Hotels and restaurants are being urged to up their game in the fight against food waste as public opinion turns against shows of lavish buffets and excess.
The issue of food waste has long been a thorn in the side of both the hospitality industry and environmentalists in the UAE.
According to Dubai Municipality, food accounts for 22 per cent of the total waste produced by the emirate, and that figure leaps to 55 per cent during the month of Ramadan.
The World Wildlife Fund has urged the UAE to reduce the amount of waste produced during the holy month by one third.
"We are all interconnected and depend on healthy and abundant food and natural resources for survival,” said Laila Mostafa Abdullatif, director-general of Emirates Nature, the UAE project office of the WWF.
“This Ramadan, we encourage residents and citizens to reflect on their eating habits and learn how to shop, cook and eat smarter.
Habiba Al Marashi, chair of Emirates Environmental Group, a Dubai-based non-governmental group that works to protect the environment through education, said that a lot of the country's waste was because of "lavish iftars at restaurants and other social gatherings ".
“Food providers do not have a contingency plan for the left overs and, as a result, it goes to waste. This not only creates a problem for waste management but from a nutritional point of view, the same food could be used to feed the underprivileged.”
Across the UAE, each individual wastes 197 kilograms of food a year, compared to 95kg and 115kg in Europe and North America, according to a report released this year by Dubai Industrial Park and The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Ms Al Marashi estimates that the average amount of food wasted each year in the UAE is worth Dh13 billion.
“The majority, 32 per cent, happens in restaurants. Another 30 per cent is leftovers from celebrations,” she said.
“Cosmetic standards in restaurants and last-minute changes to orders mean that perfectly good food often goes to waste.”
However, according to the Hilton hotel chain's vice president of food and beverage development, the mindset of both customers and food providers in the region is beginning to change.
“Consumers in this region are often used to eating at buffets, which have high volumes of food that is constantly replenished,” said Emma Banks.
“At the Hilton, we are working to produce higher-quality food in smaller quantities."
She described Ramadan as an “incredibly busy time for hotels and restaurants”, which means keeping food waste to a minimum was critical.
The chain, which has branches across the UAE, is working to educate their teams about how to be more economical and are running trials with food waste tracking systems.
One of those systems, Winnow Vision, is a camera that sits on top of the area where food is being thrown away and a number of UAE outlets have already signed up to it.
The camera identifies the type of food and how much of it was being wasted. The information is then made available to the chef, with an estimation for how much the discarded food is worth.
The Hilton Dubai Jumeirah has seen around a 74 per cent reduction in food waste since adopting the system in September 2017.
The Fairmont The Palm, Dubai, also signed up in the same year and said they have seen a 61 per cent reduction in waste.
“Being a chef means you are expected to meet the expectations of guest,” said executive chef Trevor Macleod.
“Managing food waste during Ramadan is tough because traditions in Dubai dictate that you provide these opulent buffets with limitless food at all times.”
The challenge when it comes to waste, he said, was to keep buffets full at all times without creating an abundance of food that will not be eaten.
“You have to make sure there is proper planning by looking at the number of people coming in and preparing accordingly,” he said.
A number of hotels have also teamed up with local charities to ensure that leftover food is distributed to orphanages, construction workers and needy families throughout Ramadan.
“We collect food from hotels all over the UAE and ensure that is distributed to those who need it,” said Sultan Mohamed Al Shehhi, senior administrative auditor with Emirates Red Crescent.
“Last year, we collected 1.5 million meals from hotels, palaces, airports and restaurants in the UAE, before redistributing them. Of those, 250,000 were during Ramadan alone.”