Special Report | November 2010 | By Sam Oches

What to Do About Waste

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Having packaging like biodegradable plates that can be composted without harming a landfill helps operators who do not wish to have separate sorting containers in the front of the house.

“One of the things we recognized when we wrote our standards was that facilities tend to get food mixed with soiled paper products,” Gero says. “When we studied it, we determined that, in fact, it was fine to have the soiled paper products as part of the compost pile. That really opens the opportunity for particularly fast food facilities to use the program, given that it’s so difficult to separate the packaging and the food waste.”

Macy says front-of-the-house bins pose a challenge for quick serves interested in diverting waste to the recycling or composting streams because they require help from the consumer. But, in a city like San Francisco—where regulations require that foodservice ware be recyclable or compostable, and where the composting infrastructure is extensive—brands have used the bins as an extra branding effort.

“In the city of San Francisco, when you get these chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks, each of them wanted to create their own customized signage and bins,” he says. “Instead of having just one trash bin now in the public area, you have three: you’ve got a bin for all of the compostables, a bin for all of the recyclables, and one for what’s left over, and that’s trash. There is really cool, customized signage, and there’s the whole branding that goes along with that.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, it’s not just this mindless throwing stuff away. There’s really environmentally responsible model of what can be done.’ It’s really refreshing and exciting to see that.”

With food waste, not every quick serve can afford a solution like 4food’s composting machine, which costs around $20,000. But operators still have options.

“Maybe a small portion of that might be edible food, and there’s an opportunity to redistribute that to organizations that collect and feed the hungry,” Macy says.

The composting and recycling program saves Burgerville more than $129,000 each year on its packaging efforts.

In fact, restaurants have many opportunities available to them to donate leftover food. The Food Donation Connection organization, for example, works in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association to collect surplus food from restaurant operators and donate it to food agencies.

But, Macy says, “the biggest opportunity is to take all of that material that can be composted or degraded biologically and to compost it.”

Macy says composted food is an incredibly valuable resource since it contains nutrients and organic matter. “By composting it and returning that organic matter to nutrients in the soil, we really are doing what we need to do, which is to feed our depleted soils so that we can sustain the growing of food,” he says.

A composting system, however, takes a sizable amount of upfront effort to implement. GRA president Oshman says that when working with restaurants to help them reduce waste, the GRA will first assess what a restaurant’s waste hauling program looks like, then contact waste haulers and property managers to find out what kind of resources are available in that particular area, then discuss logistics with a property manager, and finally make a switch to new waste-hauling practices.

After making the upfront investment on a recycling and composting program, Oshman says restaurateurs will eventually make a return on that investment.

He says a cost called the tipping fee that truckers pay at the landfill when they dump garbage is an expense that the restaurateurs indirectly pay and can avoid when using a composting program.

“Replace that truck of garbage with cardboard or aluminum, however, and it is a much different case. “Guess what? You’re selling that,” Oshman says. “You dump it and somebody’s going to pay you. You’re making money there.”

Jack Graves, chief cultural officer for Pacific Northwest–based Burgerville, says that a composting or recycling program will ultimately pay for itself. At Burgerville, which implemented an employee-led composting and recycling program in 2007, the company saves more than $129,000 each year on its packaging efforts, and each unit saves $80,000 per year by switching from landfill hauling to recycling and composting.

“We are able to offset the cost of compostable materials with the reduction in tipping fees,” Graves says.

Charles Rink, president of Baja Fresh, says working with suppliers to obtain more compostable and recyclable packaging materials is also a good financial move during the recession.

“In some ways it’s actually a positive, because there are people out there on the supply side who are willing to work with you to try and come up with a solution, whereas maybe in the past they had such a strong business demand that they really didn’t have time to work on options of this nature,” he says. “Today it seems like they’re a much more willing group to work with.”

And not only is waste reduction a smart financial move, but more consumers are demanding sustainable options.

According to the “Consumer’s Green Dining Habits” study released by Technomic in May, 87 percent of consumers said they expected a green restaurant to recycle. Further, 79 percent of consumers said they would more likely visit a Certified Green Restaurant than a non-Certified Green Restaurant.

“[Reducing waste is] one of the biggest things they can do to reduce their carbon footprint and become more green, and I think a lot of people want to do the right thing,” Macy says. “And that’s certainly appealing to customers.”

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