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Sunday, 25 June 2006
Trash Talk


Restaurants & Institutions

By Jamie Popp

At the end of the night at most restaurants, leftover food, paper, bottles and cardboard typically are put in a Dumpster in the back alley destined for a landfill. Separating garbage is dirty, it requires people and time to do it--time that few can dedicate to the task. But several operators say making minor changes reduces trash and helps budgets.

Zero waste. That's how Nomad Cafe in Berkeley, Calif., prefers to operate its business. It saves more than $10,000 every year by recycling and composting.

"Everything that we provide to the customer can either be composted or recycled. We have only compost and recycling bins for waste," says owner Christopher Waters.

The operation discourages guests from taking food to go. That way they use china and silverware that can be washed. It's an alternative to takeout packaging that is then discarded. If a customer orders tea that comes in a foil-lined pouch that isn't recyclable, staff is trained to take the tea bag out and dispose of the package before serving the customer.

"Rather than having condiments in disposable packaging we use dispensers," he says. Agave syrup served instead of honey can be squeezed out of a dispenser in the condiment station.

Making simple changes to its daily routine of throwing out garbage also aided Scoma's in San Francisco.

"At first I couldn't figure out how we were going to do it, with a staff of 155 and the amount of waste we produce," says Vice President Mariann Costello. "But we color-coded the system and got staff into the habit of recycling."

Green containers are for food waste, blue for cans, bottles and aluminum, and black for traditional garbage. Costello says the "black trash" has been minimized significantly since the restaurant began separating items five years ago. The decrease in waste means fewer pickups--and the ability to schedule trash collection during the week when it's cheaper. She estimates the restaurant saves an average of $2,000 per month. The money is used to purchase biodegradable straws made from cornstarch, to-go containers made from sugar-cane pulp and recyclable bags.

Paul Cunningham says separating waste for recycling at Schreiner's Restaurant is an everyday practice because "we feel good about it," he says.

The Fond du Lac, Wis., restaurant collects glass and plastic for recycling, decreasing waste that otherwise might go to a landfill. That practice cuts down on monthly trash-collection costs. With less trash, he also has more control over pick up.

"Waste haulers are flexible about scheduling recyclables," he says. "They'll let me tell them how often to pick up."

Cardboard waste that piles up from produce that's delivered to Amici's East Coast Pizzeria units has made the chain a vigilant recycler, says Peter Cooperstein, president of the San Mateo, Calif.-based company. "We try as much as we can to do things that don't generate waste." Another part of that effort means putting more beer on draft to eliminate bottles that would otherwise go in the trash.

Recycling rules are different for every municipality. That's one challenge the seven-unit chain has to overcome. Composting also creates difficulties.

"Some counties where we operate provide free recycling containers, haul it away for free and reduce your trash bill because there's less in the Dumpster," Cooperstein says.


Composting still challenges many operators. But Tempo Restaurant has the problem solved. It takes peelings and other organic material from the kitchen of the 70-seat restaurant and deposits it in the owner's backyard. There, a compost pile feeds a garden that supplies the Alexandria, Va., eatery.

The only things that don't make it into the compost pile are peelings from oranges, lemons and bananas, says co-owner Wendy Albert. "Earthworms hate them, and we want to keep those guys happy in the pile in our backyard."

Some large foodservice operations have adapted to composting as well. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill collects food waste for composting in Lenoir Dining Hall, Rams Head and the Friday Center using 55-gallon carts in food prep and dishwashing areas. Waste is picked up six times per week by a commercial hauler. The university estimates it diverts 260 tons of food waste for composting each year, which the county picks up for free; $46 is saved for each ton that isn't hauled to the local landfill.

Kelber Catering in Minneapolis manages tons of food waste from accounts such as the Minneapolis Convention Center. Kelber contracts with a pig farmer to pick up waste from refrigerated containers in the center's kitchen, according to Kim Nelson, general manager and chief operating officer. En route to the farm, the waste is cooked so it later can be fed to the pigs.

"We diverted 52 tons of weight out of the Dumpster from August to December," Nelson says, "and saved more than $2,000."

400 Tons of food waste produced monthly by restaurants in West Hollywood, Calif. (City of West Hollywood)

Waste Not

Selling organic waste to farmers and using biodegradable utensils are some ways the National Restaurant Association recommends to reduce food waste. Other tips:

* Pack leftovers and takeout food in reusable containers and ask customers to "sign out" the packages and return them for reuse.

* Order corrugated boxes with a minimum of 40% recycled content.

* Separate waste oil from frying into Containers. It can be used to make soaps and cosmetics.

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