Big data helps reduce food waste

Wastewatchers helps businesses “waste less and sell more”

Thomas Luttikhold founded Wastewatchers to fight the staggering amount of food waste he saw working in the hospitality sector. The Dutch start-up helps businesses chart data to monitor, analyze and ultimately reduce their food waste.

A version of this article was previously posted on Rabobank.com on March 20, 2018.

Listen to this story as a podcast (in Dutch), or read on for the English interview.

“One third of the entire global food production is wasted before it even reaches a plate,” explains Thomas Luttikhold, founder of Wastewatchers, a company whose software and database tools help hospitality businesses track and target their food waste. “In 2050 we are set to reach a global population of nine billion. If you consider that one in eight people in the world suffers from hunger and one in four is overweight, something is clearly very wrong.

“I find it strange that so many people are looking for ways to expand food production and intensify agriculture, but so few are working on the efficiency of what we do with this most valuable global resource. Food is not garbage to be thrown in the bin. There is still so much you can do with it.”

Food waste figures

“I spent over ten years in the hospitality sector, catering parties for 1,000 people. And you stand there afterwards filling ten garbage bags in one go. It makes your stomach turn, but what can you do? In the Netherlands alone, we throw out some €4.5 billion worth of food per year and about €150 worth of food per person annually. I think that in the US and UK that figure is probably even higher.”

“We throw out some €4.5 billion worth of food per year”

- Thomas Luttikhold, Wastewatchers

Big data driving change

“But you can’t tell people what to do. I would rather show them an alternative that makes economic sense. Then people are more likely to change. That’s why I started Wastewatchers. We monitor data on food waste via an online tool, collect everything in a database and link that to other databases to analyze what people are doing and why. So you could say we’re actually researching consumer behavior more than just measuring food waste.

“Here’s an example: today is Tuesday and what we often notice is that company canteens offer roast beef sandwiches. But roast beef isn’t popular at the beginning of the week. Why? It may be because it’s quite a luxurious product and people prefer cheaper options right after the weekend. Things like meatloaf sell much better then.

“A big area of interest for us is the health sector. In care facilities for the elderly, for example, they often serve a bowl of soup before a warm meal at lunchtime. Just think: grandma and grandpa are sitting there, doing their best to finish their breakfast, then later on in the morning, they get a cup of coffee and a biscuit, and at noon they have a bowl of soup. They don’t even get around to eating their lunch afterwards.”

“There is also a financial aspect: wasting less food saves money”

- Thomas Luttikhold, Wastewatchers

A money matter

“There is also a financial aspect to all this. Wasting less food saves money. Large catering companies can reduce full percentage points of their total waste, which can amount to thousands or tens of thousands of euros. They could even increase their turnover. You don’t need to be an economist to understand that if you can better anticipate when something is going to be in demand, you not only waste less, you sell more.

“A colleague has calculated that 1.5 metric tons of bread is thrown out by corporate caterers per quarter. If that bread were to be used by a brewer, it could produce 8,000 to 9,000 liters of beer. It’s an example of what you can do with the data. Basically, you’re localizing where the waste is.”

The consumer angle

Marketing stimulates waste. Doing something about that costs money and from a commercial perspective, I can understand supermarkets aren’t going to fund it – so that idea is on hold at the moment.

“We’re talking to the government, but that too, is difficult. With the conservatives now in power in the Netherlands, the idea is to leave change to the market or to companies themselves. I would really like to see compulsory registration of waste, much like the financial information in annual reports. That information should be transparent. It still sounds far off, but I think it will happen.”

“I would like to see compulsory registration of waste”

- Thomas Luttikhold, Wastewatchers

Future scenario

“What I would really like in the future is to use data to predict what ingredients will be needed and when. Now, a chef orders what he thinks he will need, but in the future a system could be designed which reports what’s really required. That would change everything, including how wholesalers deliver supplies. That would mean fewer trucks on the road and a much more efficient system as a whole, all the way to farmers, who would know what to produce next year.

“I think we will have achieved quite a lot by 2050. But we can’t just produce more. We need to work more efficiently with the resources we have.”

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