Thanks to the Event Greening Forum for this comprehensive look at how to reduce food waste in the events industry – well worth the read!

It is estimated that one third of all food produced globally is wasted. This applies to South Africa and means that of the 31 million tonnes of food we produce annually, approximately 10 million tonnes go to waste.

This is clearly a problem, but let’s explore why.

It’s a problem because an estimated 13 million South Africans experience hunger every day, while Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special rapporteur, calculated that in 2006 more than 36 million people died from hunger and illness linked to malnutrition. Meanwhile, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050 and we need to be able to feed everyone. Better food re-distribution could go a long way to making this achievable.

It’s a problem because agriculture is the single biggest consumer of fresh water, using 70% (or more) of all freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers. This means that wasted food is also wasted water. South Africa is a water scarce country, and this kind of loss can have very real implications for our society, which Cape Town’s Day Zero scare only hinted at.

It’s a problem because agriculture is responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that lost and wasted food accounts for about 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year, which is a little less than emissions from road transportation¹.

Lastly, there is also the financial loss of wasted food to consider, which the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research estimates to be R61.5 billion a year, in South Africa alone. We really could use that money more wisely.

You may be wondering who is responsible for these losses, but there is no single culprit. Instead it happens along the entire food production chain – from pests and poor harvesting methods at production, to market access and challenges around transportation, storage and packaging, not to mention retailers discarding food reaching its sell-by date, pervasive over catering in the food service industry, and then us at home, when we forget about the food in the back of our fridges.

Globally and locally, there are several initiatives tackling the food loss and waste challenge. The United Nations has made food loss and waste a priority in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explicitly through goal 12.3. From that, a global coalition of governments, business, research institutions and civil society have organised under Champions 12.3 to mobilize action and accelerate progress towards achieving the SDG target 12.3. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has launched a Food Loss and Waste Reporting and Accounting standard.

On the African continent, addressing food waste is included in the Malabo Declaration, the South African National Development Plan 2030, and the Green Economy Accord. For businesses, the King IV code also addresses food waste under principle 3. The Western Cape’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has implemented a 10 year strategy to ban organic waste to landfill by 2027 (with a target of a 50% reduction by 2022), and the National DEA has a national organic waste composting strategy in place.

Clearly business also has an important to play in reducing food waste, and not least the event and hospitality industries. This is where the good news stories are, because many companies in South Africa are already doing just that.

It all starts in the kitchen

A lot can be done to minimize food waste in the kitchen, starting with the menu design. Carl van Rooyen, the Executive Chef at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town, says, “Having several buffets with different menus leads to an incredible amount of waste. If there are several smaller functions/conferences running on the same day, we encourage the organizers to agree to the same menu and share the buffet set up.”

He adds, “We compose menus that cater for most tastes without having an excess of variety. Too much variety means that more food has to be prepared.” In this respect, a ‘harvest table’ or ‘antipasto’ buffet works well, he says. “This can accommodate the increasing number of dietary restrictions that guests may have, by keeping the veggies, pulses and grains (plus cheeses) separate from the other proteins like pickled, cured and cold meats.”

Avoiding pre-cooking is also an advantage. “Every time food is heated, it passes through the ‘danger zone’, where bacteria form. After the food is produced, it is blast chilled; it may then only be heated up once,” he explains. “We try to have items that can be prepared to order, that do not have to be pre-cooked. That way, you’re only preparing what will be consumed. And even with pre-prepared dishes we are strategic with our execution, an example being our lamb bredie. If there are 200 guests, and we prepare 20kg, we will heat up 15kg and keep the rest in the fridge in 1kg packets. If we see that we are running out, we heat up a little more. If we don’t need it, then it is not wasted.”

“In future, live cooking stations will allow us to custom-cook to guests’ needs and only as much is as needed. It does tick a lot of the boxes,” adds van Rooyen.

Simoné Harris, a lecturer at South African Chefs Association, agrees that good kitchen practices go a long way to reducing food waste; “Conducting an audit as to where the bulk of the food waste comes from is one of the first starting points in minimising food wastage, as well as following recipes cards accurately. Training chefs to be food conscious will be beneficial, as they would evaluate the stock on shelves and ensure wastage prior to preparation does not happen.”

