The word “sustainability” is tossed around a lot these days no matter what industry you do business in. But what does it really mean to have a sustainable restaurant operation? Is it recycling? Is it food waste reduction? Is it a green building? The answer is all of the above and more.
Sustainability Begins at your Dumpster
When it comes to zero-waste initiatives and sustainable practices the first places most restaurants look is trash, and it’s a good place to start. The average quick-service restaurant produces just over a ton of trash per week. When you multiply that by the number of restaurants in this country, you’ve got a substantial amount of trash. So, what can a restaurant owner do to reduce the amount of waste they send to a landfill? The easiest answer is always to focus on recycling whenever possible. Many restaurants already have some type of recycling program in place.
The easy-to-recycle waste streams that are the most common include:
- Cooking oil
- Grease trap waste
- Cardboard boxes
- Plastics wrapping (sometimes)
- Plastic jars, jugs, bottles
- Metal or aluminum cans
All of these items are pretty standard to most restaurants and there are usually established means to recycle them. But what about other items that are common in your restaurant that can be recycled that you’re currently overlooking?
Some of the often overlooked recyclables include:
- Ink cartridges for printers
- Printed marketing materials/menus/menu tents
- Multiple use plastic service trays
- Multiple use plastic baskets
When you’re looking to add items to your sustainability program, there are things that intuitively seem like they would be easy to recycle—but they actually are not.
- Plastic straws
- French fry boats (anything with grease contamination)
- Insulated cups
The Elephant in the Kitchen: Food Waste
Any time sustainability is mentioned in the restaurant business, everyone is quick to point to food waste and claim that it is the real key. In reality, it’s a smaller piece of the puzzle than most might think. Many restaurants already have strict portion control, minimal food prep, and there is usually a lot of efficiencies built into their production process for financial reasons.
Where food waste is going to get tricky for restaurants is additional legislation. For instance, in Austin, Texas, there is a citywide ban on food waste. In Seattle, composting is required citywide for anything that can be composted—like the grease contaminated paper you can’t recycle, as well as food waste that is free of plastics and other non-biodegradables.
The trick is sorting what can be recycled, composted, and what should be thrown away. These cities are just examples of legislation that is being passed across the country that commercial kitchen operators are going to have to keep on their radar. Just because you don’t produce as much food waste as other foodservice operations, doesn’t mean that laws pertaining to food waste won’t apply to you.
Replace Your Commercial Garbage Disposal
A standard commercial garbage disposal isn’t environmentally friendly for several reasons. For starters, it’s not a good idea to grind up food waste and flush into our drinking water. Next, food debris can quickly clog up pipes and sewers and cause overflows. Commercial garbage disposals also require electricity and water to operate.
That’s why many municipalities have banned commercial garbage disposals and more are putting restrictions on their use to comply with the EPA’s Clean Water Act and requiring local jurisdictions to implement best practices for limiting fats, oil and grease.
Consider installing an effective and affordable commercial garbage disposal alternative such as The Drain Strainer. Invented by a former restaurant owner, The Drain Strainer captures food debris that would normally clog your pipes and still allows your commercial sinks to drain quickly. The food debris captured in the strainer drawer can be disposed of or saved for compost.
Not only is The Drain Strainer less expensive than repairing or replacing your defective commercial garbage disposal, but there are no moving parts to wear out. There’s no danger of silverware being mangled and when you consider all the environmental advantages, it can be an important part of your restaurant’s sustainability program.
Sustainable practices don’t just begin in the kitchen for a restaurant. They begin from the day ground is broken on a new location, and with every renovation to an existing facility. Most restaurant operators focus so closely on what’s going on inside the building that the building itself becomes an afterthought.
In reality, the building is probably the most important aspect of sustainability. Everything from making sure that your coolers and other appliances are maintained to reach optimum energy consumption, to designing space for recycling bins and composting units into your commercial kitchen. Even something as simple as using energy efficient lighting is a step in the right direction.
Sustainability Quick Tips
Make sure there is space in the back and the front of the building for multiple collection bins: Compostable, recyclable, trash.
Allocate space in the back for a small cardboard baler. Flatten your cardboard boxes, bale them, and then schedule pick up to maximize value.
Monitor your food orders carefully to reduce spoilage.
Work with your packaging supplier to only order plastic No. 1 or No. 5 items.
If you have a composting program, order biodegradable or compostable dining ware to include recyclable napkins, recyclable wrapping paper, biodegradable plates.
Know what you can recycle in your local community.
To be truly sustainable isn’t a matter of simply how you handle trash. It is a matter of how you support the communities that your locations are a part of. Practices, like purchasing locally, purchasing organically grown products, and using local vendors for services like composting, are other sustainable practices that can set your restaurant operation apart.
Keeping up with trends like localization can seem daunting for a business with several locations throughout the country, but the right vendors can make it happen. Being a good steward of the environment is smart business as more customers are starting to pay closer attention to where they spend their money and the sustainability practices of the businesses they support.
The Human Element
The final piece to the sustainability puzzle is another one that doesn’t get mentioned often enough: the staff of your commercial kitchen. Your restaurant can design the greatest sustainability plan in the history of sustainability plans, but if you don’t have the right people to implement it, then it’s just talk.
Your employees need adequate training not just on how to recycle but why to recycle. Share your entire sustainability plan and the reasons behind it with your staff from day one. When people feel involved in a process, they are more likely to participate than they would if you just tell them some new procedure without explaining the purpose.
Make sure employees know how important it is to measure the waste they produce, compost, recycle, etc. because that is how you’re going to determine your progress. Progress should be shared both with employees and your customers for accountability and to show that your hard work and effort is paying off.
Sustainability isn’t just a concept that looks good on paper—it is fast becoming a driving principle for companies across a broadening scope of markets. It is a responsibility that companies all share to make sure we are all doing our due-diligence for the planet. In the end, you’ll find that sustainability means spending less, saving more, and looking great to even the pickiest of consumers.