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  • 16th Jan 2023

New Results: Reducing food waste in the UAE’s cafeterias

Food waste is a significant problem in the UAE: the annual cost of food waste has been estimated at $3.5 billion, with around 38% of the food prepared daily in the UAE wasted.

Imagine you go to have lunch at your workplace cafeteria (if you have one!). Is the portion a tad smaller today? You wonder, but then you shrug it off and enjoy your lunch. As you’re leaving, you pass by a glossy poster tracking progress against a food waste goal. You’re reminded of your own contribution to the problem, as you scrap your leftovers into a transparent bin. 

This, in a nutshell, is the intervention that BIT has designed and trialled in Accuro’s hotel staff cafeterias for Ne’ma, UAE’s National Food Loss and Waste initiative (a collaboration of UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment and the Emirates Foundation). As the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week kicks off, we look at the ‘fruits’ of this collaboration. 

A glimpse into BIT’s food waste research in UAE

Food waste is a significant problem in the UAE: the annual cost of food waste has been estimated at $3.5 billion, with around 38% of the food prepared daily in the UAE wasted. As a result, the UAE has launched a National Food Loss and Waste Initiative, Ne’ma, to achieve the ambitious target of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.

To support this goal, the Ne’ma asked BIT to build a picture of the behaviours driving the UAE’s food waste problem. BIT was then tasked with designing and testing interventions to tackle it. 

Our initial research identified the hospitality sector as a key target in the UAE. Why? Because social norms around hospitality incentivise wasting food, with defective choice architecture motivating people to take food they’ll never be able to eat. A widespread lack of awareness about the issue also contributes to food waste being a major problem when eating out-of-home. 

How did we try to reduce food waste in cafeterias? 

In partnership with Accuro, a major catering company, we designed a flagship trial to showcase the potential of behavioural science – coupled with rigorous evaluation – to reduce the UAE’s food waste.

We developed a multi-component behavioural intervention aimed at reducing food waste in Accuro’s hotel staff cafeterias. This included several nudges, such as: 

  1. Reducing the default size of portions: smaller portions were served to diners who could come back for a second portion if they wanted.
  2. A series of behavioural prompts: posters and on-table messages encouraged customers to waste less food. 
  3. Salient feedback provision using a “food waste tracker” (a poster tracking daily and weekly food waste) and a transparent food waste bin, to highlight how diner’s individually contributed to waste as they dispose of their leftovers. 

Figure 1. Illustration of our intervention: Smaller portions and feedback provision

We then ran a 12-week difference-in-difference evaluation of this intervention across 7 Accuro cafeterias. We compared the amount of food waste every day in the control (with no interventions) and treatment cafeterias (with the interventions above) over time. 

Did it work?

We estimated a large reduction of between 29-44%, with a degree of uncertainty about the exact magnitude due to the sample size and volatility of daily waste. The effect seemed to persist throughout the entire duration of the trial, and is consistent with the effect sizes in the literature. 

Encouragingly for potential scaling into more consumer-facing contexts, the intervention was positively received by customers, with no drop in satisfaction compared to the control sites (as measured by survey at the end of the trial). 

Figure 2. Intervention effect 

Tonnes of impact

Around 1.7 tonnes of food waste was prevented during the duration of this trial alone, and if scaled across the 7 cafeterias, it would save around 17 tonnes per year. If smaller portion size – the likely key driver of intervention – was scaled across hospitality in the UAE, it would save around 144,000 tonnes of food every year, equivalent to around $0.2 billion of cost savings. 

What’s next on the menu?

If you’re interested in this and other interventions to reduce food waste, watch out for two new reports BIT produced for Ne’ma, coming soon:

  • Implementation guide: on how to implement this intervention
  • 25 Behavioural solutions to reduce food waste from farm to fork

If you are a food service provider or food waste innovator in UAE (and beyond) and would like to work with us to reduce food waste, please get in touch.