She adds that monitoring food portion sizes when being served is also a necessary skill “to ensure food doesn’t return from tables destined for the bin”.

Chef Peter Langa at Maropeng likes to use the concept of one ingredient menus to challenge his team to use a single ingredient in as many ways as possible, ultimately reducing the likelihood of food being wasted in his kitchen. He used this approach when designing the Event Greening Forum’s (EGF) pre-conference dinner menu last year, choosing the humble carrot as his star ingredient. If this sounds boring – think again! Here is the menu as evidence of how versatile a single ingredient can be, because sometimes less is more:

Starter: Carrot and Ginger Soup with Toasted Bruschetta; or Carrot Mousse with smoked chicken bomb and Basil

Main Course: Grilled Duck Breast with Artichoke & Carrot Puree, Sautéed Baby Carrots, Jus and Broccoli Florets; or Spiral Carrot Tart with Parsnip & Aubergine, Marinated Rocket and Feta Cheese

Dessert: Carrot Cake with Carrot Sorbet; or Carrot Soufflé with Caramel Toffee

Overcoming over catering

Another difficulty that leads to a lot of food waste in the event and hospitality industry is over catering.

“The challenge is forecasting what delegates are going to consume – you don’t want to run out of anything but you don’t want to have too much left over,” says van Rooyen. “Knowing how much of each foodstuff/ ingredient should be ordered per person attending a function and making sure that only that amount is issued to the banqueting kitchen is a real skill.”

But many organisers are stepping up to prevent over catering. Katja Schmidt, the Managing Director of Potters Hand Activations, says, “Venues normally over cater for corporate events, which is evident in the food left behind at the buffet station once the function is over. The second factor to bear in mind is the dropout rates for delegates at most non-paying events. In order to minimise food waste, we confirm final numbers attending the event at 20% less than the actual number of guests expected to arrive. There is usually enough food available for the additional guests should they arrive.”

Lynn McLeod, the EGF Secretariat, manages all of the organisations various events. She agrees, and says that she will reduce the number of confirmed guests by 40% for all free events. “For paid for events there will still be no-shows, and I work with a dropout rate of about 20%,” she adds.

Lisa Jade Hutchings, a sustainability consultant and founder of GingerBiscuit, agrees that getting accurate guest numbers is critical; “To help avoid over-catering, make sure that you know how many guests will be attending, and their dietary requirements. If you communicate this in time to the venue, they will be better able to plan for your event.”

She adds, “A lot of venues still have very strict guidelines which they need to follow to ensure that they do not run out of food. Working with establishments on this is key. It can be a very slow journey and feel like an uphill battle at times. Rest assured though, that awareness around this issue is taking hold and people are open to new and fresh ideas.”

And when the party’s over…

Not all uneaten food at an event has to be wasted. If it hasn’t been served, it can be reused. For this reason, another tip that Hutchings gives is to use smaller plates for buffets. Otherwise people tend to overfill their plates, and this uneaten food is no longer fit for human consumption.

Harris suggests re-purposing excess unserved food; left over roasted peppers can be turned into a hummus, bones can be made into stock for freezer friendly soups, and vegetable off-cuts can be offered as tasty complementary bites upon arrival.

Many venues and organisers have a policy of giving this food to their staff, which is a great solution. But it can also be donated to shelters and other charitable institutions. For example, SA Harvest will collect and redistribute quality surplus food to hungry South Africans through feeding schemes, homeless shelters, schools and more.

Andrew Wilson, the Cape Town Manager of SA Harvest, says, “It’s not too complicated. We need a few days’ notice of the event so that we can organise the rescue logistics with the event organiser. Information we need would include: possible quantities and food type so that we can bring the correct number and type of containers; best time to be there; and who will be our contact person.”

If you are concerned about the health and safety issues that could arise, Wilson says he has this covered; “The main concern is that the cold-chain should not be broken and so, overall, our most important criterion for refrigerated surplus or warm surplus is that we must collect it asap after the event for delivery direct to our beneficiaries, where we have made arrangements to deliver any time if necessary.”

