IFSC Guest Blog Series by Sarah Hidder, Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition

There is a common misconception among restaurant and business owners that making the ‘green’ choice means making the more expensive choice. More often than not, however, operating in a sustainable manner will save you money. Food waste reduction is one area where restaurants can save big money- and reduce their environmental impact in a big way. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, roughly 35 million tons of wasted food goes to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. every year. Of that 35 million tons of food waste, 15% comes from restaurant operations (Jean Schwab, USEPA). That means that 5.25 million tons of food goes straight from restaurants to the garbage every year. And that translates into a lot of money going to the garbage as well.

Man in chef's uniform putting a liner bag in a bin
Composting program in action at Hannah’s Bretzel Chicago (hannahsbretzel.com)

It is estimated that on average, 10% of food purchased by restaurants is thrown away. Think about that: if your restaurant buys $100,000 worth of food in a year, $10,000 of what you spend is tossed into the trash! Who can afford throwing away that kind of cash? Plus, not only does throwing away food waste money, it costs money too. Food waste is extremely dense and very heavy; thus, restaurants that throw out a lot of food pay higher waste collection and disposal fees.

So, what can you do about all of this? There are a number of actions you can take to reduce food waste at your restaurant:

Conduct a waste audit: Conducting a waste audit is a great first step in the process of reducing food waste at your restaurant. A waste audit will allow you to evaluate exactly how much food is being thrown away on a daily basis. There are many resources online to help guide you through the waste audit process, including the EPA’s Waste Assessment Approaches guide.

Re-evaluate your purchasing patterns: Once you start keeping an eye on what food items get thrown out at your restaurant, you may start to notice patterns. For instance, maybe you realize that you are throwing out five or six heads of lettuce every few days. This is an indication that you are order more than you need, and you may be able to cut back. Image how much money you could save by making purchasing adjustments like these!

Compost all food scraps!: Despite your best efforts, some amount of food will inevitably end up being tossed out. But this food doesn’t need to become waste- you can create a valuable soil amendment while keeping waste out of landfills simply by composting. Visit the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition’s Food Recovery Resources page, as well as resources at the bottom of this article, for help setting up a composting plan. The Illinois Food Scrap Coalition’s Restaurant Toolkit is another great resource to use when starting a compost program.

Employee training and education: Ensuring that your employees are trained to reduce food waste in the back of the house can have a huge impact on reducing food waste output. Make it part of your business model and include it in initial employee training exercises. If your restaurant has a composting program in place, the success of that program depends greatly on employee engagement and understanding.

Highlight your efforts through certification: Green Seal and the Green Restaurant Association each have independently developed, research based certification standards that apply to the foodservice industry. Third-party certification is a great way to let consumers know that you care about the environment, and that you’re making an effort to reduce the impact of your business. Each of these standards mandates that foodservice operations implement a composting program in order to become certified, so customers can be sure that when they dine at green certified restaurants they are supporting a business that is taking steps to reduce food scraps going to landfills.

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