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Going green is a huge buzzword these days, but the great thing about it is, going green can also save you money. Learn how here.

Green Initiatives: A Rise In Cost Or A Part Of Your Marketing Budget?

QSR magazine published an article recently about new take out packaging for restaurants made from recycled plastic water bottles.  Dubbed The Bottle Box, the restaurants that have used it say it performs just as well or better than normal plastic take out packaging, and that it can be customized with your establishment’s name and logo very easily.  The biggest pitfall of The Bottle Box is the 2% – 5% increase in cost over regular packaging.

Recycled packaging and compostable disposables like corn cups are one of those things that always sounds good in theory, but can translate into some real costs in practice that affect your bottom line.  The Bottle Box is a good example of this.  The standard reaction by any businessman would be: why spend more for something that does the same job as the thing I’m using now?

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

Another approach is to take the relatively nominal increase in cost and view it as an expense in your marketing budget.  How does that work?  Well, instead of just labeling The Bottle Box with your restaurant’s logo, why not advertise the fact that you’re using recycled packaging?

Studies have consistently shown that consumers place a high value on food service operations that take green initiatives, and are even willing to pay a little more for those restaurant’s products.  Just look at the success of Chipotle in the last five years if you need a good example of this.

However, you don’t need to pass all costs on to your customer, and really you shouldn’t unless you have to.  There are measurable benefits to adding something like recycled packaging to your operation.  The key is making sure your customer knows about the initiatives you are taking.

Some tips on how to make sure you’re communicating properly:

Train servers to work green initiative plugs into their spiels.
There’s no better way to communicate with your customer than through your servers.  Have them remind guests about the green things you’re doing in a gentle, non-pushy way that nonetheless firmly implants your initiative in their head.

Post reminders throughout your restaurant. Do you have a recycling program?  Put up a sign that says “We Recycle” above a blue garbage can, if no one ever uses it.  The same goes for composting programs.  Do you use Energy Star rated equipment?  Put up an Energy Star logo where customers can see it.  Do you use The Bottle Box instead of straight plastic packaging?  Tell your customers right on the bag!

Work your green initiatives into your marketing materials. Whether it’s an ad in the paper, a flyer, or a website, don’t be afraid to announce that you’re taking action to make your restaurant greener.  If you’re particularly proud of your greening accomplishments, you may even want to launch an advertising campaign that specifically touts your efforts.

Don’t be afraid to take baby steps!
You don’t have to implement a comprehensive green program for your restaurant all at once to gain some real appreciation from your customers.  Start with simple stuff like a recycling program and green take out packaging.  Tell your customers about it.  Then take on something more involved like composting or sourcing vegetables locally.  No matter how small or incremental your efforts, your customers will appreciate it, and they can’t appreciate it if you don’t tell them.

Taking steps to improve your restaurant’s green image don’t have to be all about raising your costs either.  Many changes can have the dual benefit of making your restaurant more green and more efficient, which really is a win-win.  No matter how you green your restaurant, just make sure to announce it loud and clear to customers.  They’ll appreciate it.  And they’ll eat in your restaurant more often.

Check out a trove of going green tips here.

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Green Restaurant Tips: Use Efficiency Rebates!

Upgrading restaurant equipment to energy efficient models, maximizing water heater efficiency, and  installing Energy Star rated ceiling fans and ventilation, just to name a few green strategies, all mean spending some money before you save some.

For years the obstacle of spending money up front to save money down the road has been one of the major impediments preventing business owners from maximizing energy efficiency.

As energy costs continue to rise, the benefits of investing in energy efficiency has become a more and more appealing venture.

Get Rebates for Greening Your Restaurant

Show me the money! Get rebates for green restaurant practices.

Local and state governments have also recognized the environmental and social benefits of encouraging energy efficiency, and have responded with rebate rewards for businesses that adopt energy efficient practices.

So when you are considering implementing some energy efficient upgrades in your restaurant or commercial kitchen, keep in mind that significant cost can be offset by rebates.

