Special Report | November 2010 | By Sam Oches

What to Do About Waste

A look at how some restaurants are cutting down.

When New York City–based burger concept 4food opened its first location in August, the media buzz it generated mostly stemmed from its innovative use of technology and social media. Plasma TV screens adorn its walls, including one that scrolls customer tweets. iPads are used to order food. And diners can save their specialized burger orders to an online database, available for anybody to order in the future—an act that credits the customer with 25 cents on later 4food visits.

But one of the most innovative features about 4food’s first unit isn’t wowing customers with its flashy technology. In fact, it’s in the basement’s washroom.

For the founders of 4food, it’s a critical component to an operation they hope to be as sustainable as possible—and a tool that might be a sign of things to come for a fast food industry that’s creating billions of pounds of waste annually.

The composting machine that 4food keeps in its basement disposes of all food and packaging waste the restaurant generates.

“It’s capable of composting up to 400 pounds of food waste and compostable packaging in a 24-hour period,” says Michael Shuman, cofounder and manager of 4food. “The amazing thing is, it runs on microorganisms, so it runs 24/7/365—we just feed it enzymes on a weekly basis.”

The product churned out by 4food’s composter, which is manufactured by a food disposal company called Orca Green, is just as interesting as the tool itself.

“It turns [waste] into drainage water,” Shuman says. “There’s no compost super sludge; this water just gets drained away.” The machine will also compost the waste from 4food’s next four or five locations as well.

4food’s solution to diverting its waste from landfills is a bright idea in an industry desperate to figure out what to do about waste. Although a composting machine like 4food’s is a capital investment not every operator can afford, some experts say just sticking to the status quo is ultimately too harmful to the environment—and to an operation’s bottom line.

Michael Oshman, president of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), says waste in the restaurant industry has become a major issue—so major, in fact, that the GRA lists “Waste Reduction and Recycling” as one of its seven Green Restaurant Certification Standards.

“Restaurants can easily put out a few hundred thousand pounds of waste every year,” Oshman says. “And that’s one restaurant. Multiply that by almost a million, and you get a lot.”

Making the transition to a system that reduces waste sent to a landfill, however, is not one that a lot of operators feel they can make, especially in a down economy.

“Restaurants have a very tight margin and operate at a very quick pace,” says Jack Macy, commercial zero waste coordinator for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. “There’s a perception that if it’s a lot more work, they’re not going to want to do it without really big incentives. The reality is it doesn’t have to be more work at all. … But to get people’s attention, it always helps to have incentives.”

And indeed there are incentives for restaurants to begin reducing the waste they send to landfills. The GRA, for example, awards a Green Restaurant Certification to restaurants that accumulate at least 100 points in the organization’s point system. In the “Waste Reduction and Recycling” category, restaurants are required to divert plastics, glass, aluminum, cardboard, and paper from landfills; recycle grease for biodiesel or energy purposes; and compost preconsumer food, the food that is leftover from production.

“Restaurants can easily put out a few hundred thousand pounds of waste every year. And that’s one restaurant. Multiply that by almost a million, and you get a lot.”

Those actions earn a restaurant 40 points. Several other waste-reducing efforts, such as postconsumer food composting, can earn a restaurant many more points.

The Climate Action Reserve, like the GRA, is attempting to provide incentives to restaurants to become more sustainable and reduce waste. The organization recently rolled out its Organic Waste Composting Project Protocol, which offers guidelines for developing carbon offset projects and generating offset credits through composting. The credits can then be traded in the carbon market.

“When we set out to look at food waste as a source of emissions of greenhouse gases, we discovered that only 2.5 percent of food waste is diverted to compost facilities,” says Gary Gero, president of the Climate Action Reserve. “Food waste that goes into a landfill generates methane because it’s anaerobically digested there, and methane is 21 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

“Having 97.5 percent of all food waste end up in a landfill is a tremendous detriment to the environment and impact on climate change.”

Packaging waste, too, is a detriment to the environment—not because it degrades into harmful gases, but because it hardly degrades at all.

“Plastics don’t degrade, they’re sitting [in a landfill] for a thousand years,” says Heeral Bhalala, lead coordinator for the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative and program associate on the Waste to Wealth program for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “We use it for five minutes to quickly chomp down our food, and then it’s sitting there … for a thousand years.”

With food and packaging waste posing such a dangerous problem to the environment, some quick-serve operations, like 4food, are fighting back. By implementing recycling and composting programs, quick serves are turning the path of waste away from the landfill.

Baja Fresh is one such operation. In December 2009, the company introduced an eight-store test of its “Earth Fresh” program, which rolled out recycled napkins, recycled paper bags, recyclable burrito wrapping paper, and biodegradable plates to the restaurants. The company since has set forth plans to take “Earth Fresh” systemwide, with total implementation expected by January 2011.

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