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Trash or treasure: An analysis of airline catering food waste

The airline catering industry, which serves over 1 billion passengers a year, can have a huge impact controlling food waste.

By Joaquin Hidalgo and Meiling Chen · August 18, 2022

Editor’s Note: The SCM thesis Trash or Treasure: An Analysis of Airline Catering Food Waste was authored by Austin Iglesias Saragih and Syed Tanveer Ahmed and supervised by Dr. Christopher Mejía Argueta (cmejia@mit.edu) and Dr. Elenna Dugundji (elenna_d@mit.edu). For more information on the research, please contact the thesis supervisors.

In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that around one-third of the world’s food, estimated at 1.3 billion tonnes, was either lost or wasted every year. In addition, millions of people worldwide are suffering from hunger, and the global COVID-19 pandemic has only contributed to the problem further with extended food insecurity issues.

Although food waste management practices vary across industries, the story is not significantly different. One industry that stands out for its global reach and its ability to serve over a billion customers every year is the airline catering industry. A seldom-researched industry, it has the unique potential to significantly impact food waste production and management. With air passenger traffic projected to double over the next two decades, the airline catering industry urgently needs to explore the underlying causes of food waste produced in its catering kitchens and develop concrete strategies to better manage it going forward.

A unique player

The sponsoring company for this research, a global leader in the airline catering industry, was looking to find innovative and disruptive solutions to address their global food waste. Spanning 60+ countries, operating 200+ catering kitchens, and serving more than 700 million passengers every year (as of 2019), the company is uniquely positioned to have a sizeable impact on this global issue.

Food waste in the airline catering industry is heavily regulated and strictly enforced due to the many health risks of mishandling organic products moving across borders. As a result, most of the food waste generated by these kitchens is often compacted, incinerated, or disposed of in landfills. Our sponsoring company has increased its efforts at proper food waste disposal; however, these efforts are usually fragmented and lack a comprehensive approach.

Data and organic waste management

Our research focused on addressing organic waste management and proposing innovative solutions that our sponsoring company can leverage to reduce the food waste generated in its catering kitchens. We performed a systematic review of innovative solutions and the potential impacts (e.g., economic, operational, and environmental) of improved food waste management.

We then applied a system dynamics framework and machine learning with two research goals in mind. First, to identify where food waste is being generated in the catering kitchens; and second, to formulate innovative solutions that can help minimize both cost to the company and the environment.

We found that the portioning and packing area and the production area within the catering kitchens account for over 75% of the organic waste generated in the catering processes. This first insight enabled us to recommend prevention strategies such as standardization and lean frameworks to the sponsoring company and highlight where the focus should be in its internal processes.

But what happens when the waste is already generated? We explored eight different organic waste solutions and evaluated their efficacy through simulation focusing on their financial and environmental impacts. The solutions explored included: composting, animal feed, biogas, and even food bank donations, all of which had varying levels of maturity and implementation costs.

Through this exercise, we found that biogas as an organic waste solution yields the best results from both a cost and environmental impact perspective. Yet it is still not widely available across the globe and therefore unfeasible as a global strategy. Consequently, we used these results to craft a decision map for the company that allows them to select the best waste solution depending on the catering unit’s characteristics.

Finally, to provide the sponsoring company with an appropriate data-driven scaling approach, we leveraged a machine learning algorithm called k-means clustering. This allowed us to group the different catering kitchens based on their waste characteristics and operational strengths, and provide them with a blueprint on how to scale our recommended waste management solutions effectively.

We expect this research will enhance collaboration across companies in a joint commitment to reducing food waste and contribute to more sustainable operations for the airline catering industry.

Every year, approximately 80 students in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics’s (MIT CTL) Master of Supply Chain Management (SCM) program complete approximately 45 one-year research projects.
These students are early-career business professionals from multiple countries, with two to 10 years of experience in the industry. Most of the research projects are chosen, sponsored by, and carried out in collaboration with multinational corporations. Joint teams that include MIT SCM students and MIT CTL faculty work on real-world problems. In this series, they summarize a selection of the latest SCM research.

Supply Chain Management Review: https://www.scmr.com/article/trash_or_treasure_an_analysis_of_airline_catering_food_waste1/blogs