To find rebates available in your area, check out Energy Star’s Rebate Finder.  This is a great tool, however, this rebate finder will only search for available rebates when purchasing new Energy Star rated restaurant equipment.

Federal tax credits are also available for commercial buildings for money spent to make heating and cooling more efficient.  State and local tax credits may also be available, depending on where you live.

Even utility companies have gotten into the act, and many reward energy efficient practices with a rebate on your energy bill.

More and more utility companies are offering rebates for purchasing Energy Star rated equipment and adopting energy efficient practices.  Check with your local utility company and get a full list of rebates available.

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The Trials Of Going Green: Tundra Revamps Its Waste Management System

Tundra Restaurant SupplyWhen Tundra discovered that a waste management snafu had resulted in office recycling bins getting thrown in the trash early this year, we decided a complete waste management audit was needed, and fast.

The lessons we’ve learned in the past three months have been both illuminating and hard won, and that’s why we’d like to share them with you now – so that your road to maximum waste management efficiency is a little easier.

Waste management efficiency – “Wow,” you’re thinking, “that sounds like a really fascinating thing I’d like to drop everything to learn more about.”

Well, as Tundra discovered, there really are some things going on here that could be costing your business money and customers, so if those two things are important to you then by all means read on and learn more about Tundra’s lurid tale of trials and waste tribulations.

The first challenge we faced was simply learning how our current waste management operated.  Different people here at Tundra handled different parts of the system, and they were not always communicating effectively with each other.

Recycling & Composting At Tundra

Luckily, Tundra’s pricing analyst Jordan Scampoli was ready to take on the challenge of completely revamping how Tundra manages the waste it produces.

“Just by understanding the waste stream here at Tundra we were able to realize some pretty awesome efficiencies.  Even though costs didn’t go down – in fact they rose, although not a lot – for us it was about the social multiplier: a little bit of effort and cost resulting in a lot of waste reduction.”

Right off the bat we discovered that although Tundra had arranged for trash pickup 5 days a week, the dumpster out back was almost never full.  Cutting pickup down from 5 days to 2 days a week immediately translated into substantial savings, not to mention reduced emissions and fossil fuel usage from fewer garbage truck visits.

Easy win, sweet.

Recycling and composting, however, turned out to be a much harder nut to crack.  It soon became apparent that introducing a compost and comprehensive recycling program that included hard-to-recycle materials like the shrink wrap used to package pallets of product in the warehouse would not be cost saving or even cost neutral, even in a recycling-friendly city like Boulder.

Even so, Tundra decided that social responsibility was more important than cost savings.  We have a long history of giving back to our community that stems from one of the core values Tundra was founded upon – Share The Gains With Our People, Our Customers, and the Community.

So we forged ahead with a comprehensive recycling & composting program for the entire company, and as we did so more hurdles presented themselves.

The biggest obstacle lay with changing the daily habits of employees and educating everyone in the company about the difference between compostable and recyclable and which common trash items went where.

Composting Paper Towels - Easy Win

Composting Paper Towels – Easy Win

Our biggest success – at least from a waste reduction standpoint – came from transferring all the paper towel waste generated in the break room and in the bathrooms from straight-to-landfill to compost.  It’s an easy switch that everyone can easily make.

There will always be room for improvement when it comes to changing the way Tundraites think about waste and recycling and changing habits.  But the good news is that from just a couple improvement in the waste management system here at Tundra we were able to achieve measurable results – even if our costs went up a little bit.

And for most small-to-medium sized businesses, the tradeoffs with recycling and composting programs are going to be between ascribing to the values of social responsibility and community improvement and cost effectiveness.

Tundra’s waste management audit eliminated a lot of wasteful behaviors, redirected a lot of our waste into a more sustainable channel, and made the entire operation overall more sustainable and less, well, wasteful.

It took a combination of organizational support, a dedicated individual willing to put in the extra time to make it happen, and a strong set of community-based values to turn Tundra’s waste management system into something that can be legitimately called green.

Was it worth it?  Yes, a hundred times over.

