The impact of food waste is felt economically, socially and environmentally across the globe. Approximately 9.5 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK alone — which is especially frustrating in light of the fact that the UK’s food poverty rate is amongst the highest in Europe, with 8.4 million people thought to live in food poverty. 

From an environmental perspective, food waste is of enormous concern. Globally, more than 25% of food produced is wasted. The United Nations Environment Programme's 2021 Food Waste Index reports that an estimated 931 million tonnes of food goes to waste every year, 26% of which comes from foodservice. Food loss and waste undermine the sustainability of our food systems and are significant contributors to climate change; in fact, calculations suggest that food waste accounts for around 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Food waste is also financially damaging for businesses, costing the hospitality sector millions each year in waste management and waste disposal costs. When food is lost or wasted, all the resources that were used to produce this food — including water, land, energy, labour and capital — also go to waste.

The flip side of this is that putting in the effort to minimise food waste can have an immensely powerful impact, playing a significant role in nourishing populations, protecting the environment and benefiting economies. There is also the added bonus that reducing food waste reduces all costs associated with waste management — which do add up. 

For businesses in the hospitality sector, it’s hard to know where to begin. For hotels, there is a prime target: the breakfast buffet. 

Targeting the breakfast buffet 

Offering a breakfast buffet has become part and parcel of the hotel experience, long considered a star attraction for guests. Unfortunately, many guests do not know the full story: that these buffets are notoriously wasteful. That lavish, bountiful breakfast buffet loses much of its appeal once you’re aware that over half of the contents are being tipped into a bin, untouched. In fact, buffet breakfasts typically result in more than twice as much food waste per customer (300 grams) than those served from a menu (130g). Worse still, buffets tend to waste lots of high-value foods with higher carbon impacts, such as meat and cheese. 

During the peak of the COVID pandemic, breakfast buffets were closed as a health measure. Now that guests have had a taste of hotel stays without buffets, now might be the time to get rid of yours for good — or, at least, introduce drastic changes designed to slash food waste. This has excellent potential to save both food and money. Rather than leaving your guests in the dark and potentially feeling short-changed, take the extra step of clearly communicating your waste-reducing rationale so that your business can instead boost its appeal to today’s environmentally-conscious consumer. 

For hotels looking to manage waste at breakfast buffet, below are some practical tips:

1. What’s not measured can't be managed: Measuring food waste is the first step in getting a handle on the problem. By consistently tracking waste, a hotel can identify how much food is being wasted and from what section. Over time, hotels can gain a better feel for how much food is needed to satisfy a certain amount of guests. They can then prepare the buffet according to the size of the guest list. If possible, buffets can incorporate cook-to-order and á la minute service, which help to control production.

2. Reduce under-consumed items: When tracking food waste, you can start to make judgement calls on the food types you’re offering. If a food item is consistently under-consumed, you could start producing smaller quantities or consider removing it altogether.

3. Smaller plates, reduced waste: You don’t have to tell your guests what to do directly. Instead you can use gentle nudges and social prompts. A huge amount of food is wasted when guests pile their plates during their first trip to the buffet. However, you can encourage guests to take it in stages by providing smaller plates. This was the approach taken by one of Scandinavia’s largest hotel chains. In a recent study, the following was stated about their waste management efforts: 

“Plate sizes were reduced while signs were also posted encouraging customers to help themselves to food more than once (ie. signalling that they didn’t have to overload their plates the first time because they could always come back for more): the effect of these measures in combination was a 20% reduction in food waste.”

4. A second gentle nudge: Along the same lines, hotels should consider only using plates and eliminating trays altogether. Trays have a greater surface area and encourage guests to take multiple helpings at once.

5. Remove the fear of missing out: The entire buffet settings appear to encourage plate waste, due to psychological factors (e.g. the fear of missing out, people's reluctance to return to the buffet several times) which potentially enhance the probability of food leftover (Dolnicar and Juvan, 2019). Hotels can reduce this fear by simply limiting the number of service stations (Juvan et al., 2018). 

6. Have a Plan B: Consider ways to repurpose foods that go unused in a breakfast buffet. Use foods in other dishes or donate them to a food bank.

7. Educate and engage with staff: Kitchen and service staff often want to help prevent food waste, but aren’t given the right guidance. In order for any food waste-reduction program to be successful, there needs to be a culture shift among employees. Educate staff on waste reduction strategies and what they can do to make a difference. 

8. Connect with guests: Let guests know about your waste reduction efforts and the ‘why’ behind the changes you’ve made. Use signs to communicate the importance of reducing food waste and turn it into a joint commitment.

Want to do more? Check out our top tips on how to reduce kitchen waste