LAS VEGAS (AP) — At a farm outside Las Vegas, a herd of pigs feasts on lobster, sausage links and beef. People at a community center in town sit for a dinner that may include sliders as well as truffle mac and cheese.
The two meals have something in common. Both came from the kitchens of “Sin City’s” opulent casinos, where the axiom of excess is increasingly being reconsidered — and waste reduction has taken hold. The environmental and financial impacts of leftover food are more important than ever to the world-famous Las Vegas casinos. In recent years the casinos have developed and expanded innovative practices to decrease what they send to the landfill by thousands of tons per year.
Food scraps are turned into compost or taken to a farm to feed thousands of pigs. Expired minibar snacks are donated to community organizations. Banquet meals that were never served go to a food bank. Oyster shells are even shipped thousands of miles to Chesapeake Bay.
The comprehensive efforts vary slightly among operators; some were recently recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Guests of the glitzy mega resorts will never witness the not-so-glamorous efforts, but they exemplify the extent to which companies are going to improve their bottom lines and make a dent on a global issue.
“Most people, when they think about recycling, they think about the standard metal, plastic, paper,” said Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice-president of corporate sustainability at MGM Resorts International. “(But) the reality is, for an organization like MGM, food, food waste, food scraps is a significant part of our waste footprint. Our main approach is to think about the type of food that’s coming out of our operations and directing that type of food to the best destination it could go to.”
The Venetian and Palazzo casino-resorts, which are operated by Las Vegas Sands, donate prepared meals to charities and send food scraps to the Las Vegas Livestock pig farm 25 miles north of the “Strip.” The farm’s 5,000 pigs are fed boiled food scraps exclusively. Trucks haul 25 to 35 tons of food per day from the Strip to the farm. The process is part of the waste-management package the companies purchase.
“They probably have eaten more lobster than me,” farm manager Sarah Stallard said.
The practice of feeding food scraps to pigs has federal approval. But it’s not widely used at U.S. farms, which favor a regimented diet of corn, wheat and soybean meal. Las Vegas Livestock has the advantage of being close to a large source of scraps. The farm is building a system that would allow it to accept even more.
MGM began donating in 2016 fully cooked but never-served meals from conventions and other large events to Three Square, southern Nevada’s only food bank. The company has donated more than 700,000 pounds of cooked food, kitchen ingredients, minibar snacks and extra food stored at warehouses.
Food-bank employees coordinate with MGM’s properties along the “Strip.” They arrive with an empty truck. They then take the temperature of every potential hot-food donation, and if it’s at greater than 135 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s packaged in disposable foil pans, placed in a cart and driven to the food bank.
On a recent afternoon, food-bank employees picked up more than 250 beef sliders, truffle mac and cheese, and stir fry from the Aria casino-resort. Trays of chicken sliders didn’t meet the required temperature. The food is then cooled in blast chillers, moved to a warehouse-sized freezer and entered into an ordering system used by charities — including a senior center, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.
“Knowing that they are going to help us fight this hunger battle is paramount,” said Maurice Johnson, director of operations at Three Square, adding that 700,000 pounds have been used for 600,000 meals. “We update our inventory every day. We process orders every day.”
The federal government has estimated more than one-third of all available food in the United States is wasted. An EPA initiative has partnered with more than 1,000 organizations to tackle the issue — including grocers, restaurants and hotels. The agency estimated participants in 2017 prevented about 648,000 tons of food from going into landfills or incinerators, avoiding more than $30 million in landfill tipping fees.
The Trump administration declared April “Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month.” The EPA in March honored MGM’s Bellagio casino-resort for its food-recovery efforts. The property this past year sent 2,210 tons of food waste to the pig farm outside Las Vegas, an increase of 16 percent from 2017 and 455 percent from 2015. It also diverted 20,000 pounds of oyster shells to Chesapeake Bay, where they help restore oyster habitat.