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Source Reduction

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Source Reduction Chart

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Good news: the best way to save money on food waste management is also the best for the environment. Source reduction is the practice of avoiding waste creation before it ever happens.

In the context of food service and retail, source reduction efforts are achieved by first understanding the waste being generated: including amounts, types and points of origin. Knowing this information will help identify the best place to focus initial source reduction efforts.

The type of waste being generated will also help determine which source reduction efforts to use, which could include refining purchasing practices, improving storage techniques, training staff, or getting creative with the menu.

Since source reduction is a preventative measure, it is considered the highest priority as a method for addressing waste.

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What do I need to know?

  • Reducing food waste will have a higher benefit to your bottom line than any diversion technique. This is because, like food that is eaten, food that is wasted incurs purchasing costs as well as all the labor and other energy costs associated with unpacking, storing and preparing it. But, instead of turning a profit upon being sold, wasted food incurs the additional cost of disposal.
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  • Similarly, every step that food goes through from farm to fork requires resources, which in turn impact the environment in some way. The best way to reduce those impacts is to not produce the food we don’t need.
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Practical Aspects:

  • Generally speaking, food waste prevention techniques are more time consuming to implement and less easily scaled in comparison to diversion techniques. However, they should still be considered first due to the substantially higher benefits they can have.
  • Before beginning source reduction efforts, you should gain an understanding of where food waste is being generated in your operation as well as the types and amounts. With this information, you can decide where you want to focus reduction efforts first.
  • Trying to tackle all the food waste at once can be overwhelming and result in less-successful results. Focusing on reducing food waste with either high cost or high volume is a great place to start.
    • Food waste audits are a practical first step to identify opportunity areas. Check out the self-audit page for more information on how to conduct an audit at your facility.
    • Food waste tracking provides similar benefits to conducting a food waste audit, but provides these benefits on a daily basis rather than once in a while. This allows you to get a much more comprehensive view of your waste stream over weeks, months and years, which enables fine-tuning of your efforts to match real time feedback.
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  • The types of food waste you identify through self-audits or tracking will help determine what source-reduction efforts to use. A portion of food waste is unavoidable, such as the peels of vegetables or bones of animals. However, a lot of food waste is avoidable, which is where prevention tactics come in.
  • Some common sources of food waste in food retail and service businesses include:
    • Unprepared food that spoils in storage
    • Prep-waste
      • Non-precise trimming of vegetables, meats, etc. can leave good food left on the rind or bone.
      • A substantial amount of prep waste would be considered inedible (e.g. bones, rinds)
    • Prepared, but never served
      • Excess food that is put out on self-serve bars but is not taken by a customer
      • Over prepared but kept in storage too long.
    • Customer plate waste
      • Anything that touches a customer’s plate. Some of this is avoidable (edible) while some is not (inedible)

There are several effective source reduction methods to use based on the type of food waste you’re focused on:

Types of Food Waste Type of Food Waste

Source Reduction Technique  Source Reduction Technique


  • Adjust purchasing practices to buy less of what is consistently wasted.
  • Use proper storage and handling techniques
  • Be dynamic with menu choices
  • Create new menu items

Edible plate waste

(at self-serve dining halls)

  • Convert to tray-less dining
  • Use smaller plates
  • Provide samples for customers, especially for new dishes
  • Educate customers on food waste issues

Edible prep waste

  • Train staff on proper /efficient preparation techniques
  • Create new menu items

Edible plate waste

(at à la carte restaurants)

  • Adjust serving sizes or offer half portions
  • Educate customers on food waste issues
  • Provide samples for customers, especially for new dishes

Prepared but never served

  • Adjust quantities offered
  • Reuse left over prepared food for new dishes
  • Use smaller serving trays to allow a "full" look with less food
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  • Prevent the use of all upstream resources that would be required to produce the food going to waste
  • Reduce methane emissions by preventing unnecessary food waste from being sent to landfills
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  • Save money by not buying excess product and by reducing labor costs associated with handling the food that would have been wasted.
  • Cultivate a sustainably-minded work place