The Living Lab tackles food waste at Conestoga College

Organic Material Being Composted in Bin
Photo Credit: Conestoga College

By Nicole Detlor

Sustainability has come to be defined by the three Es in today’s global economy — Economy, Environment & Equity. At Conestoga College’s School of Hospitality & Culinary Arts, a team of researchers, faculty, and students is transforming the student-run Bloom restaurant into a climate-action living lab. The Living Lab team is working to demonstrate the impact and solutions to greenhouse emissions related to food packaging and food waste.

Why is reducing food waste important? A significant amount of food grown for human consumption is not consumed. According to the 2019 research paper, The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste, nearly 60 per cent of food produced in Canada, totalling approximately 35.5 million tons, is wasted annually. What’s worse, 32 per cent, or 11.2 million tons of that food (worth a staggering $49 billion) is perfectly edible and could be re-directed. The economic, environmental, and equity (social) imperatives cannot be overemphasized.


Food wasted and lost during harvesting, processing, storing, and transporting adds to the cost of food. Reducing food waste throughout the supply chain is important and earlier is better to reduce incurring additional energy inputs. For example, the circularity method involves re-imagining end-of-life waste for potential alternate uses. An example of this is the use of orange pulp to make fiber ingredients for binding water.


When food is wasted, all the inputs including the land, water, feed, fertilizer, fuel, and other inputs are also wasted. To add to this, a major externality to consider is the 57 million tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are released into our atmosphere. Especially concerning is that upon decomposition in the landfill, organic waste produces methane gas, which is 25 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide alone (Waste Reduction Week in Canada, 2022). Equity (Social) The number of people using foodbanks in Canada continues to increase and is at an all-time high. One in every three individuals using a food bank is a child (despite representing only 20 per cent of the population). Across Canada, people access food banks 1.4 million times each month (Food Banks Canada, 2022). Worldwide, nearly 1 billion people are malnourished. Food waste reduces the availability of food to those who need it.

Where and how is our food wasted?

Food waste due to restaurants and hotels represents 13 per cent of food waste in the supply chain. Studies have found the major categories of food waste for restaurants include food preparation waste (45 per cent), inedible food waste (21 per cent), and food left uneaten by customers (34 per cent) (Lightspeed, 2021).

Sustainability at Conestoga

Laura Matheson, a professor in the Sustainability Business Management Program, and Carrie Herzog, a professor in the Global Hospitality program at Conestoga College, worked with staff at the Bloom restaurant to provide fact-based data to make decisions on how waste could be reduced at the restaurant. Under the guidance of Professors Matheson and Herzog, students planned and conducted food-waste audits to identify the sources of waste and to set a baseline to monitor progress. The result of the audit provides a benchmark that will guide further follow-up studies and decision-making.

The results of the audit found that of the 86.3 kg of waste collected during a 24-hour period, food waste made up 75 per cent (65 kg). The food waste was found in three different streams, 3.1 kg was from the dining-room/plate waste and 57.2 kg from the kitchen compost bins. In the garbage stream intended for landfill, 4.9 kg of organics was found, showing a high rate of compliance with composting, and still room to improve. A follow-up waste audit focused on plate waste from the patrons of the restaurant. This involved separating out the type of waste returning uneaten on customer plates and separating it into meaningful streams to provide feedback to the chefs.

Reduction of Food Waste

The restaurant waste can be separated into two large categories: back of house and dining-room/plate waste. Back-of-house waste is food waste from preparation or food that’s spoiled or past expiry date. Plate waste is mainly uneaten foods from the consumer but can include dropped plates or food sent back to the kitchen. This research project focuses on practical, low-cost solutions to reduce food waste. Although some food waste is unavoidable in the preparation of food, having a plan can enable re-directing as much as possible. The team at the Living Lab zeroed in on the hierarchy of waste reduction: prevent, reduce, re-use, recycle/ upcycle, recover, and compost. As with any change, regular training is crucial to success, and staff need to understand the different waste streams and their correct usage. As well, accessibility to dispose of waste accurately is critical. By re-considering how some bins were lined and access in areas where need was highest, compliance increased.

The avoidance of spoiled ingredients and prepared food as a waste stream is dependent on a robust inventory-management system tied to an ability to forecast sales. The implementation of techniques such as FIFO (first-in, first-out), DOH (days on hand), colour-coding and multi-use ingredients all assist with managing. FIFO is an inventory-management system that organizes ingredients in a way that they are rotated to ensure that oldest ingredients are used first. DOH provides data to those ordering ingredients to calculate the average number of days that inventory is held before use. This can help with future decision making regarding ordering, ensuring that the days on hand are kept for as short a time as possible. Colour coding makes for quick decision making when selecting ingredients from storage and helps the person ordering ingredients. Another approach is to include date received and use-by-date labelling on all ingredients and prepared foods. An ingredient with a single use may be more difficult to manage in inventory as its turnover rate will depend more heavily on the accuracy of sales forecasting. Multi-use ingredients offer some flexibility in the menu and ensure that ingredients can be used within their shelf life.

Having a plan for prepared food that will not make it to the consumer before reaching the end of its usable shelf life can also help reduce waste. Several apps have been developed that help to connect customers with restaurants (and other food services) to ensure excess prepared food does not go to waste. Also, having a plan to donate food while it is still useable is another way to prevent food from going to a waste stream. Food banks are a great partner and having prior relationship and plan for donation help to make this type of arrangement easier to execute. Upcycling edible streams may include using vegetable trimmings for soup, stocks, or sauces.

The waste generated in the dining room impacts the consumer experience more than the other categories discussed, therefore implementation with this lens is important. A waste audit helps identify menu items that are prone to end up in the waste stream (or that are not taken away by consumers). Adjustment of portion sizes to reflect consumption is one way to address this source of food waste (Behman-Milicevic, A. (2022)). Ongoing review of the impact to the consumer experience is important when adjustments are made to the menu to ensure the desired results are achieved.

Results of the waste audit at Bloom restaurant found that plate waste was mainly side-dish carbohydrates such as potatoes or a bun. Offering consumers these items as an option may reduce this plate waste, for example asking if the table wanted a bread basket rather than automatically bringing one to the table. Another area of food waste observed from the dining room was cream and milk from coffee-and-tea service. By asking customers their preference and only bringing what they will consume, it’s possible to reduce the amount wasted. As some plate waste will still occur, providing staff with easy access to compost bins helps to ensure this stream is disposed of correctly.

There will always be opportunities to reduce food waste. Having fact-based data to support strategies to reduce food waste along with plans for reduction is critical. By making small incremental changes, we can all have an impact to reduce our food waste.

Nicole Detlor is the director, Food Research & Innovation Lab at Conestoga College.

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