How sustainable is the UK hospitality sector?

The Sustainable Restaurant Association has called on the industry to step up its efforts to offer more plant-based meals and to tackle food and plastic waste.

28 February 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

The UK foodservice sector must turbocharge its efforts to tackle climate change and environmental damage, according to a new report from the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA).

While the release, The Tastiest Challenge on the Planet, identifies pockets of progress on the big sustainability issues, it finds that the pace of change is nowhere near fast nor widespread enough.

Many of the chefs and business leaders interviewed for the report revealed that they were reluctant to dictate change and described feeling more comfortable facilitating a movement, but the SRA believes a more proactive approach is needed.

It is calling for accelerated and measurable changes via targets set by WRAP in its Plastics Pact and Food Waste Reduction Roadmap as well as the World Resources Institute’s Cool Food Pledge. This means cutting food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030, reducing the sector’s food waste by 25% by 2025 and meeting the four targets in the Plastics Pact.

“We need to challenge what we call normal, or good enough in hospitality in the UK,” said Andrew Stephen, chief executive of the SRA. “While the industry is taking lots of small steps, they aren’t keeping pace with the scope of what is needed. It is no longer sufficient simply to talk about being a sustainable business without targeting bigger change on the biggest issues.” 

The report picks out three key areas that need to be tackled: meat consumption, food waste and plastics.

Going meat-free

While the SRA is not pushing a vegan charter, the message is that menus need to be much less meaty – and not just by adding a salad or soup.

Across the SRA’s 7,500 member sites, there was a 25% increase in menus providing an equal balance of veg and meat dishes in 2018. The shift towards more plant-based options was most noticeable on the menus of larger operators, increasing from less than a fifth in 2017 to more than half of the total menu last year. This gave 129m customers at 2,454 sites across the country more than double the number of veg-forward plates.

image credit: Getty Images

Apart from making meat-free choices more tempting to carnivores, the report found that giving veg-led items greater prominence on the menu was one of the most popular techniques to increase sales – 62% of its membership did so last year. Zizzi, for example, has grown vegan dishes to 8% of all main course sales, while Hawksmoor is serving some options with a 25% smaller piece of meat.

Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommended looking closely at dish descriptions, because when he is creating a new menu he spends more time on the language used to describe plant-based food than almost anything else.

Salon and Levan director Nick Balfe said chefs are uniquely placed to shape and influence food trends. “What we eat in restaurants makes its way onto shop shelves and millions of domestic kitchens and influences how we as a culture approach our food,” he said.

Food waste

One million tonnes of food is wasted across the foodservice sector, equivalent to one in six of the eight billion meals served annually – enough to fill the Shard more than 10 times. Of this trash, 75% is avoidable and costs the sector £2.5bn a year – or almost £20,000 a site.

While plastic has preoccupied the conscious of late, the response to food waste is less than optimal, with further targets necessary to make bigger inroads, according to the report.

Some genuine barriers, like inconsistent collection services and a lack of space for separate bins, continue to hamper further progress, acknowledged the SRA, but it is working with London landlords on this issue.

On a positive note, 78% of SRA sites use smart ordering systems and inventory monitoring to prevent surplus and 91% train staff in ways to avoid waste. However, plate scraps continues to account for about a third of restaurant’s waste and only 66% of sites offer customers doggy boxes – consigning tonnes of leftover food to the bin that could have made another meal. For restaurants, the cost of avoidable food waste on every plate averages 14p.

image credit: Getty Images

Additionally, 10% of the SRA network continue to dispose of food waste with their general waste, something the organisation aims to eliminate in the next year. Technology like Winnow, Lean Path or Chef’s Eye make it easy for businesses to measure and monitor their food waste precisely.

But chefs are also key to make changes, particularly in the use of vegetable and meat byproducts.

Joel Braham of The Good Egg, which has two sites in London, reported that a simple logistical move has helped his teams get to grips with the issue. “We get our chefs to work with a plastic tub next to them, so they have to focus on minimising, as they wouldn’t want a bucketful of waste sitting next to them,” he said.

If foodservice reduced food waste by a quarter, it could cut its carbon emissions by just under a million tonnes a year– equivalent to grounding more than 2,000 London to New York return flights.

Plastics

Despite the consumer outcry on plastics, 90% of SRA members still offer disposable items like cups, cutlery, napkins and boxes; a third continue to use takeaway packaging that is not recyclable, reusable or compostable, and a quarter of supplier packaging goes in the bin.

Steve Holmes, CEO of Azzurri Group, said while plastic straws were easy to remove, bottles are proving more challenging. Coco di Mama offers free filtered water for refillable bottles, but customers still demand plastic bottles, he explained. “However, I think the times is coming when we will be able to just stop selling them. It’s about timing and finding the balance – judging when the upside of doing good things also works commercially,” he said.

However, a circular system will never be possible in the UK if packaging producers, product designers, waste collection, and UK waste and recycling infrastructure don’t align, the report opined.

“We can source compostable alternatives, but if the waste streams where we operate are not able to process the product and close the sustainability loop, we’re back to square one,” Bill Toner, CEO of catering company Ch&Co, said. “Lack of consistency between recycling in the home and the high street and across regions causes confusion and incorrect recycling practices.”

Karen Lynch, CEO of bottled water company Belu, recommended that operators resist knee-jerk reactions, identifying “things like using bio plastics which aren’t contained and processed and instead enter into the mainstream recycling stream, or lower footprint products such as recycled plastic being replaced with aluminium, resulting in a C02 emissions increase understood to be up to three to four times that of the product replaced.”

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