Solving the events industry’s food waste problem

The problem of global food waste seems staggering. EN meets some of the innovators who are tackling it head-on.


We’ve all seen it.

Tables laid with food for hundreds of visitors or delegates, left virtually untouched. Food waste in the events industry is an epidemic, and hard to avoid. Whether it’s food for employees or guests, it’s nigh-on impossible to accurately predict the amount that will be consumed.

When you first hear about the issue of global food waste, it’s the numbers that grab you. By some estimates there are 860 million undernourished people in the world, while simultaneously 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year. Every year.

But, never let it be said that the events industry shirks from a challenge. As sustainability continues to hit the headlines the parallel issue of food waste at events is coming under increasing scrutiny.

For this feature we’ve spoken to three professionals attempting to tackle food waste at different stages of the event chain: Olio is an app that connects caterers and venues with people happy to take their unserved food, Grub Stub is a service reducing waste in backstage catering for event crew and Dirk Elzinga is chairing an ICCA working group assigned to tackle the issue.

“The initiative goes back to the ICCA Conference in Prague, and I must give credit where it is due to a lady called Silke Schlinnertz [head of operations and events at Euroheat & Power],” begins Elzinga, who served nine years as MD of Cape Town International Convention Centre before launching his own consultancy firm. “She approached ICCA to see if ICCA was interested in doing something about this food waste situation around the world and particularly in the event industry.

“The initiative was embraced by the venue category and I was made an honorary member of ICCA at the conference and I thought I should do something back. So I volunteered to chair a working group to work on this project.”

In the months since the conference, which took place in November 2017, the working group has set to work.

“We have discussed how to approach the subject, with whom to work, where to start, where to finish,” says Elizinga. “We have a working group now with seven ICCA members from all continents of the world, all in the venue category.

We’ve decided the best thing we can do is first to find out what the situation is within the congress centres; is there a serious problem and a serious challenge? Is there experience with how convention centres around the world deal with the distribution of food leftovers?

“You can do all sorts of thing with food leftovers, but there are also legal challenges; in some parts of the the world you cannot do too much with it.”

In the months leading up to an initial presentation of findings at IMEX Frankfurt, which took place in May 2018, the group carried out test interviews with some of ICCA’s venue members.

“Certain issues were not an issue at all, some were more important and we came across some interesting examples of how certain colleagues are dealing with it,” continues Elzinga. “What we’re doing now is rolling out a survey among all 360 members of the venue category of ICCA, and we’re going to share that with the members before or during the next ICCA congress.”

From the initial survey results, Elzinga says it became clear that venues in North America take the issue of food waste particularly seriously, with some even contacting other venues who have previously hosted a particular event to see what they can learn.

The results also showed that organisers and venues have to take into account the social dimensions of events, as this can influence the types of food that might be avoided by guests and delegates.

“If you have leftover food then it’s great to find out what best practices there are in the world to responsibility and respectfully distribute those leftovers,” Elzinga continues. “There are many good examples that we have learnt from those test interview. Many of them are very local, so you cannot really export them to other places in the world, but what you can do is teach, share knowledge with other local charities in other places.

“What we’ve found so far is that where you would expect the charities to be more active than anywhere else, in say less developed parts of the world, the habit of redistributing leftovers is actually much less developed than in Europe and North America.”

Connecting the dots with Olio

Heading back to the UK, a free service called Olio has been making headlines with its aim to connect those with leftover food to those who could make use of it. An individual or business can upload information about their available food to the app and have it quickly collected for use elsewhere.

Focusing at first on retailers and food-to-go businesses [plus a significant trial across over 60 branches of Pret a Manger], the company has increasingly turned its attention to the events industry, and has built partnerships with several well-known companies in the events space, including online ticketing platform Eventbrite.

When it comes to businesses, the food is collected by one of Olio’s 20,000 trained volunteers, who ensures the food is stored and redistributed safely, ethnically and quickly.

