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Worldwide, at least one-third of all food produced is squandered every year. With an extra two billion mouths to feed by 2050, global food waste is an escalating issue that is difficult to ignore. And waste from hotels, resorts, restaurants, cafes and airports – the haunts of the global travel community – are a large part of this growing problem.

We throw away or waste 1.3 billion tons a year at a cost of $1 trillion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a United Nations body. In industrialised nations, almost half of the food spoiled – roughly 300 million tons annually – is still fit for consumption. This is more than the total food production of sub-Saharan Africa, and enough to feed the estimated 870 million people currently hungry in the world today.

The FAO set up a Think.Eat.Save campaign in January 2013 to try to change the way we view food. In partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), they are trying to reduce food loss along the entire chain – from farm to fork; boost awareness both on a household level and at a national level; and help both individuals and properties such as hotels measure and recycle food waste.

“This is a complex issue,” said Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesperson. “If you do not measure or monitor it, you can't manage it. As travellers become more aware of the challenge and impact of food waste, increasing numbers are likely to choose hotels and restaurants with policies and programmes in place.”

In the UK, the government-funded recycling programme WRAP has signed up hotels and restaurants to a campaign to reduce food waste, including the Accor, Jury’s Inn, Red Carnation and Travelodge hotel groups. Their aim is to reduce waste by 5% by 2015, which would save an estimated £720 million a year.

Some hotels distribute unused food to local charities. The Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas donates meals from its 21 restaurants and 19 bars to Hands for Hunger, a local humanitarian organisation that supports poor local families, while the Pret a Manger sandwich shop chain donated more than 2.5 million food products to UK charities for the homeless in 2012.

Yet there is a long way to go. People in rich regions, such as in Europe and North America, consume roughly 900kg of food every year, and per-capita waste is around 115kg a year. Compare this to sub-Saharan Africa and south and Southeast Asia, where they only throw away up to 11kg a year, according to the FAO.

In the travel industry, some establishments are trying to cut down food waste on their own. “Eighteen months ago we removed the lunchtime buffet and replaced it with an a la carte menu,” said David Miras, executive chef at Dubai’s Al Maha Desert Resort. Buffets have a high propensity for food waste, especially in hot climates. “On the kitchen side we do awareness training on the cost implications of wastage.”

The correct slicing of fruits and vegetables in hotel kitchens can reduce waste, as can more precise recipes and ordering. Food recycling in kitchens means that everything from meat trimmings to cake crumbs can be used in other dishes. “Creativity is paramount in reusing our morning pastries into our most popular lunchtime dessert – the Um Ali [a type of bread pudding],” Miras said.

Almost a year ago, Beijing activist Xu Zhijun launched Operation Empty Plate, an online campaign aimed at cutting restaurant waste across China, by asking followers to post photos of empty plates to his website. This has resulted in restaurants offering half portions and free take home bags for leftover food.

Certainly travellers can finish up meals, avoid buffets, enquire about food waste when they check into hotels and choose properties, cruise-lines and tour operators that have programmes in place to reduce or recycle wastage.  For those looking to spend their money with socially responsible companies, the Green Hotelier website is a useful resource. 

“Many travellers now ask about other social and environmental policies of tour operators and hotels; food waste could become the next frontier,” Nuttall said.

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