Cutting food waste at sea – experiences between Hull and Zebrugge

Take £200 in £10 notes and throw them in the waste bin. That’s what Reis IJsselstein did to bring home the cost of throwing away left over food from the buffet on board his ferry. Well, not actually his, but one of P&O’s ferries that cross the North Sea between Hull and Rotterdam and Zeebrugge every night. A recent trip to Brussels meant I had the chance to take a ferry and see what was happening with food on board.

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Today, Reis is the Dutch head chef on the Pride of Bruges. In the mid 2000s, he and some colleagues decided to try and cut down the amount of waste food left from the buffet restaurant, which serves breakfast and dinner to the passengers.

There’s always some waste from buffets, as all items need to be available for the last person to dine, who has paid just as much as the first person, he says. If it’s not then some complain vociferously. Once they started the waste management scheme and the galley team became more aware of what was being thrown away he saw the amount of waste at the end of a serving dropping. Now, they reduce the amount put out later in the evening and waste levels run at a minimum of around 10%, any significant excesses beyond 15% leading to changes.

What started as an initiative among the chefs is now up and running on a computer programme after he got a manager to set it up for them. After every sitting, each of the people in charge of different parts of the buffet have to weigh and record what is left. That amount is entered onto a spreadsheet, its cost shown and totted up by the day and week. That way he keeps track of waste levels and picks up on excessive levels.

There’s not much creativity left in what they cook for passengers today, with menus and buying of the ingredients and many dishes done by head office and only changed twice a year. He and his fellow chefs, some of whom he’s training up on board, can be more creative with the crew meals. On the Pride of Bruges, of the 100 person crew, 80% are Philippinos who live on the ship for 6 months, working 7 days a week before having travel paid, two months back home. There is a five week menu cycle for the crew and much more chance for the chefs to show their creative skills.

Over on the sister ship, Pride of York, head chef Vic Tyson says he’s seen the amount of waste drop tremendously in his 21 years at sea. He too runs the same waste management system and likes to see if he can beat his colleagues on the other ship. There’s a different crew mix on the British ship, more British and Portuguese, who do not live on board for the same length of time.

Vic has noticed a general increase in size of the passengers over the years, more vegetarian and special diets, but thinks the younger generation now seem to be eating more healthily. A big change over the years has been in the requirements from the port health authorities, says Alistair Macphail, food and beverage manager on the Pride of York. After the norovirus outbreaks in cruise ships in the past and e.coli food poisoning outbreaks ashore, the authorities are much more vigilant in wanting to know if anyone is ill, what they have eaten and how the food was handled. On board, all raw meat, for example, is handled in a separate part of the galley, which is not used at any other time. There are also stringent procedures to follow in case of an outbreak and crew training on how to deal with them.

I was struck by how long most of the crew I met, including the waiters, had worked for the company. People either stayed a long time or got out quick, says Annuska Popelier, food and beverage manager on the Pride of Bruges.

These two ships make the longest trips of P&O’s 15 ferries around the UK. Across all the ships the most popular dish, says Phil Wilkin, Category Manager for them all, who is based in Dover, is still fish and chips, accounting for about half of all meals served across the fleet.

The question that sticks with me is, is it time to rethink buffets more generally, not just at sea? Given their built in levels of waste, perhaps they are a good place to start and for everyone to monitor those levels and get them down. Even if it means cooking to order towards the end of service, especially for the meat, dairy and fish products that have a much larger environmental footprint. Perhaps it is time for an audit on food waste not just food hygiene – and a good place to start with the proposal developed by This is Rubbish on The Industry food waste audit proposal (IFWAP).

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About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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One Response to Cutting food waste at sea – experiences between Hull and Zebrugge

  1. Brilliant. Has this approach been shared with other types of restaurants on land? Do they use it in their marketing material? Does the business think that they are getting more customers because they are switched on to this issue of waste? If it was me deciding where to eat I would be interested in this issue.

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