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Food Waste is on the Menu as the Hospitality Sector Rebuilds

The drastic disruption in tourism activity due to the pandemic offers an opportunity to consider food waste management as a way to improve operating margins and redirect the sector’s path towards a more sustainable future.


The importance and the scale of the food waste have been known for some time but, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to growing food scarcity and poverty worldwide, the massive 1.3 billion-ton-per-year problem of food loss and waste has gained renewed attention.

We celebrated World Tourism Day on September 27th and the first ever observance of the UN-designated International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste on September 29th. So it's a good time to ponder what the tourism industry – responsible for one in 10 jobs globally – can do to help at a time when travel and tourism have come to a halt.

The drastic disruption in tourism activity due to the pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink business models and consider food waste management as a way to improve operating margins and redirect the sector’s path towards a more sustainable future.

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This path is mapped in a new study by IDB Invest, Fighting Food Waste in the Tourism Sector: Challenges and Opportunities for Latin America, the Caribbean, and Beyond, which provides an overview of the food waste problem and assesses the potential to transform negative impacts into business opportunities for tourism, as well as other positive social and environmental outcomes.

Some things are changing already. The broader tourism sector is already implementing new post-pandemic operating procedures, including biosecurity protocols and adjustments to food and beverage components. For instance, the ubiquitous hotel breakfast buffet is being rethought to address physical distancing requirements and health and safety concerns.

This reimagining of self-service buffets through reduced food stations and portion control by hotel servers is just one way to reduce food waste. Another way is through digital technologies: since you can’t manage what you don’t measure, smart scales and software solutions offered by companies such as Leanpath and Winnow help kitchens track what food is thrown away, how much it costs, and how to prevent it in the first place.

Apps are also making it easier for supermarkets, restaurants, and hotels to resell or donate safe and edible surplus food. For example, the Too Good To Go app connects over 20 million users in Europe with 45,000 businesses with unsold food. About 1,400 hotels are using the app, including the Accor Hotel Group. Since 2016, 500 of its hotels across eight European countries have saved over 160,000 meals and avoided over 440 tons of CO2 emissions by using the app.

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) present unique opportunities for reducing food waste. The region’s rich natural resources are one of its main tourism assets, making environmental sustainability a fundamental part of the sector’s recovery from the crisis.

In general, the market and geographic concentration of the global tourism sector – four cruise companies hold 85% of the market while the top five hotel groups account for 25% of rooms – bodes well for replicating good practices in food waste management. This is also true for LAC, which is home to some of the world’s top tourism destinations and major cruise hubs, offering the chance to implement and scale food waste measures in tourist-dense areas.


Additionally, strong food banking networks can help encourage more hospitality companies to donate surplus food. For example, Mexico’s Bancos de Alimentos “rescues” cooked food fit for human consumption from hotels and restaurants. It trains kitchen staff on safe food handling and packaging and offers a mobile app to coordinate food donation. Over 50 restaurants and 12 hotels, half of which are all-inclusive operators such as Iberostar, participate in the program, which has served over 250,000 meals since 2014.

The region’s entrepreneurial landscape has been booming in recent years with the emergence of socially and environmentally-driven enterprises tackling problems such as food waste. Argentine startup Nilus offers a digital marketplace to simplify food donation logistics for hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets. Sinba in Peru provides organic waste management services and training for kitchen staff. Open innovation competitions held by the IDB’s Sin Desperdicio food waste platform are also supporting new solutions.

Lawmakers are also tackling the problem. In 2019, new food waste laws were passed in Colombia and Peru, and at least six other countries drafted similar laws, including incentives for food donation.

The world’s food waste problem is not new. But today’s crisis has elevated the twin issues of food waste and food security as never before, offering a prime opportunity to tackle both. The tourism sector is a good place to start, and LAC can become a testing ground to guide efforts in other regions. As the old saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade... just make sure you don’t waste any lemons in the process.


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