Interview: Sanaa Iqbal Pirani on Food Waste Management in the Hospitality Industry in Abu Dhabi

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Most of the food in Abu Dhabi’s tourist sector is imported. At the large scale that is needed for all of the hotels’ operations, it is difficult to get food locally. Still, a lot of it goes to waste. Sanaa Iqbal Pirani, a researcher on food waste management at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ capital, talks about ways to change that.

What is your name and what are your interests?

Sanaa Iqbal Pirani, researcher at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi

Photo courtesy of Masdar Institute

Sanaa Iqbal Pirani, researcher at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi

My name is Sanaa Iqbal Pirani. I have been a part of the science and engineering field for many years. This year I am a presenter in one of the scientific sessions during the World Resources Forum in Davos.

What do you do right now?

I am a research assistant in the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The focus of my research is the development of food waste management strategies that address food minimization and handling of waste once it has been produced.

Can you give some specifics about your research?

My first job now has been to monitor food waste: the food that is going in and where it has been lost at the different stages.

Obviously, there is a lot of waste. For example, I monitored a wedding where the food included cold appetizers such as humus, grape leaves, sambousas [ground beef wrapped in filo dough], kibbeh [a torpedo-shaped fried croquette stuffed with minced beef or lamb], a main course that included four dishes (lasagna, chicken biryani, some lamb, a rice dish, etc.) and desserts. The problem with that was that 400 people were invited, but only 300 showed up. In this case, the hotel had the charity come in, and this was the first time I saw them working live. They were able to take only the dry dishes and the barbecued meats, but they did not take wet dishes such as lasagna and also none of the desserts. So I saw them throwing away all of the lasagna. I was very sad. And they didn’t take any of the desserts, either. So I saw them throwing away all this cake and cream, caramel. . . .

The food needed to be thrown away due to HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) restrictions. I was at the back watching them to make sure that they were differentiating between the waste in the plates and the waste in the serving dishes, because we had to measure those separately. So, basically, the food from the plates was going into black plastic bags, and if it is from the serving dishes, we were putting the food into other black plastic bags. And at the end we just weighed the garbage bags.

So, you must be a real good cook?

No, there is no correlation between the two [laughs], but the pastry kitchen of the hotels always smells the best.

Tell me more about the results from the observation of this wedding event.

Out of the total input, there was about 60 percent [of] food that has been eaten by the guests, and the rest goes as waste.

Please give an example of regulation that the government has implemented in order to reduce waste.

All commercial and industrial enterprises which generate more than 250 tons of waste a year have to pay a tariff. They also prepare a report on a point basis. The number of points that you get out of 100 determines the fine, if any. If you get 100 out of 100, [it] means that you are doing enough.

Do you think the large number of foreign people in the country contributes to the problem?

It is not that international people do not care. There are all types of people. As humans, we tend to do what those around us tend to do. So it is human nature to be influenced by those around you. The important [thing], right now, is that it is slowly picking up. In school they are really teaching about that. When that generation grows up, hopefully it will be ingrained in them, and it will be implemented without the feeling of “Why should we do it?” or “Is this the only thing we should do?” I think once it becomes the norm, everybody will do it.

Do you think that people worry about food security?

Most of the food is imported. At the large scale that is needed for all of the hotels’ operations, it is difficult to get it locally. Obviously, it is a desert, and you are limited in terms of what you can grow.

We also had a sizable population of camels, but since the local population is only 25 percent, it is really hard to have a lot of locally produced food. In general, many of the residents are getting good jobs in the cities, so there is less incentive to engage in farming.

People do not worry about food security. I have been there since 2010, and in recent history there hasn’t been any type of event when food hasn’t come in. If there is a shortage, people would realize it.

Featured image source: flickr / dodongjan under Creative Commons

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