The reality is that small and medium sized businesses just don’t produce enough waste to realize significant cost savings, but that doesn’t mean those businesses shouldn’t have a sustainable waste management program.

It just means you have to value social responsibility and community participation over costs.  And in truth it’s not like costs go up significantly.  For a little extra cost a lot of sustainability can be achieved.

And, as Tundra discovered, just by simply reviewing how the current waste management system worked we were able to identify several problem areas that were easily fixed and resulted in significantly less waste.

That in itself is our reward.

What are the trials and tribulations you’ve faced with managing your restaurant or business’ waste?  Share in the comments below!

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Green Restaurants: Turning Food Waste Into Electricity

Green RestaurantsSan Francisco restaurants are often on the cutting edge of sustainability and green practices.  They’ve pioneered ways to turn food waste into fertilizer, reduce food miles by sourcing locally, and decrease waste through recycling and composting.

More recently, the East Bay Municipal Utility District has started converting up to 200 tons of food waste gathered from area restaurants into electricity every week, and that power is used in some of the very same restaurants that contribute their organic waste.

The waste is converted by allowing it to be broken down by bacteria in a gigantic underground tank.  This process gives off methane, which is then burned to heat water and create steam, which drives a turbine that creates electricity.  This is the same process used by most coal fired power plants, except the fuel in this case is sustainable.

Currently food scraps make up a small portion of the organic waste that is processed at the East Bay facility.  The majority comes from the wastewater treatment plant onsite and several large-scale local industries like vineyards and dairies.  But 30 million tons of food scraps are sent to landfills each year, which makes up more than 20% of all landfill waste.

That means there’s a lot of room for improvement.  The best part about the process is that a rich fertilizer is the byproduct of breaking down all that waste, which can help local organic farms that supply restaurants.  The primary obstacle to wider adoption of organic electricity is a lack of processing plants.  That could change rapidly in the next ten years as sustainable electricity gains more momentum in the American economy.

The restaurants participating in the food scrap collection program did have to put some extra time into training employees to keep contaminants like plastic and other foreign object out of the bin destined to be converted into electricity.  Despite the extra training, the savings in reduced garbage production was enough to help some restaurants save money, since the scraps are collected for free.

Only a tiny fraction of the food waste produced in the Bay Area goes to the organic generator run by the East Bay Municipal Utility District.  The room for growth is enormous, and if San Francisco could collect almost all of the 1,800 tons of waste produced every day by area businesses, that would be enough electricity to power 25,000 homes.  That’s a serious contribution San Francisco restaurants can make to the local power grid.

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How To Source Food Locally: A Business Guide To Success

Fresh, Local ProduceFresh, Local ProduceLocal food.  It sounds great on paper, and it may even be the thing restaurant patrons claim they care about most.  But the reality is that restaurants are businesses, and the restaurant business is one of the toughest gigs out there.  Sounding good isn’t going to be enough to justify a rise in food cost or menu prices, no matter what the studies say.

This guide will explore the business side of the local food movement and address the primary concern any savvy restaurateur has: does this make business sense?

Why Buy Local?

Well, if the 2012 menu trends identified by the National Restaurant Association are any guide, buy local because it’s hot and customers want it.

If trends sound suspiciously like fads to you, then consider some compelling business reasons why investing in locally sourced ingredients make a lot of sense:

  • They are fresher and taste better
  • They allow for greater menu diversity
  • They are a great marketing tool

There are also some good altruistic reasons to purchase local foods, and while altruism never made any business a direct profit, there is a lot to be said about the value your brand name can get from being a community leader.

But back to business.

Restaurant patrons consistently name price and taste as the two single most important elements of a good meal out.  Local ingredients will consistently deliver on taste.  They have traveled less and are closer to ideal harvest conditions, making for a bounty of bright colors, strong smells, and exquisite tastes.

Price is certainly a concern, as large shipments from a big supplier have all the advantages of economy of scale.  Competitively priced comfort food options certainly have a place on any menu, and restaurants can and should shop bulk ingredients for the “value” items on a menu far and wide to find the best price.

