The Quest for Cleaner Plates

Whether it’s because the serving was just too big, the side dish wasn’t your favorite, or a trip through the buffet line got out of hand, customers in dining halls and other food service settings are wasting a lot of food.

Whether it’s because the serving was just too big, the side dish wasn’t your favorite, or a trip through the buffet line got out of hand, customers in dining halls and other food service settings are wasting a lot of food. In fact, this “plate waste” accounts for roughly 20% of all the wasted food in the U.S. (that’s more than 12 million tons annually) by NRDC’s estimates, making it a big deal and one we need to address.

To date, there has been little research to understand why plate waste happens and what we can do to solve this thorny issue. That’s why NRDC collaborated with Bon Appetit Management Company, one of the leading dining companies in the U.S. to study plate waste at 20 Bon Appetit-managed colleges and “Business & Industry” cafes (e.g. cafes at corporate headquarters) around the country. More than 12,000 café guests scraped their plates so we could weigh the waste, and more than 1,500 of those individuals participated in a written survey about what foods they were discarding and why. 

The results validated some of our expectations and debunked others. Here’s what we found:

  • The amount of edible food wasted (i.e. excluding items like peels and rinds) per guest in higher education locations was more than double the waste per guest in corporate cafes. Extrapolated over the course of a school year, college students were estimated to generate roughly 110 pounds of edible food waste per student annually, on average. That’s the size of a small person!
  • Edible food waste per guest in All-You-Care-To-Eat cafes (where guests can take an unlimited amount of food) was nearly 40% higher than in retail accounts (where guests pay for each item they choose).
  • Waste at lunch and dinner were more than double the per-guest waste at breakfast. Dinner had the highest waste per guest of the three meal times.
  • We found dramatic differences from one location to another, with some sites generating triple the per-guest waste of other locations.
  • Looking across the 20 locations studied, edible plate waste averaged 1.6 ounces per guest per meal. That may not sound like much one plate at a time, but for a company like Bon Appetit that serves 250 million meals per year, it adds up fast.

On the positive side, we found two business practices that clearly have an impact:

  • Offering tasting spoons at every food service station makes a big difference, cutting plate waste in half. If the customer can taste it first, they are more likely to make a choice they are happy with.
  • Providing food service employees with explicit instruction around correct portion sizes also contributes to less edible waste per guest. That gets better results than when either ambiguous or no portion instructions are given to staff. Customers also made numerous requests through our survey asking for more flexibility in portion sizes.

However—and contrary to conventional wisdom—we found that plate size, the availability of trays, and self-service versus staff-portioned items did not significantly influence the amount of edible plate waste one way or the other.

Statistically, the variables explored in our study explain about 60% of that variation across locations, but what accounts for the rest? Organizational culture? Consumer education? Other factors? That question remains fodder for more research and analysis.

All told, our Toward Cleaner Plates study highlights an urgent need to:

  • Address plate waste in colleges and universities, particularly those that use an All-You-Care-To-Eat format. Dining service companies, colleges and students need to work together to get that waste under control.
  • More widely adopt waste-saving practices like tasting spoons and clearer portioning instructions for staff. Better communication between eaters and staff can make a big difference in getting the right food onto the plate in the right amount.
  • Take a deeper look into business practices that can design plate waste out of the system, engagement strategies that can help guests cut their waste, and the identification of other factors like organizational culture and consumer education that may help tip the scales.

The environmental toll of wasting food is becoming clearer every day.  If the food wasted around the globe were a country, it would have the 3rd highest climate footprint on the planet behind only China and the U.S. Leading experts have made it clear that confronting the climate crisis means not only overhauling our energy and transportation sectors but our food system as well.  Cutting food waste needs to be a central pillar in that effort.

Our research highlights opportunities for food service providers to empower their customers to fight back with their forks. That’s good news for the college students they serve, as their generation will be more impacted by climate change than any before it. And it is good news for businesses that can save money on food that customers would otherwise leave behind.  

Many food businesses have been highly successful in measuring and then drastically reducing the food going to waste in their kitchens. Now we need more food service companies and restaurants to document their plate waste, acknowledge the issue, and deal with it. That can help all of us move toward cleaner plates and a less wasteful world.


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