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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.

Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable

Any restaurateur interested in making their restaurant more green has encountered these terms before.  The problem is, just because a product claims it is compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable doesn’t make it so.

Making the right decisions to green your restaurant in a way that makes sense for your business means you need to know the difference between these terms and the impact they can have on your buying decisions.

The most common product used in restaurants that uses all three of these terms is plastics.  More than likely your restaurant uses small wares like cups and utensils, and many products your kitchen uses are packaged using plastics like condiments and other food products.

Here are some tips to understanding your options when it comes to plastic products:

Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and RecyclableCompostable

Compostable plastic products have the highest green threshold to reach.  This means any product claiming to be compostable should be viewed with a certain skepticism because it really is hard to make a plastic that conforms to the definition of compostable.

Compostable products break down naturally into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as cellulose or paper (usually about 180 days) in an industrial or municipal composting facility.  Compostable materials do not leave a toxic residue and cannot be distinguished from the rest of the compost after full degradation.

The most important issues in this definition are where the plastic is put to compost and whether any toxic residue is left after degradation.

A municipal or industrial composting facility breaks down composting materials differently than a farm or in-house composting unit.  Plastics are given a compostable designation based on how they degrade in a larger industrial facility, which means they may not be compostable using other methods.

Since the availability of large scale composting facilities is limited, it’s important to know that a compostable plastic may degrade more slowly before deciding if it can be used in a smaller scale compost facility.

PLA and Master-Bi corn starch based plastics like corn cups are the two most common types of compostable plastics.  However, these resins are also sometimes mixed with inorganic substances to make them more heat resistant or for other purposes, meaning they do not always qualify as compostable.

Plant-based plastics have the added benefit of being “carbon neutral,” meaning that the carbon dioxide emitted to produce them is offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants used to make the plastic.

Any plastic that leaves a toxic residue after degrading is not compostable but can be designated biodegradable.

BiodegradableUnderstanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable

Biodegradable products break down over time into smaller and smaller chunks as a result of the action of agent enzymes produced by bacteria or fungi.  This process can leave behind toxic chemicals and still be designated as biodegradable.

The problem is, no standard exists for the amount of time a product takes to biodegrade.  And no requirement exists for the addition of agents like bacteria to aid the degradation process.

This means that most products are labeled “biodegradable” as a way to promote their supposed environmentally friendly capabilities when in fact most of these products do nothing to help reduce waste or emissions.  Biodegradable sounds good to the consumer but really doesn’t help green your restaurant at all.

If you are looking to improve the green practices of your restaurant, go for compostable products over biodegradable ones whenever you can.

Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and RecyclableRecyclable

The truth is, just about anything can be recycled, and surely you have seen the little triangle with a number inside it on most plastic products claiming it’s recyclable.

The problem?  The company or local government agency that does your recycling limits what they recycle.

Check with your recycler to verify which types of plastics they accept.  Training staff and getting customers to recycle the right products can be very difficult, but many restaurants have had success with comprehensive recycling programs.

The main ingredient to success is creating a clear set of guidelines and communicating those guidelines to your staff and customers.

What Should Your Restaurant Do?

Compostable products are more expensive to buy.  But in many cases the extra expense can be at least partially recouped through reduced waste disposal.

Leftover food makes up 50% of the waste produced by a typical restaurant.  If this plus compostable plastics like cups were removed from the waste you produce and composted instead, significant savings can be realized.

Perhaps more importantly, a majority of consumers respond favorably to restaurants that engage in green practices.

Get feedback from customers before investing in more expensive compostable products.  If it looks like you can improve customer loyalty and branding by doing so, and the additional expense makes sense after accounting for marketing benefits and waste disposal savings, then there’s no reason why your business shouldn’t invest.

Chances are the products you use now are biodegradable, so there’s no real benefit in pursuing products that market this designation.  And as long as you’re reducing waste costs, implement a recycling program that saves the types of plastics local recyclers accept and gives you some real credibility when you say “green restaurant.”

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Who Wants Some Iridescent Shark?

Who Wants Some Iridescent Shark?

That thing doesn’t fit in my aquarium!