Locally sourced foods are most valuable – at least from a business perspective – for the diversity they bring to a menu.  They won’t be the cheapest dishes but they can be the ones that patrons remember and talk about to their family and friends.  Marketed properly, dazzling specials featuring local ingredients can be a key differentiator from the competition.

What To Buy LocallySource Food Locally

Every region has agricultural products that thrive there and are even completely unique.  Sourcing locally is about playing to the strengths of local agriculture.  Incorporating the ingredients that do best in the local climate gives the menu a distinct flavor and modifying the menu to match the local rhythms of harvest connects very effectively with customers.

That said, there are common products that can be found in most regions that can be provided by a local source as well.  Many chefs and restaurateurs have even begun creating their own sources by turning vacant lots, rooftops, and other urban spaces into gardens of ingredients.

The most important calculation for a business is weighing the added value that more expensive local ingredients bring versus lower cost alternatives.  If a given dish or special becomes a star because local ingredients make it shine with taste and perceived value, then a higher cost is justified.  If local ingredients are driving up food costs but not translating into additional sales and raving fans, then sourcing definitely needs to be revisited.

Some restaurants have had great success by going all in with local sourcing and only offering local ingredients on their menus.  This has proven to be an effective marketing tool for niche markets that are more tolerant to price.  For the majority of restaurants a hybrid approach will probably be the most effective.

The relationship between marketing value and local ingredients must never be forgotten.  Maximizing that relationship can lead to great success for any restaurant, and the intangible bonuses of improving brand value and community involvement make sourcing ingredients locally a sound business proposition for just about any restaurant.

Where to Buy Local

The following internet resources can aid restaurateurs in their search for quality local ingredients:

The Eat Well Guide  www.eatwellguide.org

USDA Farmer’s Market Directory http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/

Local Harvest http://www.localharvest.org/

Local Dirt http://localdirt.com

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How A Low Flow Valve Can Improve Your Cash Flow (AND Green Cred)

Low Flow Spray Valve

T&S Brass Water Saver Pre-Rinse Spray Valve

Your restaurant uses a lot of water.  Between the water you serve your guests, the ice machine, the dish machine, and the sink, any restaurant goes through a lot of water on a daily basis.  I don’t have to tell you how much that water costs you.  I’m sure you’re reminded every time you look at your monthly utilities bill.

When you go through as much water as a restaurant does in one month, even a small adjustment in daily water usage can make a huge difference in how much money you spend.  And sometimes those small adjustments can be astoundingly easy.

Take, for example, the spray valve on your pre-rinse assembly.  Naturally, you want a strong flow of water so that dishes can be quickly rinsed before they go into the dish machine.  The problem with a strong flow is that a lot of water gets used very quickly, and that costs you money.

In recent years low flow spray valves have become very popular for this very reason.  A low flow valve uses a fraction of the water per minute as older spray valves.  Over the course of a year, a low flow valve can save you thousands of gallons in water usage and therefore hundreds of dollars on utilities.
But will a low flow spray valve clean dishes?  The term “low flow” certainly doesn’t sound like something that powers food bits off very quickly.

T&S Low Flow Spray Valve
It took a company with a reputation like T&S to engineer a low flow valve that didn’t sacrifice any of the performance anyone would expect out of their pre-rinse.  Their new low flow spray valves clean dishes just as quickly or even faster than any other manufacturer.  Even better, T&S low flow spray valves use half the water as the competition, which can translate into as much as 100,000 gallons of water a year.

Making your restaurant more green is so overused these days it’s become cliché.  But when something as simple as changing out the spray valve on your pre-rinse can save you this much money, and bolster your greening efforts at the same time, what’s not to love?  It’s a win-win for your restaurant.

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4 Strategies For Better Commercial Refrigeration Efficiency

Energy EfficiencyNow that we are entering the hottest time of the year, it’s a good time to examine the commercial refrigeration units in your restaurant and make sure they are operating as efficiently as possible.  No matter what you do, you’re going to end up spending more money on refrigeration this time of year than any other.  However, that doesn’t mean you should have to spend any more than absolutely necessary.

