For restaurateurs, practicing sustainability can be challenging, but ultimately rewarding. It is important to start small and make incremental steps, but sometimes it’s fun and illustrative to think big.
Going zero waste is thinking and acting big! It can also boost your business.
So what is zero waste? Basically, it means reducing the amount of material you send to landfills by 90% or more.
Restaurateurs undertaking zero-waste efforts are essentially using nearly all of their raw resources efficiently (e.g., food, packaging, service ware) and adopting a “thou shall not waste” mentality. It is a mentality that they teach (and enforce) to their employees and, perhaps, even their guests. Once you do though, it could position your business to operate extremely efficiently.
If you’re wondering why you should care about practicing this zero-waste concept, here are four solid reasons:
- It can save you cash. The former Chicago restaurant Sandwich Me In, which didn’t create trash for two years, is a great example. After switching from plastic to metal silverware the company saved $1,310 in the first year after accounting for employees’ time, soap and the cost of the plastic utensils.
- It can get you noticed. After a video about the Sandwich Me In’s zero waste efforts went viral the company received thousands of dollars of free press. The video received more than 293,600 views on YouTube and Sandwich Me In has 2,500 likes on Facebook: an impressive accomplishment for a single-location, entrepreneurial restaurant.
- It can boost your business. While many sustainability efforts can save you money, it isn’t always true for every effort. Often though, zero waste efforts can attract new customers. Affairs to Remember Caterers attributes $300,000 in new business to undertaking serious waste minimization practices.
- You may not have a choice. Many municipalities, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colo., and New York City, now have zero-waste goals in play. And a number of cities are banning bags and polystyrene altogether. Not only that, many appear to be moving toward the mandatory composting of food waste as well. While this hasn’t yet affected many restaurants directly, the trend is continuing. It’s better to be ahead of the legislation rather than be ruled by it.
So now that you may be seeing the benefits of practicing zero waste more clearly, here are six steps to help you get started:
1) Shift your attitude. This is, by far, the most important step! Change your thinking from “waste is just part of doing business” to “we can stop generating waste; we can recycle it and reuse it.”
2) Look at your trash. Perform or hire a third party to conduct a waste-stream audit (video) so you know what you are throwing away and why.
3) Begin with cardboard. Start simply with items that are easily separated and recycled, like cardboard. Also, make sure you downsize your trash bin and renegotiate your hauling contract to reflect your smaller haul.
4) Keep reducing waste over time. Check locally to find out what you can recycle, how you can compost (if available), and be sure to donate any leftover food.
5) Implement an environmental purchasing policy. Put your commitment on paper to help keep new employees and managers on track when buying food, supplies, and beverages.
6) Get certified. A few organizations can actually certify your company as zero waste. The main one in the United States is the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, which supports businesses like Disney, Toyota, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and others. Remember: getting certified as zero waste could take a while so be patient with your employees and yourself.
Jeff Clark is program director of the National Restaurant Association’s Conserve sustainability program and helps administer Atlanta’s Zero Waste Zones program. Visit Conserve to learn more about reducing waste, water and energy usage at your restaurant.
 Note: the restaurant owner, Justin Vrany, became a zero waste consultant and closed Sandwich Me In to spend more time with his family.
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