“We specialise in hyperlocal and very quick redistribution of food,” says co-founder Saasha Celestial-One. “What we’re doing is building a model that allows the really quick redistribution of food. 50 percent of all the food listings on the app are redistributed in under an hour.

“We really think there’s a massive opportunity to work in the events space. There aren’t that many existing options and our model, which specialise in short shelf life, ad hoc quantities, seems perfect for that.”

Food waste isn’t just wrong on a moral and ecological level, says Celestial-One, it’s also a massive market inefficiency, costing in excess of $1 trillion globally each year.

“For us it also hits close to home,” she adds. “I grew up in a household where resources were scarce and nothing of value ever went to waste, and my co-founder grew up on a dairy firm and learned at a young age how much work goes into producing the food that we all eat.

“The idea of throwing away perfectly good food has become relatively commonplace in modern society, we don’t think that much about it, but it’s not how our species evolved. It’s a really simple problem to at least start tackling.”

When it comes to simple steps caterers or venues could take to reduce their food waste, Celestial-One has one major piece of advice:

“Don’t put all the food out at once” she says. “It’s very basic but once the food is taken out of the chill chain or temperature control then that’s when the ticketing clock starts. Put out smaller quantities of food and refill them frequently.”

And, looking to the future of tackling food waste in the industry, she is positive.

“I think there will be lots of smart, savvy organisers out there who will not only build that into their value proposition but also potentially charge more for it, to have a responsible event,” she tells EN. “This is just the tip of the iceberg; people will start thinking much more critically about the footprint of events.

“Even festivals have really upped their game; I think we’re seeing a sea change in terms of the wastefulness associated with events. Still a long way to go but I think the early signs are very positive.”

Optimising crew meals with Grub Stub

Outdoor events and festivals are largely where GrubStub comes into the equation.

“I’m an event organiser of 20 years and the company started around seven years ago when we were trying to find for ourselves a better way to handle tens of thousands of meal tickets for crew,” says managing director Lou Fitzpatrick. “Over some years when it was establishing itself as a system, a lot more benefits to doing meal ticketing digitally came through. So various industry friends of ours were having the same problem and so they started using Grub Stub as a solution.”

The company started in the festival world, as that was Fitzpatrick’s background, but is now branching out into the corporate event market. Reducing food waste in crew catering is an issue that affects any organiser with crew catering and, says Lou, there’s no better solution to the problem than Grub Stub.

So how does it work?

“Every event has to collate a lot of information from their staff regarding food and for various other reasons,” explains Fitzpatrick. “What we have is an all-encompassing system where, however you have collated data, you can import it into the system or you can use the system itself to gather all the information.

From that, in simple terms, when you get to site you are given a meal ticket which is a Grub Stub and that contains all of your meals, however sporadically allocated, for the whole event. You go up to catering, put it in front of the scanner and the scanner says yes or no.

It helps the humans not to have to do lots of kind of mundane counting and just quite energy sapping and time consuming work, the technology does it all for you.

The important change isn’t so much in the catering, says Fitzpatrick, it’s in digitising the ticketing element of crew meals.

“The most important benefit is for event management,” she says. “If they have 20,000 or 30,000 meals to serve at an event then event management don’t have to spend days and days counting out tickets and wrestling with a whole pile of manual tickets and they get a lot more tracking, a lot more information which then in turn helps to streamline budgets, identify wastage and identify overspend. Mostly – the reason we made it – it’s because I am one of those people that had to deal with 20,000 or 30,000 meal tickets at one event and it was such a wasteful process.”

When it comes to tackling food waste, as with many issues affecting the event industry, it seems that if innovative thinkers can up with solutions that make the lives of organisers, venues and caterers easier, then that could be half the battle.

Whether it’s Olio making vital connections between those with surplus food and those with too little, or Grub Stub creating a simple solution to a time-consuming and wasteful problem, the answers may be simpler than we think.

Here’s hoping the that over next few years we really do see a sea change in the amount of food waste passing through the industry. While the scale of the problem, and those initial terrifying numbers, might seem insurmountable, with a bit of collaborative effort that scale may well begin to tip.

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