CHICAGO—Restaurant operators realize green products might equate to more green bills in the bank.

At the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel May 19-22, many of the estimated 73,000 attendees are searching for ways to economically improve the environment.

According to the 2007 NRA Industry Forecast, more than three out of four restaurants purchase products made from recycled materials. In addition, restaurants recycle fats/oils/grease (FOG), paper, aluminum/metal cans, glass, plastic, and food waste. Two-thirds of quick-service operators recycle FOG, and two out of five recycle paper.

“I think restaurateurs see a green restaurant as a way to differentiate themselves in the marketplace,” says Colin Butts, marketing manager for Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Fabri-Kal–manufacturers of custom and stock thermoformed plastic products.

Butts’ company offers Greenware, a line of premium cold drink cups and lids. The line is made from NatureWorks Poly Lactic Acid and derived from natural corn materials. According to the company, the product is 100-percent renewable through annual corn harvests and fully compostable in municipal and industrial facilities.

This cup was on display at the NRA Show. Its line is made from NatureWorks Poly Lactic Acid and derived from natural corn materials. Photo by Fred Minnick.

Butts says when these types of cups first hit the market, manufacturers were selling at a premium price. But now more players have entered the game and the cost has “come to a nice median where it’s affordable for operators.”

Offering sustainable products is the here and now environment issue for restaurant operators. But what is the next big thing?

Antonio Swad, founder off Pizza Patron Inc., believes the next obstacle for the business might be food waste.

“I think it’s coming,” Swad says. “People like to hang things on the restaurant industry.”

Food waste won’t be an issue for the industry if Andrew Shakman has anything to do with it. He is the president and chief executive officer of LeanPath, which produces the product ValuWaste.

“If operators can get smarter about what’s going in the garbage and know when and what is being thrown away, they can be in a position to make changes,” Shakman says.

ValuWaste is essentially a scale and a kiosk. Employees weigh the food, punch the information on the kiosk touchscreen, and software transforms the data into charts and graphs. From there, an operator can see exactly what is being thrown away. Shakman says the product is well received by employees, but currently it is not being used in quick-service restaurants.

According to LeanPath data, produce is the most-frequently wasted product and chili and soup are the most overproduced. About 63 percent of all things are discarded because of overproduction, the research says.

“You are putting dollars into food and putting food into the trash,” Shakman says. “If you can stop wasting that food, it’s a big win.”

Hoping to score environmental wins for the industry, the NRA announced May 21 at the NRA Show the Green Task Force.

According to a news release, the Green Task Force will provide support and guidance to the association and the industry, as well as educate and inspire restaurants to economically conserve natural resources.

“As we are advancing our environmental initiative, we called on our board of directors to provide guidance toward guiding the nation’s restaurant-and-foodservice outlets toward sustainable operations,” said Association Acting Interim President and Chief Executive Officer Peter Kilgore. “The board directors serving on our Green Task Force have the experience and the passion for environmental issues and are a great resource to us and to the industry as we move forward with our efforts.” –Fred Minnick