How sustainable is Ireland's food industry?

The ‘Irish Times’ war on waste food survey finds food businesses are making progress – but fast food and ready meals are black spots

An uncertain future for planet Earth and glaring evidence of damage caused by human-induced global warming and unsustainable lifestyles are cause for despair, not to mention threats to food security from associated extreme weather events.

In contrast the results of the first-ever Irish Times sustainability survey is justification for some optimism in an Irish context. It is heartening to see how many businesses surveyed – supermarkets, restaurants, coffee shops, caterers, festivals and airlines – are genuinely embracing sustainability at the core of their operations.

Most are in regular conversation with their suppliers about adopting sustainable practices across the supply chain, while customers are asking them to account for their environmental credentials and future commitments.

It is heartening to see how many businesses are reducing single-use plastics and excessive packaging and replacing items with 100 per cent compostable materials. At last there is evidence of more concerted efforts to reduce food waste, and they are acknowledging the acute need to reduce their carbon footprint. An impressive number are achieving “zero waste” or have a “zero to landfill” policy.


In many respects they are ahead of the Government in implementing focused steps towards sustainability and decarbonisation. What’s more, they have specific targets with clear timelines – none more so than supermarkets, which are furthest along the road to being part of a circular economy with sustainability at its heart. This is probably driven by vast amounts of data on food preferences, purchasing habits and customers’ views increasingly reflecting concerns about sustainability and plastics use.

Fast food problem

But each sector has its own distinct challenges. The biggest environmental challenge for airlines is the vast amount of carbon emissions associated with flying. In the case of festivals, it’s waste left behind after the show is over. For many supermarkets – still – it’s excessive packaging, foods with long air miles attached and lack of support for local producers.

The one obvious downside of the survey was the failure of major fast-food outlets to respond – although some are known to have detailed sustainability strategies in place. That said, the nature of their business is especially challenging in terms of the amount of plastics, excessive packaging and volumes of food waste generated.

Some respondents highlight a lack of transparency in waste disposal, such as ambiguity about what’s biodegradable (vague) versus what’s compostable – using the latter term has to comply with stricter guidelines. “The same seems to be true of ‘recyclable’; something being potentially recyclable isn’t the same as it actually being recycled in this country, and if there aren’t the facilities to recycle certain things ... what happens to it?” asked The Lighthouse Cafe in Galway.


Globally the increasing importance of food sustainability is emerging, especially as we will soon face a planet with a population of nine billion people. Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme was developed in response to market research that was positive towards Ireland as a producer of sustainable food, but needing to be able to provide proof on this. Transparency raises its head again.

But there is unfinished business. Chef and caterer Eunice Power from Dungarvan, Co Waterford, encapsulated the issue when she spoke at Evidence Matters, a recent event seeking a better Ireland in Leinster House.

She said she wanted to open up discussion about “how we as Irish people have lost our way when it comes to food” and the amount of food waste in particular. More than one million tons of food are wasted every year in Ireland alone.

“Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, but over the past six decades local produce has been ignored and lost to ready-to-go food. The evidence shows that the rise of cheap, ready-to-go food has led to overbuying, obesity and increased food waste,” she said.

She asked policy makers to take this seriously, look at the evidence and find solutions. “I believe as a society we need to relearn respect for food, look at our local food chains, buy less but buy local, buy seasonal and learn to cook again at home.”

It amounted to a compelling plea for genuine sustainability. There’s more work to do in spite of the positives in this important survey.

 - Kevin O'Sullivan

Survey of Irish hospitality and entertainment businesses

Sustainability is a hot topic dominating conversations around the food industry. But it's not all bad news. Some businesses are taking proactive steps to promote responsible behaviour on issues such as food waste, single-use plastics and recycling. 
The Irish Times Magazine invited a selection of food, travel, hospitality and entertainment businesses to participate in a sustainability survey, and to tell us what they are doing to address the issue. Here is an edited selection of responses from restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets, airlines and festivals. Representatives of the fast-food industry and hotel trade were also invited to participate, but did not respond.

