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Donations, pigs part of Las Vegas’ efforts to cut food waste

At a farm outside Las Vegas, a herd of pigs feasts on lobster, sausage links and beef. In town, people at a community center sit for a dinner that may include sliders and truffle mac and cheese.

The two meals have something in common: Both came from the kitchens of Sin City’s opulent casinos, where the axiom of excess is increasingly being reconsidered and waste reduction has taken hold.

The environmental and financial impacts of leftover food are more important than ever to Las Vegas’ world-famous casinos, which in recent years have developed and expanded innovative practices to cut back on what they send to the landfill by thousands of tons a year.

Food scraps are turned into compost or taken to a farm to feed thousands of pigs. Expired minibar snacks are donated to community organizations. Banquet meals that were never served go to a food bank. Oyster shells are even shipped thousands of miles to Chesapeake Bay.

The comprehensive efforts vary slightly among operators, and some were recently recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Guests of the glitzy mega resorts will never witness the not-so-glamorous efforts, but they exemplify the extent to which companies are going to improve their bottom line and make a dent on a global issue.

“Most people, when they think about recycling, they think about the standard metal, plastic, paper — and the reality is, for an organization like MGM, food, food waste, food scraps is a significant part of our waste footprint,” said Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of corporate sustainability at MGM Resorts International. “Our main approach is to think about the type of food that’s coming out of our operations and directing that type of food to the best destination it could go to.”

In 2016, MGM began donating fully cooked but never-served meals from conventions and other large events to Three Square, southern Nevada’s only food bank. The company has donated more than 700,000 pounds (317,500 kilograms) of cooked food, kitchen ingredients, minibar snacks and extra food stored at warehouses.

Food bank employees coordinate with MGM’s properties along the Strip and arrive with an empty truck. They then take the temperature of every potential hot food donation, and if it is above 135 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius), it is packaged in disposable foil pans, placed in a cart and driven to the food bank.

On a recent afternoon, food bank employees picked up more than 250 beef sliders, truffle mac and cheese and stir fry from the Aria casino-resort. Trays of chicken sliders did not meet the required temperature.

The food is then cooled in blast chillers, moved to a warehouse-sized freezer and entered into an ordering system used by charities, including a senior center, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.

“Knowing that they are going to help us fight this hunger battle is paramount,” said Maurice Johnson, director of operations at Three Square, adding the 700,000 pounds have been used for 600,000 meals. “We update our inventory every day. We process orders every day.”

The federal government has estimated more than one-third of all available food in the U.S. is wasted.

An EPA initiative has partnered with more than 1,000 organizations — including grocers, restaurants and hotels — to tackle the issue. The agency estimated participants in 2017 prevented about 648,000 tons (587,856 metric tons) of food from going into landfills or incinerators, avoiding more than $30 million in landfill tipping fees.

The Trump administration declared April “Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month.”

The EPA in March honored MGM’s Bellagio casino-resort for its food recovery efforts. The property last year sent 2,210 tons (2,005 metric tons) of food waste to the pig farm outside Las Vegas, up 16% from 2017 and 455% from 2015. It also diverted 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) of oyster shells to Chesapeake Bay, where they help restore oyster habitat.

The Venetian and Palazzo casino-resorts, which are operated by Las Vegas Sands, also donate prepared meals to charities and send food scraps to the Las Vegas Livestock pig farm 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of the Strip.

The farm’s 5,000 pigs are fed boiled food scraps exclusively. Trucks haul 25 tons to 35 tons (23 to 32 metric tons) of food a day from the Strip to the farm. The process is part of the waste management package the companies purchase.

“They probably have eaten more lobster than me,” farm manager Sarah Stallard said.

The practice of feeding food scraps to pigs has federal approval but is not widely used at U.S. farms, which favor a regimented diet of corn, wheat and soybean meal. Las Vegas Livestock has the advantage of being close to a large source of scraps and is building a system that would allow it to accept even more.

Caesars Entertainment, which operates several properties on the Strip, sends its food scraps to composting. It also donates unserved meals.

And while the meal donations and food-scrap diversion help, the operators are also looking at producing less waste to begin with. At employee dining halls, thousands of workers are encouraged to be mindful of what they put on their plates.

At the Las Vegas Sands, employees work with conventions, many of whom are repeat clients, in “engineering menus” using data from previous years that can allow them to minimize waste without risking a shortage, said Pranav Jampani, the company’s executive director of sustainability.

“We never want to run short of food,” Jampani said. “That would be a huge problem.”

The Sands also has hosted events for employees to learn practices they can apply at home, including cooking classes.

Eric Dominguez, vice president of facilities, engineering and sustainability at Caesars, said at buffets for guests, plate sizes have been adjusted and individually plated food has been added.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.

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