Absolute Zero Waste Kitchen

A logical and realistic approach to the concept of “Absolute zero waste kitchen in a commercial setting” would be to understand where we stand today and to critically review of our guiding principles. Some of the underlying arguments for adopting a zero-waste kitchen could be cost efficiencies to drive profitability; an attempt to leverage a significant advantage to emerge as a competitive player in the market (say using self-grown agricultural produce for the kitchen); a conducive employee culture to imbibe an absolute zero waste model or the aspiration to establish a perceived value in the industry through practices that are inimitable and built into the very fabric of the work culture.

With environmental sustainability assuming a gigantic role in general discourse, the attention is consistently on commercial establishments, which are considered to be one of the largest consumers of resources (energy and others) and generators of waste. What is our level of environmental awareness and what is the level of environmental awareness of our target consumer (are we specifically targeting the environmentally conscious consumer and uniquely positioning ourselves?). Multiple stakeholders must be considered, when we make decisions regarding a commercial establishment: the consumers; regulators; inspection or audit teams; suppliers; peers in the industry; media; NGOs; environmentalists; local and government authorities and employees.

Does the regulatory framework require me to take action with respect to how I dispose off waste and where I dispose it? Is the government likely to impose a tax or specific laws with respect to municipal solid waste generated by commercial establishments? Will NGOs track where the garbage goes or challenge the lack of local employment opportunities offered by my establishment? Are consumers likely to question me on traceability of the product? When an establishment makes genuine efforts to invest in a waste management system and achieve efficiencies in resource usage, it adds considerably to its reputation amongst all stakeholders. In the event of, inadvertently, not meeting “eco-friendly practices”, there is likely to be a softer stand with respect to such lapses.
The best approach is to do the right thing, keeping social, cultural and environmental sensitivities in mind; apart from the economic considerations.

Our starting point is once again – where do we stand today. I have decided to adopt an absolute-zero waste kitchen. What next? Clearly there is a need to evaluate my current state of operations. For the purpose of which I need to define and categorize waste.

UNEP defines wastes “as substances or objects, which are disposed of or are intended to be disposed of or are required to be disposed of by the provisions of national law”. Waste types include: Municipal waste (household and commercial), industrial, hazardous, construction and demolition, mining, waste from electrical and electronic equipment, packaging, end-of-life vehicles and tyres, agricultural and bio-degradable municipal waste1.

From this view point, a commercial kitchen would primarily generate municipal and packaging waste. From a sustainability point of view, in addition to the above, waste would be wastage in usage of energy and water resources. Waste can be generated also through wear and tear of furniture, fittings, machinery, appliances, over a period of time. We won’t touch upon that here, as we assume they have gone through their normal life cycle. We are more concerned with “waste that has the potential to be “prevented and minimized, reused, recycled and used for energy recovery“2.

We suggest the following template, which would be ideal for a new commercial kitchen but could also be used for an existing one, to correct existing anomalies:

What needs to be done
Before the commencement of operationsWhile operating in the KitchenPost-Kitchen work
Energy WasteTo Be Ascertained
Food & Ingredients Waste
Packaging & other material Waste
Water Waste

The above analysis would lead to identifying: a) immediate areas requiring attention and b) areas which can be tackled in the long-term through investments. An estimate of the number of customers to be serviced on a daily basis, the intended menu and expected turn-around times would be critical in ascertaining the requirements in the kitchen. Here we assume available floor space, stocking space, material storage facilities, space for appliances, washing and waste disposal areas are clearly designated based on the scale of the business.

Energy Usage – Before the Commencement of Operations

A primary source of wastage, with a significant impact on costs, is in the area of energy usage. In a setting such as this, there is extensive use of energy sources – be it gas or electricity. The range of appliances and equipment vary from: ovens, stoves, steamers, griddles, grills, fryers, fridges, freezers to ventilation, heating and air-conditioning systems.

