How the US Could Improve Recycling, Water and Energy Usage in Food Service

July is a wonderful month. So much time spent outdoors, eating watermelon, playing frisbee in the late afternoon sun. Each day holds a new opportunity for cultivating joy. And it also happens to go by Plastic Free July, making it a month where people commit to cutting down, or altogether eliminating, their day-to-day plastic consumption.

And living in a country that uses and tosses 1,500 water bottles per second, we can use all the help and awareness we can get. It feels more imperative when we consider that 91% of plastic used in the U.S. ends up getting tossed in the landfill. Yikes.

Thankfully, Plastic Free July inspires people to get fired up and make a more permanent lifestyle change, veering away from plastics and single-use items. The results in our personal lives are empowering – that is, until we go out to eat. Then, it feels like we’re plugging a nickel-sized hole in a capsizing boat.

While we may compost at home, most restaurants landfill anything leftover – from the lemon on your water to the leftover salsa in the serving dish. It’s easy to feel like eating in a restaurant undoes the lions’ share of the work we do to mitigate our own wastefulness at home.

 

It makes you wonder – is there more that restaurants can be doing? Especially in the midst of Plastic Free July?

Absolutely. And it starts with your drink. It’s important to ask for no straw every time, since the U.S. tosses 500 million of those non-recyclable bad boys every day (yes, you read that right). However, we’re human. Sometimes we forget – or the server forgets. One of the simplest fixes and most effective ways to minimize a restaurant’s landfill footprint? Ditch the straw altogether.

Made of materials that are unable to be recycled, straws are an indomitable suck on our resources. Not only do they cost restaurants unnecessary money, they also contribute an enormous amount of waste, polluting our streets, rivers, and oceans. This leads to animals’ lives put in danger, like this turtle who got a straw stuck in his nostril and had to be rescued (warning: the video link above is deeply unsettling).

While eliminating straws from restaurants is a great step, the problem doesn’t end there. While fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle tout a commitment to the environment by carrying only non-GMO or organic foods, their cutlery and plates are far from reflective of that commitment.

All too often, restaurants miss the big picture, patting themselves on the back for organic corn and offering plastic cutlery that can’t be recycled, or providing plastic-lined cups for drinks. These plastic pieces, while giving the illusion of convenience, add to our environmental crisis – and add up in cost for restaurants over time. Some fast-casual spots like Tokyo Joes have seen the damage single-use plastics wreak, and have begun to offer metal silverware and dine-in bowls.

Taking this extra step and dishwashing these reusable pieces, saves literally tons of plastic from the landfill each year. Some critics say that dishwashing wastes water as well, but this concern is poorly founded; the amount of water it takes to create, package, and ship single-use items well outweighs the amount of water it takes to run multi-use utensils through a dishwasher.

For places like coffee shops, where a to-go cup is vital to the company’s business model, incentivizing clients to bring their own cups through discounts – and advertising the deal – can cut down on cups. Moreover, if composting is available in the restaurant’s vicinity, companies can swap out any nonnegotiable single-use items for their compostable counterparts.

Restaurants can do a little leg work and search for composting in their area with tools like Find A Composter. Likewise, dedicated managers and employees can plug into a community that will get the composting conversation started – like these meetups nationwide.

And restaurants shouldn’t quit their composting at the single-use level. In general, composting food scraps is a crucial way that restaurants can positively impact the planet and reduce waste. They can do this by using a composting program, or partnering with local farms or individuals who could take on the restaurant compost. Not only is compost essential to waste reduction, it’s also a wonderful way for restaurants to build community and foster relationships, becoming an invaluable asset to any neighborhood or city.

But looking beyond food scraps and single-use items, what else can restaurants do to reduce waste?

Like any private home, there are countless aspects restaurants can improve upon to save energy. The easiest thing that comes to mind? Switching out lightbulbs for their LED counterparts. Not only do LED bulbs save businesses a lot of money, they reduce the light’s energy output by 90%. Wow. Imagine all those bulbs burning away in restaurants, all night long. That’s so much money down the drain – and nonrenewable energy right alongside it.

Switching to LEDs is only one step in a vast list of waste reducing, planet loving tricks. One of my favorites? The service offered by Arcadia Power. Arcadia partners with energy companies to divert power from the nonrenewable grid, allowing some regions instead to pull directly from renewable wind energy.

Those that don’t pull directly have it transferred to wind credits, essentially funding renewaeble energy. All this is done by letting Arcadia manage their bill, and is all done at little-to-no-cost to the individual or their small company. Talk about some simple waste reduction.

And finally, let’s not forget that restaurants can always reduce their water consumption through low-flow toilets, Energy Star Certified appliances (check out this list of commercial food appliances), and automatic faucets.

We’re alive at a time when our planet is ripe with sustainable possibilities – and dependent upon the choices we must make as we move forward as the keepers of this earth. There is a wealth of choices restaurants can make to instigate this change. And it can start with you. Which neighborhood restaurants will you ask to make the switch toward sustainable?

 

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