How £90m a year is going up in smoke

A GROUNDBREAKING study reveals the huge amounts of energy wasted by contract caterers but there are massive savings to be made by companies willing to invest.


It’s seven o’clock in the morning and staff are preparing the kitchens for the hungry breakfast crowd. The grill goes on ready for a hard morning’s work and won’t be shut down until well past midday. Ovens, hobs, dishwashers, fridges and extractors will all be used and will cost the client hundreds or even thousands of pounds for electricity and gas. This is the high-energy life of contract catering.


According to a study by Ricardo-AEA for the Carbon Trust and DEFRA (the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs) all this activity adds up to a whopping £292m a year being spent on energy for contract catering. That’s about 18p a meal. The resulting carbon footprint is pretty hefty as well, at 1.32m tonnes annually.


That is an estimate, with AEA having assessed just four sites. Yet the spread is a fair reflection of the sector – a business site, a hospital, a school and a Ministry of Defence unit. And, critically, this is the first time that such a thorough assessment of energy use in commercial kitchens has been carried out. Detailed readings from energy meters over four-week periods were combined with observation days to provide a warts-and-all breakdown of energy use on the sites run by Elior, Sodexo, BaxterStorey/Caterlink and ARAMARK.


The conclusion? “Significant opportunities for energy efficiency and hence carbon savings exist in the contract catering sector,” the report reads. Energy can be cut by 32%, saving the industry £90m a year – or about 5.7p per meal. Carbon emissions would also fall by 425,000 tonnes(about 33%).


Some of the savings require investment: for example 39.7% for example, if 80% of sites replaced electric combis with gas ones it would cost about £3,000 per site but would repay the cost in just three years. Such a shift would save £14m a year across the sector. Other possible investments include purchasing more efficient refrigeration cabinets (saving £13m), improving the control of extractors (£9.2m) and replacing electric ovens with more efficient models (£8.3m).


However, it’s the behavioural changes that “amazed” one of the report’s authors. “There are a lot of quick wins still available, especially through cooking methods and meal planning,” explains Michael Savage, a specialist consultant at Ricardo-AEA, “but we also found fridges sited in areas with no ventilation. It shows that it’s worth keeping chipping away with campaigns.”


Savage calculated that behaviour changes to cooking could save £30m a year across the sector, while in dishwashing the figure is £5.3m. That’s about 2.23p of the 5.7p total savings. It wouldn’t cost that much either – about £13m in all for staff training. Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems in catering. Huge numbers of staff would have to be trained, meaning time away from their duties, while the level of turnover would also put off some caterers. However, the big barrier is responsibility.


Typically in catering the client pays for energy and invests in new equipment. This means that the caterer obtains no financial benefit from improved energy efficiency.


The report therefore suggests that “a new business model is needed for the sector that provides caterers with incentives to specify and use equipment efficiently, while providing clients with incentives to invest in the most efficient equipment”.


But why would caterers want to take on responsibility for energy management? “Our job is to provide food and a service, not advice on energy,” explains Mike Hanson, BaxterStorey’s environment and sustainability manager. “But we can add value, and [looking at energy saving on-site] can maintain a strong relationship with clients in what is a very competitive climate. There are lots of opportunities out there and there’s no reason why we can’t flag them up.”


And therein lies the next challenge. DEFRA has agreed, through its Industrial Energy Efficiency Accelerator scheme, to fund another stage to help disseminate some of the information and guidance that the research has delivered. Savage is “excited” by the prospect, especially given that other big players in the sector have shown a renewed interest on the back of the findings.


“There’s much to be saved using the old equipment you have,” Savage adds. “We watched that grill being put on at seven and not turned off until one, but in that time it was used for 10 minutes to brown some sausages – it wasn’t even used to cook them.”