- Marie-Claire Digby

Restaurants and coffee shops

At Brother Hubbard in Dublin, customers are asked if they require a bag, box, cutlery and napkins, rather than being served them automatically, and 90 per cent of its packaging for takeaway is compostable or suitable for recycling. Early adopters of the keep cup, they offer a 20 cent discount to users, and discounts are also offered to those who return compostable containers so they can be disposed of correctly. 
Copia Green in Limerick aims to be a zero-waste business and has come up with ways to reduce its food waste such as incorporating pulp from juicing into gluten-free crackers, and adding almond pulp from nut milk to soups. "We even use 100 per cent compostable pens to take orders on recycled paper."
Kai Café and Restaurant in Galway sources 90 per cent of its produce locally, and has a policy in place for no single-use plastics that it hopes to be 100 per cent operational by next year. It has also looked at portion size to reduce waste.
Merrow in Galway is one of many restaurants that returns delivery crates to suppliers so they can be re-used, and turns food items that need to be used up into daily specials, reducing food waste. 
The Press Up hospitality group has removed plastic straws from use across its venues, reminds customers to reduce their use of disposable napkins, cutlery and stirrers and does not offer plastic bags in its retail outlets. It has partnered with WineLabs to offer wine in refillable bottles. Back-of-house recycling systems are built in to the plans for every new opening.
The Cliff Group – Cliff House Hotel, Cliff at Lyons and Cliff Townhouse – grows and harvests as much of its produce as it can on sites in Waterford and Kildare. Waste bread, fruit and veg trimming are offered to people who rear pigs. The kitchens implement water-saving initiatives, and rainwater is collected for use in kitchen gardens. 
At 3fe Coffee in Dublin, single-use plastic is being phased out, which means coffee suppliers have had to look at alternative packaging. Over the past 12 months, the company has diverted almost two tons of waste from its roastery in Glasnevin away from landfill, by finding recycling companies that accept items such as printer cartridges, and by finding new uses for waste products. In the kitchens, head chef Holly Dalton has a zero-food-waste policy – an example of which is dehydrating and blitzing mushroom stalks to make an umami powder.
At the Kemp sisters' Itsa, Feast, Joe's and Hatch & Sons, the businesses are entering into partnership agreements with suppliers to promote a shared path to sustainability. Investment is also being made in staff training in the areas of recycling and waste. Customers are getting on board too: "Customers reach out to our businesses all the time with comments and suggestions on how to be greener."
At The Lighthouse Cafe in Galway, financial benefits have accompanied responsible behaviour. "If we use less electricity, it costs us less. If we produce less waste, our bin charges are lower. If we buy produce from the local area, it will benefit the local economy."
Coffeeangel in Dublin donates 20 cent to Friends of the Earth every time a customer uses a keep cup, and estimates that since it introduced this initiative, it has kept 10,000 single-use cups from landfill.
Avoca acknowledges that safety, cost and compliance impact on making the right choices around sustainability, but remains committed to making positive changes, and has noted greater employee engagement with these initiatives. Voice Ireland has worked with staff to increase knowledge of conscious recycling. Monthly waste reports, circulated between outlets, has reduced food waste.
Last summer Insomnia launched Mission Compostable, which it describes as "an integrated in-store sustainability programme which will, by 2020, divert 15 million takeaway coffee cups and 20 million single-use items such as plastic straws, plastic cups and plastic cutlery from landfill". The chain also offers spent coffee grounds to customers, free of charge, for use in gardening.

