Food waste in the food-to-go sector: the change-makers and techniques

Food waste in the UK hospitality sector currently accounts for about 1.1 million tonnes of waste a year. This represents an increase of 8% over the last three years, despite overall food waste having gone down by 7% during the same period.  The ebb and flow of shutdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic has made food planning a scientific nightmare across the whole hospitality industry.

Food waste has several adverse effects beyond the mere wastage – including the environmental impact of the extra landfill and the emission of greenhouse gases (such as methane) from burning waste.

There is also the psychological impact of food waste, which often goes unnoticed but which has its repercussions. Research shows those who experience more negative emotions about food waste but intend to reduce their waste, end up wasting more food.

The current scenario in the food-to-go market

The UK food-to-go market is predicted to be worth £23.4 billion by 2024, a whopping jump from £18.5 billion in 2019, growing by 26.4%, despite the growth and structural challenges being faced by the UK supermarkets and hypermarkets right now.

The market share of coffee specialists such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffè Nero is likely to increase to 18.2% in 2024 from 17.8% in 2019. Quick service restaurants such as KFC, McDonald’s and Five Guys will experience a CAGR of 4.5% from 2019-2024.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and similar supermarkets will see their market share rising from 7.8% in 2024 to 8.1% in 2019.

These figures are obviously going to be impacted by the length of time the pandemic is ruling our lives and buying decisions but growth looks on the cards.

Changemakers hard at work to combat food waste

A recent survey conducted by Too Good To Go, a food waste app, showed that nine out of ten employees in the to-go food business experienced negative feelings – such as guilt, anger and disappointment – over wasted food.

Among the reasons cited for food waste were:

  • Poor stock management (36% of respondents)
  • The lack of a stock management process (60% of respondents)
  • Fluctuations in diner footfall (48% of respondents)

The survey showed that a lack of operational guidelines could be contributing to extra waste. Little to none workplace training is also a problem, with less than 45% of surveyed employees saying that they had attended awareness sessions on wasted food and how to combat it. This is a significant problem as a large fraction of employees remain unaware of the environmental impact of food wastage.

WRAP's Guardians of Grub to the rescue

Several campaigns have already begun to combat food waste in the hospitality sector. For instance, WRAP recently began its Guardians of Grub programme, which works with restaurants, government officials and consumers across the UK to tackle food waste.

The programme was developed by WRAP under the Courtauld Commitment 2025 for their ‘Your Business is Food; don’t throw it away’ campaign. The Guardians of Grub website features comprehensive free resources, such as food tracking calculators and checklists, to help restaurants cut down on food waste and save costs too.

In September the campaign ran a Stand Up For Food month to reduce waste, supported by famous chefs like Anna Jones and Adam Handling as well as the government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion Ben Elliott.

On the customer side, the UK-based Hubbub, which designs campaigns to inspire ways of living good for the environment, are taking the lead.

In 2018 they partnered with Compass Group and food waste app Winnow to reduce the amount of ‘plate waste’ (the food leftover and/or discarded after a meal) at university and corporate settings.

Behaviour change experts at Hubbub creating a buzz

With research indicating that people do not respond well to negative messaging, Hubbub designed the behaviour change interventions to be positive, which included:

  • Nudge messaging to help diners make slight changes to their food choices based on which items got wasted most
  • Reward systems like a visually attractive gift pile that could only be opened if the food waste target was hit
  • A volunteer group called ‘Waste Warriors’ at the University of Sussex to champion food waste reduction initiatives at home and on campus.

This is not the first time Hubbub has run a similar campaign. In 2017, they partnered with Sainsbury’s to launch the Community Fridge network, which involved setting up fridges stocked with surplus food in community centres that members were free to take.

Examples like this illustrate that the use of modern technology and a commitment towards more sustainable dining practices are all it takes to make a difference.

New opportunities in the UK food-to-go market

While everyone is doing their bit to curb food waste, it is also essential restaurants and cafes in the market to step up their game. Here is how they can do so:

1. Have tracking mechanisms for food waste

Having proper systems in place to track how much food is being wasted will help them make modifications accordingly. Staff members should be trained to follow supplies as and when they come in. Deploy the FIFO (first in, first out) inventory method to use food items whilst they are still fresh and hence, reduce wastage.

2. Plan menus sensibly

Several items which were previously discarded as food waste but were perfectly edible can be incorporated into the daily menu. Cafes can use unattractive fruits to make smoothies or sorbets. Vegetable peels and roots can be added to stocks. Leftover ingredients can be reused into “specials of the day.”

3. Become more eco-friendly

The new normal provides cafes and restaurants with an opportunity to reduce food waste and electricity consumption. Low energy consumption leads to lower overhead expenses and also minimises the place’s carbon footprint.

Simply switching off equipment and lights, not in use, using energy-efficient light bulbs, and investing in appliances that use less power can make a massive difference! They can also deploy small scale future-proof technologies like Anaerobic Digestion to dispose of their food waste and generate biofuel in the process.

Summing it up

Over the last few months, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has also made consumers more conscious of the choices they make. With positive, community-oriented steps from the restaurant business, both employees and diners can feel better about the way they treat food and contribute to the more sustainable food-to-go market.

If you want to speak to a food waste recycling company to know how your cafe or restaurant can benefit, please email us at

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