CORK-BASED Clean Technology Centre (CTC) based at MTU, has been leading the charge for three decades, working with governments, businesses, organisations, and community projects to make changes in waste management that are sustainable – and work.
Waste shows up in different ways depending on the type of business, ways of working, materials used, even what is considered waste.
For the final instalment of my series on Food Waste, I talked to CTC Centre Manager, Colum Gibson, and Environmental Researcher Keelin Tobin.
Colum has been with CTC for more than 20 years and has seen Ireland’s attitude towards food waste change in a very positive direction, although he admits much more needs to be done. The good news for food businesses is that change doesn’t need to be radical – it can be the simplest of actions that can lead to meaningful change.
Colum experienced first-hand the scale of Ireland’s food waste problem in 2008. The Celtic Tiger was still just about roaring, times were good, and no-one was thinking about food waste.
“It was so traumatic to see so much food waste, perfectly good food, being thrown out,” Colum says.
Keelin Tobin is involved in the Savour Food Programme at CTC. The programme is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, aimed at providing simple and consistent food waste advice across food business, from local cafés to high-end restaurants, hotels and large-scale caterers.
As a qualified chef, she understands how commercial kitchens work and where improvements in food waste can easily be made.
“Choose one thing and make that change rather than changing everything at once. Give your team a chance at success and build on that. Look for low hanging fruit and go from there,” Keelin says.
If CTC’s focus is on reducing waste generally, the Savour Food Programme specialises in achieving that for all Irish food businesses.
But, says Colum, before we can talk about waste prevention, we must talk about waste management.
“In 2002, CTC was involved in developing a new methodology looking at waste from a sectoral level, providing granular data and sectoral-based information. When you look at waste from a household level, there is a degree of consistency, whereas for food businesses food waste in retail is different to food service is different to healthcare, education, etc. It’s now the default method used across Europe, so Ireland were very early adopters of it.”
Where this sectoral approach succeeds or fails is measuring the amount of waste produced by each business. Since 2012, European regulation made it law for commercial businesses to segregate waste: brown bins for food waste.
“We have an excellent waste management system in Ireland,” Colum says. “30% of waste produced in the commercial sector is food waste, of the 250,000 tonnes of total food waste, over 160,000 is going in the black, not the brown, bin.
“If all of us could do any one thing – not even talking about prevention, just good segregation – it’s getting all our food waste into the brown bin. If we do that, we put that food waste into the circular bio economy which means our brown bin waste is managed.
“Some of it goes to bio digestion and generating [useable] gases, but at minimum it should be going into composting.”
As Colum points out, none of us are taught waste management at school, and only recently has food waste become a mainstream topic, raising awareness, and people wanting to take more and better action to reduce it.
The Savour Food Programme aims to empower food businesses with simple to use, practical tools for managing and reducing food waste with online training and simple targeted actions. But is it all seen as simply too onerous for food businesses already constantly juggling competing priorities?
“I think people perceive it to be bigger than it is,” says Keelin. “that’s why, through the Savour Food Programme, we developed our E-Tool. It’s a resource freely available on the website and facilitates, as easily as possible, businesses getting their heads around what they are wasting, what it’s costing, and what can we do about it.”
For the e-tool to be easy-to-use, Keelin was a lead researcher in understanding what waste is produced.
“We conducted lots of very detailed food waste surveys, really trying to understand the profile of what was being wasted, from the beginning to the end of service in one day,” explains Keelin.
“We went into kitchens, out the back and in the bins, really delving into the materiality of the waste, and it was really revealing. But not everyone has time for that, so the e-tool has different ways to survey your waste, including looking at your waste bills, even a vague idea of how many covers were served on a weekly basis, or roughly how many brown bins you put out a month.
“Then, based on food waste per cover benchmarks published by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2019, there are scalers built in that generate overall quantities and costs of food waste in your business.”
Sounds like it couldn’t be simpler. So why isn’t every food business all over it?
