The word “sustainability” is being tossed around a lot these days no matter what industry you happen to do business in. But what does it really mean to have a sustainable restaurant operation? Is it recycling? Is it food waste reduction? Is it green building?
The answer is: All of the above.
Sustainability Begins at your Dumpster
When it comes to zero-waste initiatives and sustainable practices the first places most restaurants look is trash, and it’s not a bad start. In our experience, we’ve seen that even with variations of meals served— average quick-service restaurants produced just over a ton of trash a week. That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you multiply that out by several locations. By the time you calculate the waste generated by all of your locations times 52 weeks in a year, you’ve now got a substantial amount of trash. So, what can a restaurant do to reduce the amount of waste they send to a landfill? The easiest answer is always: recycle. Chances are, you’re already doing that to some extent.
Let’s talk about the easy-to-recycle waste streams that are the most common:
- Cooking oil
- Grease trap
- Cardboard boxes
- Plastics wrapping (sometimes)
- Plastic jars, jugs, bottles
- Metal or aluminum cans
All of these items are pretty standard to a quick-service operation and you’ve already got the means to recycle them. But what about items that are common in your stores that can be recycled that you’re currently overlooking?
- Ink cartridges for printers
- Printed marketing materials/menus/menu tents
- Multiple use Plastic service trays
- Multiple use plastics baskets
When you’re looking to add items to your sustainability program, there are things that seem like would be easily recyclable—but they in, fact, are not.
- Plastic straws
- French fry boats (anything with grease contamination)
- Insulated cups
The Elephant in the Kitchen: Food Waste
Anytime sustainability is mentioned in the restaurant business, everyone is quick to point to food waste and claim that it is the key. In reality, in the quick-service world, it’s a smaller piece of the puzzle than most think. Your portions are strictly controlled, your food prep is minimal, and there is already a lot of efficiency built into your production process for financial reasons. Where food waste is going to get tricky for the quick-service market is when it comes to changes in legislation. For instance, in Austin, Texas, there is a citywide ban on food waste. In Seattle, composting is required citywide for anything that can be composted—like the grease contaminated paper you can’t recycle, as well as food waste that is free of plastics and other non-biodegradables. The trick there is sorting what can be recycled, composted, and finally what should be thrown away. These cities are just examples of legislation that is being passed across the country that quick-service operators are going to have to keep on their radar. Just because you don’t produce as much food waste as other operations, doesn’t mean that laws pertaining to food waste won’t apply to you.
Sustainable practices don’t just begin in the kitchen for a quick-serve. They begin from the day ground is broken on each new location, and with every renovation to existing facility. Most restaurant operators focus so closely on what’s going on IN the building that the building itself becomes an afterthought. In reality, the building is probably the most important aspect of sustainability. Everything from making sure that your coolers and other appliances are maintained to reach optimum energy consumption, to designing room for recycling bins and composting units into your new buildings and renovations. Something as simple as using energy efficient lighting is a step in the right direction.
- Make sure there is space in the back and the front for multiple collection bins: Compostable, recyclable, trash
- Allocate space in the back for a small cardboard baler (flatten your cardboard boxes, bale them, and then schedule pick up to maximize value)
- Watch for your food order to reduce spoilage
- Work with your packaging supplier to only order plastic No. 1 or No. 5 items
- If you have a composting program, then order biodegradable or compostable dining ware (recyclable napkins, recyclable wrapping paper, biodegradable plates …)
- Know what your local outlets can recycle
To be truly sustainable isn’t a matter of simply how you handle trash—it is a matter of how you support the communities that your locations are a part of. Practices like purchasing locally, purchasing organically grown products, and using local vendors for services like composting are other sustainable practices that can set your restaurant operation apart. Keeping up with trends like localization can seem daunting for a business with several locations throughout the country, but the right vendors can make it happen.
The Human Element
The final piece to the sustainability puzzle is another one that doesn’t get mentioned often enough: YOU. Your company can design the greatest sustainability plan in the history of sustainability plans, but if you don’t have the right people to implement it—it’s just talk. Your employees need adequate training not just on the how to recycle, but the why to recycle. Share the entire sustainability plan with them from day one. When people feel involved in a process, they are more likely to participate than they would if you just tell them some new procedure without explaining the purpose. Make sure employees know how important it is to measure the waste they produce, compost, recycle, etc. because that is how you’re going to determine you progress. Progress that should also be shared with employees, stockholders, and consumers.
Sustainability isn’t just a concept that looks good on paper—it is fast becoming a driving principle for companies across a broadening scope of markets. It is a responsibility that companies all share to make sure the we are all doing our due-diligence for the planet. In the end, you’ll find that sustainability means spending less, saving more, and looking great to even the pickiest of consumers.