Have you optimized your commercial refrigeration efficiency?  Doing so can save you a LOT of money.  Here’s the main areas you should focus on:

Clean those coils! You’ve probably heard it before but if you haven’t gotten behind your refrigerators and freezers and cleaned off the coils, you need to hear it again.  The condenser and evaporator coils take the heat inside your refrigerator and disperse it outside the unit, and if air can’t pass over the coils, then they radiate heat much more slowly.  That makes your unit work harder to keep things cool and it consumes more electricity.

Replace worn or torn door gaskets. The door gasket forms a seal when the unit’s door is closed, preventing cold air from seeping out and warm air from seeping in.  If that gasket isn’t sealing properly, it’s costing you money.  Health inspectors also don’t like torn gaskets because food bits and grime gather in them and create a breeding ground for bacteria.  Luckily, replacing the gasket is an easy process.

Turn off door heaters. All this heater does is prevent frost from building up on the inside door of your refrigeration unit.  Most units don’t even have a frost problem, and so the heater just uses up energy.  If you do have a problem with frost buildup or have water pooling in front of the unit, then you absolutely must have the door heater on.  More often than not, however, it’s not an issue.A Walk In Door Closer

Outfit your walk-in. Strip curtains help drastically reduce the loss of cold air when the door to your walk-in is open, and when it’s closed, the curtain adds an extra layer of insulation.  Also make sure the door latch is working properly and actually catching when you close the door.  A worn or broken latch means the door gasket isn’t fully sealed, and you’re losing cold air.  Also use a door closer to automatically pull the walk-in door shut quickly after it’s opened.  The less cold air you lose, the better off you’ll be.

It’s amazing how much in energy savings you can realize from a few simple steps.  Of course, there will always be a point where you cannot optimize your refrigeration equipment any more, and natural degradation in performance will occur no matter what you do.  When the time comes to buy a new commercial refrigerator or freezer, buy an Energy Star rated model if at all possible.  Even if you can’t find an Energy Star unit that works for you, simply upgrading to a new unit will mean better efficiency because new technologies are being added to commercial refrigeration units all the time, and a new unit will perform better simply because it’s newer.

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Which Energy Efficiency Upgrades Are The Best Investment?

Let’s face it—restaurants are energy hogs.

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants use five times more energy per square foot than other types of commercial buildings. And of the energy that restaurants use, the kitchen uses five times more than the rest of the building. Energy costs, on average, represent approximately 30% of a building’s annual budget.

Energy efficiency is essential to a restaurant’s bottom line. Given our industry’s razor-thin profit margins—between 4% and 6%, typically—every dollar saved in energy costs is like an extra $20 in sales. Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) estimates that investing in efficiency measures can save you 20% on your energy costs.

The decision to invest in energy efficiency is a relatively easy one, but deciding what to spend money on is a very different proposition. Every facility is different and a variety of  factors—including the age of your building, the kind of food you serve, and the types of appliances you have—affect what will make a dent in your energy costs. What works for you might not be suitable for someone else.

Fortunately, there are some straightforward ways to figure out how best to invest your energy budget.

  1. Determine where your energy is going. In an average full-service restaurant, food prep makes up 35% of the building’s energy consumption, with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) consuming 28%. An energy audit—done by a professional, or simply by evaluating your utility bills—will help you figure out where you’re spending the most money, and where you might be able to improve
  2. Compare your facility with similar buildings. Talk to your neighbours and other restaurateurs to establish benchmarks for your performance. Are they doing better than you? Worse? What are their bills like?
  3. Calculate the payback period of any potential investment. This is how long it will take for an upgrade to pay for itself through savings. For a preliminary introduction, take a look at BizEnergy’s post on simple payback.
  4. Select which energy efficiency measures you’re going to take. These might include purchasing new, high efficiency ENERGY STAR appliances, implementing an energy management system, or simply replacing your lightbulbs—you’ll be able to determine what will work best for your space. Make sure you take a look at rebates and financial incentives that may be available from the government and from your local utilities.

