Reducing Waste: Good for the Environment and Your Bottom Line

In an effort to recognize Earth Day, Monday, April 22, 2013, we plan to feature a blog about the inception and importance of Earth Day, and what our industry can do to better our environment. And the perfect segue? This week’s blog on the importance of reducing restaurant waste.

We at VSAG were inspired to write about this topic after reading about a group of University of Maryland students who were moved to help reduce waste, and in turn their local community, after witnessing the amounts to food being thrown out in campus cafeterias and after sporting events. They created the Food Recovery Network, which picks up leftover food and distributes it to local shelters instead of letting it end up in the trash. To date, this initiative has saved 120,000 pounds of food and has expanded to 12 campuses.

We applaud these students for taking the initiative to develop a plan and do something. Always in support of and highlighting the triumphs of our next generation, we at VSAG feel there are lessons to be learned here from the tenacity and dedication these students have to their future.

So, here’s how to follow their lead on this important topic.

We asked our industry colleague and client Mary Carter, Managing Partner at Farmers Restaurant Group to provide expert insight on reducing restaurant waste. This is an issue that VSAG is dedicated to, not only because it is good for the environment, but also because it is good for the bottom line. In one month in 2012, for instance, Founding Farmers restaurant was able to reduce their landfill trash tonnage by 35% – that was a direct savings of 35% on waste removal fees, and the numbers have been consistently decreasing each month. It’s a concentrated effort for sure, as Mary describes:

“Begin by asking yourself, ‘What is the goal?’” says Carter. “If reducing your carbon footprint is your main mission, then composting is the most impactful tactic, and you’ll want to purchase offset credits. You want to focus on ordering as much product as possible that is compostable and/or recyclable to start with.” Note: Recycling is better than adding trash to the landfill, but it’s not as green or beneficial as composting.

More from Mary:

  • I recommend a visit/tour of a composting site and/or a recycling center to understand how the process works. Gather ideas on best practices for creating dedicated composting/recycling areas in your restaurant, then spend a few days understanding how your staff deals with waste, and work closely with them to determine what works best for their needs and the layout of your restaurant.
  • Once you have decided where the composting/recycling centers will go, the next step is to determine how to segregate waste. What works best for Farmers Restaurant Group is a color-coded system in each of their dishroom areas: Green cans for composting, blue cans for recycling and black cans for landfill. Be sure to use biodegradable cornstarch bags in the composting can, to help in the breakdown of materials and waste when it’s carted off for processing.
  • Ultimately, you want to make sure staff is trained properly to make the effort successful. For example, we took pictures of ‘waste samples’ and displayed them above each container, to make the process more tangible. Also for clarification of what is and what isn’t landfill trash, use black trash bags in black landfill can(s) so it’s clear that it’s trash.

Finally, she offers that a restaurant will need to be prepared to have a waste reduction program run by trial and error for a while, but it will be well worth it in the long run. Working closely with local compost/recycling companies will help to meet your goals. For example, ask them to give you metrics and reports of your efforts – ask for the weight of your composted amounts, and information on if your composted material was contaminated (which means it would have been taken to the landfill). This information will help you gage your progress and uncover any tweaks you may need to introduce going forward.

For more information, check out guidelines and insight from the U.S. Composting Council, [] or check with your local Restaurant Association member resources department to get started. A few concentrated moves today can mean a lot more green for your bottom line in the future.