Responses were sought but not received from Starbucks and Costa Coffee

For a more comprehensive selection of responses from restaurants, click here


Tesco's targets to be reached by 2025 include having all of its packaging fully recyclable or compostable, and all paper and cardboard 100 per cent sustainable. In addition, the company aims to halve the amount of packaging weight in its business. Changes in practical terms include removing "soak pads" from Tesco mince, which has resulted in five tons less packaging weight.
The company says it is the first Irish retailer to publish food waste data, and that by 2020, "no food which is suitable for human consumption will go to waste in our stores in Ireland". 
Marks & Spencer says more than half of its plastic packaging is now "widely recyclable" and that it is continuing to research new solutions for hard-to-recycle plastics such as pouches and films. "We'll make sure that by 2022 all our plastic packaging is easy to recycle." The company also has a stated aim to halve food waste in M&S- operated shops in the UK and Ireland by 2025.
At Aldi, the aim is to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in packaging on own-label products by 2025, and to discontinue the sale of single-use plastics from its own- label range in 2019. From 2019 the company will publish an annual packaging and plastics report. 
"To help hit these targets we have set up an internal task force, made up of internal and independent experts," the company says. Changing from plastic trays for apples to a more environmentally friendly pulp tray removed more than 40 tons of plastic annually from its waste, and it now has 23 fruit and veg lines sold in similarly less environmentally damaging packaging. All 133 Aldi stores donate surplus food to charities and community organisations, through FoodCloud.
Lidl has already discontinued the sale of single-use plastic items including drinking straws, disposable cups and glasses, plates and cutlery. The supermarket chain is targeting black plastic packaging, which it says cannot be recycled in Ireland, with plans to remove it entirely from fresh fish products by February 2019, with fresh meat, poultry and cured-meat ranges following suit before August next year.
Additional fruit and vegetables are being offered for sale unpackaged, with the recent addition of 17 new loose items bringing to 25 per cent the proportion of Lidl's fresh produce now being offered in this manner. 
Ardkeen Stores in Waterford has invested in lower-energy lighting and refrigeration and recently installed solar panels that will significantly reduce the amount of electricity it needs to purchase. Food waste is kept to a minimum by applying a "reduced to clear" discount when required, and by using up surpluses in its in-store kitchen.

Responses were sought but not received from SuperValu and Dunnes Stores

For a more comprehensive selection of responses from supermarkets, click here


Aer Lingus has achieved a 33 per cent reduction in in-flight waste as a result of introducing what it describes as "a more efficient aircraft bar loading system", and recently initiated an in-flight service review to give more consideration to waste reduction. 
Sales data is being used to more accurately predict customer demand for in-flight catering on short-haul flights, to reduce food waste of perishable items. New technology is being employed to "better understand the dining preferences of guests". For instance, on overnight transatlantic flights, not all passengers will want to eat the complimentary meal. 
The airline says it is reviewing its in-flight offering – "including our use of single-use plastics – in the context of delivery of new aircraft, which will be 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than existing aircraft."
Efforts to address sustainability issues are ongoing. "We want to see the successes we have had – eg with the reduction in waste due to changes in how we load our food and beverage offer – being achieved right across the business."
Both Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic, which is a world leader in aviation sustainability, say reducing carbon emissions is a priority. Virgin is doing so by investing in new aircraft, improving how it operates and researching new low-carbon fuels. Simply by removing the plastic wrap from around in-flight headsets. the airline has removed 6.5 tons of plastic per year. Unused items from amenity kits are saved and repurposed, and blankets are donated to charity.
Virgin has partnered with the Sustainable Restaurant Association and follows that organisation's guidelines regarding fair trade, biodiversity, waste management, sustainable sourcing, and ethical and humane animal husbandry.

Responses were sought but not received from Ryanair and Emirates

For a more comprehensive selection of responses from airlines, click here


In its inaugural year the All Together Now festival made a strong statement of intent by banning plastic bottles, glasses, food packaging and single-use coffee cups, and ensuring that bars and food outlets used compostable items. A wholesaler was on site to supply these to traders. This festival also introduced a refillable and recyclable water carton in place of plastic bottles.
Sustainability has been a priority at Body & Soul since its inception, and a formal strategy has been in place since 2014. "In 2014, we sent 59 tons of mixed municipal waste to landfill, and recycled 17 tons. In 2018 we recycled 50.46 tons and only sent 3.5 tons to landfill." 
A cup-return system saw an impressive 29,155 cups, or 37 per cent of those served, returned to the bars for supervised recycling, and the organisers intend to go plastic-free in the bars and trading units in 2019. A dedicated "Monday Morning" team is employed to assist campers with the Leave No Trace campaign.
Who can forget the sea of abandoned tents that litter the Electric Picnic festival site every year? Festival Republic, which runs this and several other major fixtures, sent 150 volunteers to the campsites this year to help festival crowds to recycle. Single-use food packaging, cutlery and containers have been banned at the festival since 2009, and on arrival, campers are given a waste kit, containing a clear bag for recycling and a biodegradable bag for compostables.

Note: Businesses operating in the fast food and hotel sectors were invited to participate in the survey, but did not respond