While you may not have the funds to invest in a complete high-efficiency kitchen retrofit, there are inexpensive steps you can take that will have an immediate impact on your bills. Upgrading your lighting, for example, is a simple and relatively inexpensive change that will help reduce your energy costs quickly. Picking the low-hanging fruit is a good way to free up savings that can then be used for more extensive measures in the future.

Another strategy to reduce your energy efficiency investment is to roll your energy upgrades into your equipment replacement plan. When a piece of restaurant equipment needs to be replaced, purchase a model that’s as efficient as possible.

Keep in mind that it’s usually not enough simply to install energy efficient appliances and sit back to watch the savings roll in. Work with your staff to implement operating procedures that emphasize conservation, like formal start-up and shut-down schedules. That way, you’ll support your investment in technology with a change in human behaviour.

For more information, check out BizEnergy’s post on simple, DIY ways to cut your energy costs.

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The Green Restaurant Association: Sustainable Knowledge Is Power

Green Restaurant AssociationWhen Michael Oshman started the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) in 1990, hardly anybody in the food service industry thought much about sustainability.

“The green business movement wasn’t something that really existed,” he says.  “We were one of the first organizations that wanted to help businesses.  We asked: ‘What if we went to businesses and provided tools that helped them directly?’  If we can make it convenient and easy then maybe we can get somewhere.”

The most powerful tool in the GRA’s arsenal of business solutions is information. The organization has built what they call “the world’s largest database of green solutions for the restaurant industry,”  – a resource of information about almost every sustainable product and service available to a food service operation.  Each one is rated on a point system, and each has gone through a certification process that evaluates sustainability – from water usage to energy consumption to waste reduction.

The more points a business accumulates, the closer it gets to becoming Green Restaurant Certified.  Restaurants must attain at least 100 points, meet minimum requirements in certain categories, implement a recycling program, and get ongoing annual training in order to qualify.

“It’s really about the standards for us,” says Oshman.  “The information we give restaurants – whether it’s compostable or energy efficient or whatever – they don’t have to wonder.  They know because we’ve done the due diligence.”

Those standards have become the gold standard for consumers when they are choosing a sustainable dining option.  The issue plays a much larger role in shopping decisions today than it did in the early days of the Green Restaurant Association, and that has only helped them make the case that sustainability makes sense for business.

As Oshman points out: “You better listen to your customer.  If you’re not keeping up then someone else is.  The difference with sustainability is that this isn’t some cool trend.  This is a value.  As people become more and more interested in sustainable values they start to act out those values as a consumer.  What do they do?  They buy green.  They dine green.”

Increasingly, sustainability is a competitive advantage for restaurants.  A Harris Interactive poll from 2010 indicated 17% of consumers would choose Restaurant A over Restaurant B even if it meant waiting in a longer line and an additional 21% would choose A if the wait time was the same.

Green Certified restaurants and the GRA have been featured in most major national news publications and networks, from The New York Times to CNN.  This has led to a widespread recognition of the organization and its certification standards that provides an important advantage to certified restaurants.

Certified restaurants have also realized an unexpected benefit from making their operations more sustainable: improved employee morale.  Oshman has heard restaurateurs report that 50% of their employees are there because of the sustainability efforts that resulted in a GRA certification.

Turnover is a constant source of frustration and cost in the food service industry.  Anything that helps restaurateurs maintain a high level of service with well traiSustainabilityned, experienced employees is vital to keeping a competitive edge.  Connecting with employees on the values of sustainability is an important way to motivate the workplace with a culture built around causes those employees believe in.

Regardless of how food service operators feel about sustainability personally, the fact of the matter is this is a trend that isn’t going away any time soon.  The National Restaurant Association’s Hot Menu Trends For 2012 include several sustainable and locally sourced food trends in their top ten, and sustainability has been in the top ten trends for food service operators for the past several years.

Making the transition to a sustainable operation can make business sense if executed properly, and ultimately that is the mission of the Green Restaurant Association: to give restaurants the tools that will make them want to make that change rather than forcing change through regulation.

