to save money on events.

My hope is that this is just the start, and every office will tackle food waste. To that end, I call on all offices — whether it is a business, government, or NGO — to sign up to the Office Food Waste Challenge. It’s a commitment to halve their office food waste. They needn’t go it alone, though. We’re providing guidance and tips to get started.

Together, workplaces can take a bite out of food waste.

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