5 Ways Restaurants Can Improve Their Impact on the Planet

5 Ways Restaurants Can Improve Their Impact on the Planet

At home, you already clean and separate your recyclables. You shop locally and organically. You’ve even reduced your red meat consumption to help the environment. But each morning you roll into your restaurant kitchen, put on a crisp-pressed chef jacket, and the earth-friendly habits you’ve formed at home seem impossible, irrelevant, and distant. Unfortunately, we know that US restaurants generate 22-33 billion pounds of food waste each year. One-half pound of food waste is created for each meal you and your team prepare for every customer. So how can you reconcile your values with your restaurant’s demand for efficiency and profit? Here are 5 ways your restaurant can improve its impact on the planet.

Easily the greatest impact you can have on food waste is to reduce the amount of food that goes into the trash. Americans spend nearly $3000 a year dining out. And American restaurants’ notoriously large portions are designed to suggest value but are far more than the average diner’s actual appetite. Most people dine out because they want a freshly prepared meal, not a to-go box for tomorrow’s reheated lunch. Appropriate-sized servings reduce the amount of food left on the plate, minimizing excess food returning to the kitchen only to be dumped in the trash. An average restaurant will throw away 40 plus gallons of edible food every shift – some far more! So reducing portion sizes saves money, reduces landfill waste,and is more in line with consumer preferences.

But even before the food comes out to the dining room, steps can be taken to reduce waste, such as scrubbing vegetables instead of peeling them. Scrubbing is just as fast as peeling and increases the nutritional value of roots like carrots. Kitchen managers will also prefer this method because produce is mostly purchased by weight, so any weight that is retained and included in the food increases return on investment.

A more environmentally motivated kitchen may even explore “value-added” products, where traditionally wasted items are turned into something special. Vegetable trimmings and peels can be dehydrated and turned into stock bases or spice blends. The same can be used to make a tea that becomes a base for a modern cocktail. Numerous ideas can be found in the growing number of Zero Waste cookbooks, such as Waste Not by the James Beard Foundation.

Many restaurants have also found great success by partnering with community organizations to divert wasted food to those in need. State laws have come a long way in recent years to encourage food diversion by reducing liability and streamlining transfers of food. Whereas restaurants had to be concerned with lawsuits in the past, the contemporary policy focuses on liability protections, tax incentives, and organic waste bans.

No matter a kitchen’s best efforts, some food will be wasted, and at that point, community composting services can be used to turn waste into organic matter that grows new food. These modern businesses have figured out how to minimize a restaurant’s efforts and generate profit for their services.

Food packaging can be expensive for a restaurant, and most often, that packaging goes straight to the landfill. Even the well-intentioned restaurant, which uses compostable or biodegradable packaging, is doing so out of show more than actual impact since compostable packaging requires commercial composting facilities, and only 11 percent of all Americans have access to such facilities.

All of your restaurant’s convenience offerings can lead to a tremendous amount of redundancy and waste. How often have you packed a meal in a clamshell container, with paper-wrapped salt, plastic-wrapped utensils, an excessively large mound of napkins, and everything placed in a plastic bag (or two!)? Many restaurants even offer a “no plastic utensils/napkins” option on their websites, but far too often, this is ignored when the order is assembled by the kitchen.

Explore minimizing packaging, including offering bags only upon request. Better yet, if state laws allow, offer a repurposable container or bag. While costs may increase, customers will see the value and likely support the additional cost of their ticket.

At its very core, the most encompassing way your restaurant can improve its environmental impact is to focus on local sourcing of ingredients. This requires a bit more work, but the benefits are vast. When chefs know their farmers and cook more seasonally (as necessitated by sourcing locally), the food becomes fresher, tastier, and more beautiful. Food miles-or the impact of the number of miles your food has to travel from the farm to the plate-can be reduced from thousands to single digits by sourcing within the community. But beware! Fraud related to local sourcing is rampant and needs to be done for the right reasons. For the changes to be lasting and impactful, the economic, social, and environmental benefits need to be your kitchen’s focus, not merely the marketing potential.

With restaurant staff turnover rates near 75 percent, it is incredibly demanding to keep everyone from the dishwasher to the bartenders up to speed on the impact of food waste. Yet, everyone on a restaurant’s team needs to be on board because just one employee’s lack of commitment and follow-through can derail the whole system. Talk with the staff in very brief and positive ways to share what the restaurant values and is committed to and why these actions matter. Discuss minimal packaging, more reasonable portions, and where staff perceives waste. Even the slightest staff engagement can help staff gain a new perspective and help your restaurant shift to a more environmentally sustainable system.

Lastly, most restaurants will run their appliances into the ground because of the high cost related to refrigeration and heating equipment. That means there are an abundance of out-of-date, inefficient appliances in commercial kitchens. Energy efficiency offers a long-term impact, but that is overshadowed by the short-term cost savings of ignoring the problem. Many communities have green restaurant alliances that can provide free or inexpensive assessments to help restaurants explore options around upgrading their appliances and buildings. These experts can often identify long-term strategies, which are plain dollars and cents that any restaurant owner can understand. Learn what programs are available in your community and share those resources with other decision-makers.

With restaurant spending showing no signs of slowing down, restaurants have increased opportunities to make impactful changes to our environment. Whether your motivation is financial or environmental, consciously looking at strategies to reduce waste and create positive outcomes doesn’t have to conflict with a profit-driven approach. Value-added products derived from waste, minimized packaging, and updating of inefficient appliances all have the potential to save or generate revenue while creating a cleaner future that can be celebrated by your restaurant customers.

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