In partnership with the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) West Asia and food technology company Winnow, Hilton recently announced that it achieved a 61-percent reduction in food waste across three major hotels in the Middle East during Ramadan festivities this year. Now, Hilton hopes the campaign’s success can serve as a blueprint for other organizations to reduce their own food waste.
“We’re in a linear economy where we take, make, and waste,” says Emma Banks, Vice President of Food and Beverage Strategy and Development at Hilton. “We said, why don’t we try to close the loop and create a circular economy process?”
According to UNEP’s 2021 State of Food Waste in West Asia report, food waste increases by 25 to 50 percent during religious and social festivities in the Middle East. Hilton’s initiative combined messaging from the UNEP West Asia Recipe of Change Sustainable Ramadan campaign, which aims to raise awareness of food waste and trigger behavioral change, with Winnow’s artificial intelligence system, which collects food waste data.
The campaign saved 7,628 pounds of food and US$41,597 between the first and fourth week of Ramadan, a 61-percent reduction in food waste.
“When you know the key items that you’re throwing away and you can track it, very small tweaks go a long way in driving down food waste,” says Marc Zornes, Co-Founder and CEO of Winnow.
During the Ramadan campaign, Winnow’s touchless system automatically captured both the weight and a photo of food thrown in the garbage. According to Zornes, paying attention to not only the amount of food but also the kind of food that is thrown away is critical to any effective food waste strategy.
“We at Winnow have been focusing more and more on looking at the entirety of food waste that an operation generates and developing strategies where you can not just reduce back-of-house waste, but also drive down plate waste,” says Zornes.
Hilton’s campaign was the first time that Winnow collected large-scale data on both pre-consumer food waste, or food that is thrown away during kitchen preparations, and post-consumer food waste, or food that is thrown away at the end of customers’ meals. This more holistic dataset was a key factor in the campaign’s success.
Within the first few days of Ramadan, for example, the data showed that large quantities of bread were being wasted across all three hotels. Moving forward, instead of offering self-serve rolls at the Ramadan buffets, Hilton’s kitchens offered freshly baked bread upon request. Banks says that this resulted in few requests for bread, as eaters were helping themselves to so many other dishes. When eaters did request it, though, they were delighted to receive warm, freshly baked bread at their table.
The hotels’ post-consumer food waste plummeted immediately after this change, says Banks.
“There is a false belief that if you introduce sustainability messaging to try and correct behavior, you diminish the guest experience,” says David Jackson, Director of Marketing & Public Affairs at Winnow. “But what we were finding was that, if you have the data, you can create elevated customer experiences whilst reducing food waste and doing the right thing for the environment at the same time.”
Hilton worked with UNEP to deploy Sustainable Ramadan messaging at the buffets, encouraging eaters to make what Banks calls “climate-conscious choices.” This included labels around plant-based foods and the carbon footprint of different dishes.
“The messaging was very respectful and low-key…People enjoyed the fact that they were getting to taste local produce. In Qatar, people were not aware that we had such good quality Qatari honey, for example,” says Banks. “It was really quite educational.”
To further reduce waste, Hilton’s chefs worked closely with kitchen staff to use parts of ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away, as well as dehydration and other preservation methods. The hotels also composted and donated food locally.
Hilton plans to roll out the Green Ramadan initiative across all its relevant Europe, Middle East, and Africa hotels in 2024.
“We don’t have to hold our head in our hands and say that there is no way we can make buffet formats more sustainable, because this has proved you can,” says Banks. “It’s just going to involve people rolling up their sleeves, doubling down, and making it happen.”
Zornes hopes that the Green Ramadan campaign’s success can serve as a template for reducing food waste at other religious events around the world. “It’s not something that has to be exclusive to Ramadan,” he says.
In the months leading up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, Winnow is investing heavily in illuminating the possibilities of holistically addressing food waste, hoping to inspire other organizations by showing what’s possible through data.
“We’re really trying to push the envelope on what’s possible and create proof points,” says Zornes.
Articles like the one you just read are made possible through the generosity of Food Tank members. Can we please count on you to be part of our growing movement? Become a member today by clicking here.
Photo courtesy of Hilton