“We have a duty of care towards every item of food we purchase,” says Colum. “Every person who grows food knows how difficult it is to grow it, but there’s a disconnect between purchasing food and throwing it out which often negates the impact of the cost.
“The cost of disposal is minuscule compared to the cost of purchasing the food, less than 10%. Using data and equating waste to the true cost of food [not just the cost of disposal] is crucial from a food business perspective.”
Keelin says food businesses can turn tackling food waste into hugely positive experiences for the business and their team.
“It’s a pity to see the discourse dominated by crises of staff turnover, food prices, energy prices, rates, and VAT when really tackling food waste is a no-brainer. It can equate to profit as well as good for the overall team; it’s good for morale when a business cares.
"It’s good for customers interested in what sort of corporate social responsibility or environmental actions are being taken. Tackling food waste ties into all of that as well as your staff training.”
Training is key. The days of the head chef being the only person who matters in a commercial kitchen are fast disappearing. Through the Savour Food Programme, CTC and MTUs Hospitality and Tourism department equip their students with tools and confidence to be proactive in standing up for change.
“It’s about individuals having agency and not just down to decisions made by a head chef or someone at management level. Everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet, and that will make for a different organisation in every sense,” says Keelin.
It also means more and better communication.
In food service, the front of house can be key in reducing food waste from their observations and interactions with customers. Requests for smaller portions, what comes back on plates untouched, or half eaten. The kitchen porter washing down plates, or a facilities manager wondering why the waste bill is so high.
“It’s very often the little ramekins of salad, coleslaw or ketchup, or big quantities of foods like porridge for a breakfast buffet, jugs of milk or cream. It can be something as simple as buying smaller jugs for milk, smaller containers for cream and sauces,” says Keelin.
“Even bin signage so staff aren’t utterly baffled because they don’t know where to put different things. Make it easy for people. It’s really not rocket science.”
This is the low hanging fruit that Keelin mentioned earlier. But it’s also about time.
“We don’t have time to wait for the new generation entering the workforce now to become businesses owners,” says Colum; “we really don’t, we can’t be dilly-dallying about.”
Time is of the essence if Ireland is to meet its commitment to reduce food waste by 50% in 2030. Is it achievable? Colum says we’ve a chance if everyone does their bit.
“As a country, that’s our target, but it’s only achievable if we all do something. It requires consumers making significant changes in their home, asking for smaller portions, communicating better with servers, showing that food and food waste is something they care about.
“There’s always going to be food waste; we can’t beat ourselves up about it. We don’t need to hide behind the fact we’re throwing some food out because everyone will make mistakes.
“It’s to work at it systematically, consistently over time. Think about how hard it is to grow something, the food miles required to get it to us, or the global impact of food. If we can all harness that appreciation and make every effort to minimise food waste, we can achieve it. But it takes all of us to row in together.
“We all have a responsibility; food waste is the climate action we can take every day at work or at home.”
Keelin says learning to value our food is important.
“I feel like there can be a lot of guilt associated with food waste. We need to get over that, learn from our mistakes, learn our lessons, face up to it, and do what we can in a positive sense.
“There’s so much scope for what can be done, and that’s a good news story.”
There is much to be positive about when it comes to Ireland’s response to food waste, says Colum.
“If I sit here now and think about where we were a decade ago, where we are now, and the organisations involved, the community groups and businesses actively working on it, national agencies supporting projects, the research going into it - we have come an awful long way.
“There’s so much knowledge out there now and hopefully, over the next ten years we’ll apply the lessons learned so far.”
Food waste prevention is a relatively new topic, although in some ways not considering how our grandparents lived. But we live in different times now within a different food system.
“We have learned a lot,” says Colum, “now it’s about figuring out how best to apply what we know so as many people as possible can be empowered to do something, be it small or large.”
For information, resources and tools to start the food waste journey for your business, visit: