Greg Ische of Trecento Quindici Decano, the restaurant at The St. Regis Aspen Resort in Aspen, Colorado, didn’t need much convincing to participate in a local composting program. With Colorado’s Pitkin County landfill almost at capacity, and a personal connection to composting as a longtime gardener, the executive sous chef signed on the restaurant after one informational meeting and then helped bring on the resort.
“It’s mind-boggling the amount of waste produced by restaurants,” said Ische, who joined the composting initiative in November 2014.
Restaurants have entered a new era of waste management—and it’s gaining momentum. More operations keep separate bins for recyclables, food waste and garbage, making composting and other ways of reducing waste, such as recycling oil and grease, more common. Composting has also gone high tech: methane emissions are captured for electricity.
Quantifying the restaurant’s waste was a big eye-opener for Ische. Eighty percent of the restaurant’s waste now lands in the compost bin instead of the landfill, thanks to the program sponsored by the county and city of Aspen.
“We are composting over 5,000 pounds of waste every week, which is the equivalent (to the weight) of a Toyota Tundra or small elephant. Instead of going into the landfill and producing ethanol gas, (it) will go back into gardens to grow vegetables and grass,” he says. “That’s leaving a very small carbon footprint, and we’re only one institution in Aspen.”
Cut the Trash
Scott Dolich, chef-owner of Park Kitchen and The Bent Brick, was among the initial restaurateurs in Portland, Oregon, to separate organic waste for composting, long before the city passed its recent food waste law.
His kitchens divide garbage into three separate containers, one for organic food waste; recyclables like cardboard, glass and plastic; and trash. They’ve recently added oil to the recycling plan. When vegetable oil runs its course in the fryer, it’s collected and turned into biodiesel. Restaurants in New England and the south, such as Hyman’s Seafood Company in Charleston, South Carolina, are also sending off their used vegetable oil to be turned into biodiesel.
“I’m amazed at how little garbage gets produced now,” said Dolich, who’s reduced garbage to two 90-gallon roll carts per week for both restaurants from a 2-cubic-yard dumpster.
At FT33 in Dallas, Chef Matt McCallister implemented a unique way to conserve and reuse waste. The restaurant reserves its scraps of fruits, vegetables and bones for local farmers who turn the waste into compost that helps grow produce specifically for McCallister. Some of the compost also comes back to the restaurant for its on-premise garden that grows herbs.
“We try to do whatever we can, but if there were more of an industrywide requirement to compost, you would probably see a lot more benefit from it,” McCallister says.
Going green isn’t always easy. Recycling and composting businesses have grown across the country, says Michael Oshman, president and CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. Yet 54 percent of independent restaurant owners and 92 percent of multiunit operators say they face barriers to food waste recycling, citing transportation constraints and insufficient options, such as storage and refrigeration, according to a 2014 survey by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, based in Washington, D.C.
“Sometimes I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle,” McCallister says. “It’s difficult to get a recycling program started. I tried to do this at a previous restaurant with old wine bottles because we threw out so many that it was insane.”
When McCallister contacted a recycling hauler, he was told the restaurant had to wash the bottles first, which would require additional labor and a fee for the hauler.
While recycling wine bottles is cost-prohibitive, McCallister reuses bottles for housemade vinegars and endeavors to produce as little waste as possible. He has a separate bin for composting and takes a nose-to-tail, root-to-stalk approach to his menu.
“Challenges do exist but there are also ways to overcome them,” said Laura Abshire, director of sustainability for the National Restaurant Association.
A Work Around
But the real benefit is not financial. It’s knowing that we are not throwing everything into landfill.
-Scott Dolich, chef-owner of Park Kitchen and The Bent Brick
Urban Farmer Steakhouse in Cleveland overcame roadblocks after its initial attempt to save organic waste for composting. Problems arose when the recycling bins, which were kept in an indoor space shared with an adjacent building, attracted some unwanted guests.
“Over the summer when it was so hot, the compost attracted flies. It also smelled because of the internal venting system,” says Troy Christian, Urban Farmer’s general manager. “The building next to us was not very happy.”
They solved the problem internally. One of the restaurant’s line cooks owns a small organic farm where the waste is now composted for crops that Urban Farmer buys.
“It all comes full circle,” Christian says. “We know where the vegetables are coming from, everything is organic, nothing goes to waste and it benefits both sides.”
But Is the Waste a Waste?
The ethical reasons for composting and recycling are clear-cut, but for many chefs and restaurant owners, the decision comes down to the bottom line. A composting and recycling program has initial costs, such as bins, equipment and training. But for most restaurants, it’s a wash. Trash disposal fees drop because the volume is less but it’s replaced with a composting fee.
For Dolich of Park Kitchen, the price of composting and sustainability isn’t much more than maintaining one multipurpose trash bin. He pays $1 per bag for the required organic waste bin liners, but the cost of trash removal is significantly higher than organic waste removal.
“There is a financial zero-sum game to what we were paying before and what we are paying after,” he said. “But the real benefit is not financial. It’s knowing that we are not throwing everything into landfill,” he says.
Reducing waste, however, can create a new revenue stream, making the upfront costs similar to transitioning to pricier LED lighting, which yields long-term savings.
“You can recycle used grease for biodiesel and get paid for that,” Abshire says.
Savings or not, Ische of The St. Regis Aspen Resort says he sees composting and recycling this way: “As culinarians and professionals, we have to be responsible about our environmental impact. This is just common sense and the right thing to do.”
After four years of taking in Jerusalem, Abigail Pickus is back in her hometown of Chicago working as a writer and editor.
Tell Me A Story
If it smells like french fries when the Grand Canyon Railway steam locomotive chugs 65 miles across Arizona, that’s because it runs on the oil that fried them.
Instead of diesel fuel, this old-time steam engine—which runs 12 times a year as a tourist attraction—has been retrofitted to burn waste vegetable oil, collected from over 20 nearby restaurants and a local potato chip factory.
“Some call it the french fry express,” says Morgan O’Connor, director of sustainability for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which owns and operates the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel.
Leftover kitchen grease, such as fryer oil, is a 100 percent renewable fuel. When burned in the steam engine it reduces over 26,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per round trip.
Xanterra further reduces its carbon footprint by donating leftover food from the train and its restaurants to feed animals at the nearby Bearizona, a wildlife park.
5 Ways To Conserve Waste
1. Separate Scraps
Composting can be as simple as separating organic food waste from all the other garbage and arranging a pickup by a local waste hauler. Some facilities can even compost meats, fish, dairy and oil. Check out sources at FindAComposter.com.
2. Donate Leftover Food
Reach out to local food pantries and agencies such as Feeding America and the Food Donation Connection. They both link restaurants to local hunger relief agencies.
3. Audit Your Waste
Monitor your operation’s waste using food-waste tracking systems such as LeanPath to foster better purchasing habits and bigger savings.
4. Push for Change
San Francisco was the first city to pass a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance in 2009. Since then, the state of California has followed suit, and numerous cities, such as New York, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have passed composting legislation targeting food service institutions. If it’s not happening in your area, contact your legislators to get the ball rolling.
5. Tap Existing Resources
Check out the National Restaurant Association’s “Bright Ideas” newsletter (Conserve.Restaurant.org). More information can also be found at Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FoodWasteAlliance.org) and the Green