Wilson adds that his biggest challenge is making event organisers (and others) aware of what they are doing, and to contribute to the scheme. He emphasizes; “No matter what the quantities, we can rescue. Many have their own idea that they only have ‘too little’ to give. We say: we’ll take whatever you have and work from there!

“Catered events are a magnificent source for contributing towards ending hunger in South Africa, and we would welcome anyone involved in the events sector to contact us if they have any questions about how they can get involved.”

Closing the loop, creating more food

For food that is not fit for human consumption, there are many options to explore. Sending it to landfill (rubbish dumps) should not be one of them. When organic waste is sent to landfill it releases methane, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 21 higher than carbon dioxide, and leachate, a toxic liquid which poses the risk of contaminating our underground water supplies.

Some venue opt to send food waste to pig farms. (Interestingly, food is still considered lost or waste when fed to farm animals, because of the resource inefficiency of producing meat this way.) However, there are some risks in dealing with food waste this way, says Gavin Heron, the Director of Earth Probiotic. The biggest is that you could feed pork to pigs (especially when dealing with scrapings from plates), which is against all food safety policies (remember Mad Cow Disease?). Another significant risk of feeding pigs untreated swill is you could potentially cause an outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF).

As a result, the Animal Diseases Act 35 of 1984 outlines the following: “No feeding of swill is preferable, but in cases where swill feeding is practised, any item that originates or was in contact with animals (including any kitchen refuse of animal or vegetable origin originating from any dwelling, hotel, motel, restaurant, eating-house, airport, harbour or any place where food is being prepared for human use) has to be cooked (boiled) for at least 60 minutes or sterilised before it may be fed to pigs.”

“In short, there is a high legal and financial risk if any ASF breakout is in an area where food waste is being disposed of through pig farmer collections,” says Heron.

He adds that another unpleasant consideration is that bones, cutlery and tooth picks often end up in the swill, which can seriously injure the pigs.

A better option to deal with organic waste is to compost it. And yes, cooked meat and bones can be composted, for example using bokashi. Earth Probiotic uses this for its on-site composting service; their Earth Bokashi has been inoculated with beneficial bacteria and fungi, which enables it to break down organic waste that is not normally easily composted (such as cooked and uncooked meat, dairy and sea food), while also eliminating odours. The Vineyard Hotel uses this solution for plate scrapings, and then gets this back as compost for their garden as required.

Fly farms also present an efficient way to break down food waste, as done by AgriProtein in Cape Town. Black soldier flies feed on the (treated) waste, grow and breed rapidly. The larvae are harvested to provide a sustainable, high-quality, natural alternative protein to fishmeal. Typically, farmed fish are fed wild-caught fish – and as much as 25% of wild-caught fish is used to create fishmeal (although 90% of these fish are fit for human consumption). Given how overfished and depleted our oceans are, this isn’t sustainable.

At the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), kitchen waste is sent to fly farms, while food waste that is unpackaged and leftover, as well as any horse manure and straw (which is usually obtained from the Cape Premier Yearling event), is sent to their composting contractor, who distributes the waste for use in Bokashi. This, combined with careful planning in the kitchen, meant that in the 2018/19 financial year 86% of the CTICC’s total waste was diverted from landfill.

Another way to deal with kitchen scraps is feeding them to worm farms (which produce a compost and worm tea, both of which can improve soil fertility). However, the worms can be quite selective in what suits them and they don’t like citrus or garlic.

A biodigestor is an option for composting waste. It does this without oxygen, and the result is the release of biogas (60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide) which can be combusted to provide heat, electricity or both. To be truly effective at generating electricity, biodigestors need to be done on a large scale.

In South Africa, 90% of waste goes to landfill, which means there is a huge opportunity for diverting organic waste and creating useful things – like compost, fishmeal and electricity. And for every one ton of food waste you prevent, you save 4.2 tons of CO2 equivalent⁸. Heron adds that businesses can also expect to benefit financially from reducing food waste – given that wasted food is also wasted money.

This article was issued by the Event Greening Forum, a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainability within the business events sector. For more information, please visit

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