Sustainable seafood has become an increasingly important issue for restaurateurs as the green restaurant movement gains ground.  This is coupled with increasing evidence that the world’s wild caught seafood supply is in serious decline.

The result has been a renewed search for fish species that have the quality and taste characteristics worthy of center-of-plate presentation but can be farm raised in a sustainable manner.

Striped Pangasius, or Iridescent Shark,  is a type of catfish native to the tropical waters of Vietnam and Thailand.  Its hardy nature and delicious, flaky white meat has made it a favored source of food in Asia, Canada, and Europe.

The shark name originates from aquarium enthusiasts who keep young Pangasius in household tanks.  The young have an iridescent color that is lost as Pangasius grows older.  Full grown Pangasius in the wild can weigh as much as 97 pounds and grow to 4 feet in length.

Pangasius can tolerate low oxygen levels and high school concentrations.  They are very easy to farm (compared to tilapia or bangus) and disease resistant.  These characteristics also make it cheaper to buy than Tilapia, Cod, or Sole, yet the filets are of comparable quality.

Fishery Products International (FPI) recently announced they would begin to import Pangasius from Southeast Asia for sale in the U.S.  The fish is farm raised in Vietnam using sustainable practices overseen by the Vietnamese Ministry of Fisheries and a separate quality assurance group run by FPI.

Farm raised fish do have an environmental impact, especially concerning water usage and contamination, but in general that impact is far less than the further depletion of  wild fish populations through overfishing.

For years catfish farms in the U.S. resisted the importation of Pangasius because it competes directly with them in supplying the food industry.  In 2002, an Arkansas senator even sponsored legislation restricting the catfish name to fish grown in the United States.

No matter what you call it, Pangasius’ attractiveness comes from cheaper prices for a virtually identical product, and the volume in which it can be produced far exceeds the capabilities of the American catfish industry.

Chefs across the country have responded positively to Pangasius, especially after price comparisons show it is a great product for the price.  Look for the tropical catfish to start showing up on menus near you very soon.

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Hot Chef Trends for 2009

Despite the economic downturn you’re sick of hearing about (unless you’ve been under a rock), two trends remain hot for the food service industry in 2009: food nutrition and sustainability.

Even as consumers tighten belts and close wallets, they’re looking for healthy foods brought to them in an environmentally sustainable way, and if they think they can afford it, they’ll go for the product with the “green” label every time.

An older trend that’s still going strong is healthy and nutritious foods.

Most customers have started to blend green or organic food with healthy food, which makes it easy for you to blend the two into your menu for 2009.

Here are some tips to help you keep up with the times:

Customers want healthy choices, not demands. In other words, they appreciate healthy options on a menu but don’t want to be forced to eat them.  Menu diversity is nothing new, but it would surprise you how many restaurants have made the mistake of getting a little overzealous with healthy menu options.

Sometimes customers just want a burger and fries.

Advertise your sustainability. In recent years, your business has more than likely adopted cost cutting measures like recycling, energy conservation, and buying local products.

Let your customer know!

These are things they can connect with that make them feel good about consuming your product and bringing them back for more.

Back your claims up with green certification. Claiming to be green is one thing.  Getting certified is an entirely different matter.

The Green Restaurant Association has been promoting sustainable restaurant practices since 1990.

Getting your restaurant certified green will not only help you cut costs, it will give you and your product legitimacy in the eyes of the customer, enhancing their loyalty and increasing person-to-person buzz about your business.

Oh, and you’re helping the environment!

A healthy kids menu equals happy customers. Gone are the days of giving little Jimmy a burger and fries off the kid’s menu while Mom and Dad enjoy their entrees.

Today’s parents want nutritious offerings for their kids that will be eaten with all the enthusiasm of a Happy Meal.

Coming up with creative menu items for kids that are both healthy and satisfying can be a challenge, but the chef who pulls it off can count on happy customers coming back with the entire family.

Buy local (thinking global optional). As energy costs rose in the past few years, buying produce, ingredients, and meats locally became a red hot trend in the food service industry.

Not only does buying locally cut costs, it affords chefs and restaurant managers more purchasing flexibility.

Add in customer appreciation because your business is saving energy and investing locally, and you’ve got a winning combination.

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