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Reducing food waste is good for business, Las Vegas companies say

This is the second installment in a three-part series on food waste in Southern Nevada. The final installment is set to appear in View on Nov. 30. The first installment is online at bit.ly/2gZFNNc.

The Fountains of Bellagio. The 24-hour buffet passes. The clubs with several-thousand-dollar bottle service.

Competition for visitor dollars has earned Las Vegas a reputation for excess and waste. But over the past decade, companies in the Las Vegas Valley have been vying to be the most sustainable.

Businesses have been recycling paper, cardboard and glass, pursuing LEED certification for their buildings and cutting water use.

Now they’re looking for different ways to improve — and stand out to consumers — by cutting food waste.

Eric Dominguez, vice president of facilities, engineering and sustainability for Caesars Entertainment Corp., said the company has been tracking its waste diversion since 2008. But figuring out what to do with food waste and how to cut down on it has been slow going, he said.

“All we’re doing now is we’re separating, collecting the organics and we’re diverting it from the landfill, which is good,” Dominguez said. Caesars Entertainment contracts with Western Elite to pick up the material, which is composted or turned into pig feed.

“I would say we’ve got a ways to go,” Dominguez said. “I think we’re doing a lot better than we have in the past right now.”

Organics (mostly food waste) make up about 50 percent of the total waste diverted at Caesars’ ten Southern Nevada properties. Dominguez said minimizing waste at the source should be the priority.

The company started a pilot program at Rio this summer that identifies where food waste is being generated.

“Right now I can tell you numbers on a macro scale … but I can’t tell you by outlet. I can’t tell you if there’s one particular source that’s a spike source and maybe it needs to be looked at,” Dominguez said. “Is it during prep? Is it because portions are too large and we get a lot of waste from guests? Is it conventions?”

Understanding the source of the waste will help the company decide what kind of reduction goals are realistic, he said.

Change ultimately will be consumer driven.

“There’s a balance between wanting to create this environment that’s good for the guests, right?” Dominguez said. “If you’re paying $50 at Bacchanal Buffet and you’ve got a tray that’s a quarter full, that doesn’t look so nice.”

Encouraging change

For MGM Resorts International, mostly convention clients have been asking for more sustainable events, said Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of corporate sustainabilty.

“They host events in other cities, and they have that composting ability in other cities,” he said. “There are really a handful of clients that are very sustainability minded … But that really is the minority at the moment.”

MGM started tracking food-waste diversion in 2007, when it sent about 3,000 tons to be composted or made into pig feed. Its program peaked in 2013 with 25,000 tons diverted. That number has dropped since the valley’s only composting facility, A1 Organics, was replaced by Terra Firma Organics, with stricter rules about what could be composted. It won’t accept animal products, for example.

While diverting waste from a landfill is good, other steps can be taken to prevent waste.

To do this, Caesars’s director of culinary operations, William Becker, encourages a simple step for kitchen staff: math.

“It sounds elementary, but you would be surprised how many people order from sitting behind a desk,” he said. “They’ll order what they think they need as opposed to what they need.”

Eliminating food waste is a good fiscal policy for the company, Becker said.

“Our best interest is to present that food at the least possible cost, which means that we need to eliminate as much waste as possible,” he said. “And we need to get as much yield out of that product as possible. Part of global food waste, in my opinion, is not always overproduction. It’s often times the inability to use 100 percent of that item.”

Food is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain, starting at the farm and continuing to household consumption, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

In a study requested by the organization, the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that food loss in industrialized countries is as high as in developing countries. But in the United States and in European countries, more than 40 percent of food thrown away is at the retail and consumer level. In developing countries the majority of losses occur earlier, at the post-harvest and processing levels).

That means grocery stores, households and restaurants are responsible for much of the food wasted in the U.S.

Motivating employees to think about food waste is a different beast . That’s why Becker created an employee garden at the Flamingo that staff members can work in.

“We try and find some spot, big, small, it doesn’t really matter. As long as we can get seeds in the ground and grow something,” Becker said. “It’s all about trying to get the employees to really respect and understand where the food comes from.”

“For example, most cooks don’t know how to grow bell peppers. So when they get a bell pepper in front of them, the first thing they do is whack of the top and whack off the bottom … and then they’ll throw the top and bottom away.”

It took time, effort and resources for someone to grow that pepper, Becker said.

“So we should have a little more respect for where the product comes from and how to utilize 100 percent of it,” he said. “Because we don’t. In a lot of cases — different proteins, different vegetables — we don’t always use the entire piece of it.”

Learning from Ikea

Other companies, like the Sweden-founded, Netherlands-based Ikea, are using technology to solve food-waste woes.

The store near the 215 Beltway has a bistro and cafe that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an employee dining room.

With 250-300 employees and thousands of yearly visitors, that could amount to a lot of wasted food. About nine months ago, the store installed an electronic system, LeanPath, that measures food waste by weight and category and breaks it down by day, time and type of food.

The store set a baseline, then set a goal to reduce its food waste by 25 percent, said store manager Amy Jensen. The store has reduced its food waste by 37 percent, she said.

“The technology gives us a lot more tools and guidance,” Jensen said. LeanPath can estimate long-term data and calculate the carbon footprint of a tossed food item, as well as its dollar value.

The LeanPath system categorizes waste by the reason it’s thrown away: inventory spoilage, trim waste, handling and cooking issues, expired, excess and sampling. It even tracks what type of food was thrown away most (it was hot smoked salmon in the last week of October). That encourages kitchen employees to be more mindful, Jensen said.

The bistro added another serving line for breakfast, which is served until the bistro runs out of breakfast items. Meanwhile, the other line starts serving lunch. When the first line runs out, only then does it switch over to lunch items . That way the bistro doesn’t have to throw away hardly any of its breakfast food, Jensen said.

The food that does get tossed still gets composted or sent to a pig farm.

Jensen declined to share financials, but she said reducing the amount of food thrown away is “absolutely” an economic benefit.

A study conducted by the United Nations food-waste coalition, Champions 12.3, indicates there is financial incentive. A March analysis of 1,200 business sites across 700 companies showed that 99 percent of companies received a return on investment with food-waste reduction.

For half of the companies surveyed, for every $1 invested in food loss and waste reduction, the return was $14 or more.

“As soon as you give information to people and they’re empowered to work with that information, they’re amazed themselves with what they can do,” Jensen said.

Contact Madelyn Reese at mreese@viewnews.com or 702-383-0497. Follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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