The case for sustainability is compelling, and the tools are available.  Says Oshman: “What we’re doing today is what inspired me 22 years ago – to make it easy for businesses to do the right thing.  We’re still far from achieving that with every business but now the game is different, the consumer wants to see the change and that’s what keeps us going.”

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Your Restaurant’s Guide To Commercial Composting

Every to go container, every disposable cup, and every plastic fork your restaurant uses ends up in a landfill somewhere.  Over the course of a year that adds up to millions of tons of trash from all the restaurants in the United States.  For most restaurants, these disposable items are a necessary part of doing business, and the lower the cost, the better.

Yet more and more restaurants are turning to compostable versions of these disposable items, even though they tend to be more expensive than their styrofoam and plastic counterparts.

Why?  Two main factors are driving the trend towards commercial composting:

Connecting with your customer.
Overwhelming majorities of Americans support sustainable products like compostable cups, plates, and food containers.  They may not be particularly motivated to spend more money for them at the grocery store, but when consumers encounter these products in places like restaurants, they tend to give the establishment high marks.  When you connect with customers on issues they care about, you’re going to see loyalty and repeat business increase.

Adding another facet to your overall green program. Whether driven by pure moral conviction or a desire to connect with customers (or both), more and more restaurants are instituting green programs as a part of their business.  The use of commercial composting and recycling systems have become widespread, and many restaurants employ programs to improve energy efficiency, reduce water use and carbon footprints.  Using compostable products can add a powerful element to any restaurant’s green efforts.

Person with green recycling binSo how do compostable food service supplies work and why are they so great? Some common questions and answers:

What does compostable mean? Compostable products break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as cellulose (paper) in an industrial composting facility.  It may take these products longer to breakdown in a non-composting environment like a landfill, but in general these products break down exponentially faster than regular plastics and even biodegradable products.  For a more complete explanation, check out this article: Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable.

What are the benefits of corn-based compostable products? Corn cups and other compostable products made from corn are beneficial because they use a crop that is already produced on a massive scale in the United States to replace petroleum (oil) based plastics that rely on a substance we must import.  Corn-based products are also carbon neutral because the plants they are made from absorb an equal amount of carbon dioxide as is produced to harvest the crop.

What is PLA? PLA stands for polyactic acid, which is a polymer that is used to make a replacement for oil-based plastics.  PLA is made from lactic acid, which is created when the dextrose (starch) found in biomass like corn is fermented.  Today almost all PLA is created from corn, but in the future PLA will be made from other crops, including sugar beets, sugarcane, and rice, depending on what’s available locally.

How are sugarcane food containers, plates, and bowls made? Sugarcane has a long, fibrous stalk that contains a sweet juice.  Sugar and many other things are made from the extracted juice, leaving the stalk behind.  This leftover is called Bagasse, and it has traditionally been burned or discarded.  Disposable sugarcane products are made using Bagasse, taking a previously unusable byproduct and turning it into a fully compostable plate, bowl, or food container for your restaurant.

What does post-consumer recycled material mean? Post-consumer means the materials are recycled after they are used by consumers and discarded.  Compostable hot cups are partially (about 25%) made from post-consumer recycled materials.  Not only is it sustainable to use recycled materials, buying products made from those recycled materials helps stimulate demand, meaning more will be recycled in the future.

What kinds of compostable products are available for use in my restaurant? Corn cold cups (PLA), post-consumer recycled fiber hot cups, sugarcane food containers, and high heat PLA cutlery are all examples of products you can put to use in your restaurant.  Make sure any compostable product you buy is BPI certified, as this is the gold standard for compostable products.  Checking for BPI certification helps you avoid “greenwashed” products that claim they are compostable but really aren’t.

Using commercially compostable products in your restaurant has a clear marketing benefit for your business because your customers will appreciate your decision to use them.  If your restaurant has already decided that going green is a part of your business model, then compostable products are a must to round out your program.  If you haven’t yet decided whether greening your restaurant makes sense, check out The Back Burner’s Going Green section for more information on everything food service is doing to meet the increasing demand for sustainability in food service.

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