  1. What should be the energy source for the appliances? What is the level of energy consumption typically for each of these sources? Studies reveal that there is higher energy consumption for gas-run models as compared to electricity-run models. Gas-run models have a higher energy consumption rate but they are more efficient in basic energy transfer. How are my turnarounds going to be impacted by using each of these sources?
  2. What appliances do we need to purchase? Are they energy star-rated models? Energy efficient appliances meet the criteria of Cooking Energy Efficiency and Idle Energy Rate. Will we purchase sensor-run systems (where applicable) for energy saves?
  3. Will metering instruments be installed to track energy usage?
  4. Will the staff be trained on appliance usage; purpose of usage and implications for energy consumption? For example: ideal pre-heating time; ideal temperature during operation and when to turn off for optimal energy saves. How will we track this on an on-going basis? Is “absolute zero waste” driven through the overall culture from the very outset?
  5. Are we going to invest in renewable sources of energy such as solar or make use of bio-gas; to recycle our bio-degradable waste?

Energy Usage – During and Post Operations

It is imperative to periodically check our energy usage of appliances through internal audits and metering. Basic maintenance activities such as daily cleaning of appliances for optimal heat transfer, should be undertaken. Faulty staff behaviours with respect to appliance usage should be corrected, based on the training already provided to them. Appliances which are not working to their optimal capacity, will use more energy. For example: Poorly sealed doors of refrigerators resulting in leaking of cool air from inside. Inappropriate stocking methods in refrigerators can lead to keeping the door open for too long. Vessels that are not well suited for the burners, result in low heat transfer.

Food and Ingredients Waste - Before the Commencement of Operations

The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, of India suggest segregation into 3 categories: biodegradable, non-degradable and hazardous wastes. Waste management includes segregation, collection, transportation, re-cycling and disposal of various types of wastes. Extensive staff training on waste segregation is critical, to aspire for a zero-waste environment. Bio-degradable waste would be kitchen waste, food waste and garden waste. Recyclable waste would be plastic, paper, glass, tins, cans and metals. Further to this, there also needs to be a clearly delineated area for disposal of cleaning products; fats, oil and grease; batteries; lighting and fixtures; e-waste and other hazardous material.

Food waste is defined as the decrease in the quantity and quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food services and consumers3.

In a commercial establishment, food can be lost or wasted when produced by the kitchen but not consumed, in the case of excess production due to a miscalculation of consumer demand. Do we have an accurate understanding of the demand for each of the items on the menu, on a daily basis? Pre-defining the acceptable level of variance would prevent wastage. Establishing systems to achieve absolute accuracy can lead to zero-waste. The streamlining of the production process and accurate demand forecast are critical in reducing this significant contributor to food waste! Defective produce (inferior quality) and overproduction are both major contributors to food waste in restaurants and hospitality sectors.

How good is our stock planning with respect to ingredients and raw materials needed in cooking? Following purchase and stocking principles: checking for expiry and following scientific processes of stocking them in racks, so that “first-in-first-out” is followed in picking up the ingredients from the store are some such principles. Losses due to expiry and pilferage can lead to considerable wastage. Do we follow the regulatory requirements on hygiene and cleanliness, so that there is no loss due to poor storage conditions or infestation by pests? Biological, chemical, physical or cross-contamination could all be reasons for illness in people and wastage of food.

Kitchen-waste, including vegetable and fruit peels and remnants, is bio-degradable in soil but need appropriate conditions such as light, water and bacterial activity. We need to evaluate what technology to invest in prior to start of operations. Recycling of sorted organic waste can be done through composting. Options include windrow, In-basket, vermicomposting or in-vessel composting. Anaerobic digestion is another way to recycle sorted organic waste. It releases biogas, which can be used for electricity generation, heating and cooking. Studies reveal an investment in composting can prove to be highly beneficial, where there is an attached kitchen garden; where we wish to gift the compost to customers with potted plants or offer it to our agricultural suppliers. Kitchen waste could be used as animal feed as well.
Food waste from plates (ordered but not consumed in full or partial) can also be composted to avoid waste.
The establishment can tie up with local suppliers of vegetables, fruits and other ingredients (made locally and fresh). In the process, we contribute to local employment opportunities and avoid wastage due to transportation and quality issues (not fresh enough), when sourced from non-local vendors.

Food and Ingredients Waste - During and Post Operations

Food analytics
is critical so that an assessment can be made of items that should go off the menu based on lack of demand. Simultaneously, analytics on purchases to be made, based on alterations in menu is important. How best to accommodate consumer tastes, with stock of raw materials and ingredients that are already lying in-store?
It is useful to devise a mechanism to evaluate, which food dishes are wasted by consumers or which consumer segment is likely to waste a particular dish, so that this can be prevented through an educated interaction with the consumer (on portions, specific food preferences and allergies) while placing an order.

Food waste due to excess production can be intelligently managed by tying up with organizations that can sell it at a subsidized price or even free to the needy. Studies suggest solutions such as using foodbanks (eg: Annakshetra) to give away excess food production.

As far as waste of basic ingredients (involved in cooking) is concerned, periodical quality check on suppliers becomes crucial to benchmark against standards and avoid wastage.

Finally, apart from policies of the establishment, contests, incentives and awards could be potential ways to encourage a zero-waste culture.

Packaging and Other Material Waste - Before the Commencement of Operations

A large contributor to waste in a commercial kitchen is packaging material; plastic containers, cutlery, paper napkins, paper towels, toilet paper; packaging material of ingredients; cleaning materials used in the kitchen, bottles, tins, cans and so on. While we can look at it from a perspective of not generating waste on “our premises”, it would also mean not encouraging behaviours that promote waste generation in society.

Decisions with respect to going completely plastic and paper free; can considerably reduce waste generation. Alternatively, the establishment can choose to recycle all their tins, cans, bottles, paper-based products and can register themselves with authorized recyclers. We could also engage suppliers of bio-degradable material4 for our takeaway packaging. Examples could be seaweed or sugarcane bagasse packaging or products5.

Innovative thinking in choosing materials can drastically reduce wastage. For example, do I have compostable drinking cups that don’t need a straw, due to their inherent design? Do I have edible sachets, which can be eaten after consuming what’s contained in them?

Packaging and Other Material Waste - During and Post Operations

In an environment driven by quick turn-arounds, there is a tendency towards wastage due to excess use. We may pull more of the paper towel from the holder, than required. Comparing use of raw material stock over a period of time, can given valuable insights. A continuous evaluation of our segregation methods and training employees on appropriate binning of trash becomes imperative during and post kitchen operations. As a policy, the establishment may also choose not to sell pre-packed drinking water, to avoid plastic waste.

Water Usage – Before, During and Post Operations

Water is used copiously in this environment. Fitting devices and technology to prevent excess use and reusing water from kitchen and toilet sinks becomes critical. For example, restaurants invest in high-efficiency pre-rinse spray valves to remove food waste from dishes prior to dishwashing or install low flow-fixtures and water meters, wherever possible. Some studies reveal that boilers are water-intensive and not conducive when focus is on water saving. Maximizing the efficiency of equipment that relies on a boiler such as combination ovens, steam kettles and steam cookers, can lead to significant water saves. Decisions would also pertain to filtration technology for reusing water drained off from sinks for the garden. Finally, training staff on use of equipment and monitoring leaking pipes and faucets is critical for least wastage.

Based on the overarching impact of initiatives pertaining to zero-waste, one can clearly discern that, all such efforts must be based on a genuine culture of zero-waste. While technology and methodologies can aid such a culture in no small measure, its success essentially depends on people – their attitudes, training and sensitivity to environmental issues. Singular focus on Individual’s or establishment’s economic considerations is unlikely to be a sufficient driver in bringing about an absolute zero waste kitchen or culture!