At these restaurants, 'eating green' doesn't necessarily mean ordering a salad
With the average eatery producing 275 pounds of waste a day, some are adopting environmentally friendly approaches.
Rachel Pelkey has seen it many times before. Working behind the counter at Grille Zone in Boston, she'll watch diners finish their meal, gather their rubbish, march it to the front of the restaurant, and then look confused.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"The biggest question I get is 'Where's the garbage?' " she says with the kind of grin a mother gives her questioning child. "I explain that we don't have a garbage can, only compost and recycling."
That often sparks a chain of follow-up questions: Why only compost? What do you mean it's a near zero-waste restaurant? Everything is biodegradable? Even the plates and knives?
Once customers catch on, they get kind of excited, she says. "They like being a part of something so green," says Ms. Pelkey. "Yeah, we serve burgers and fries, but we're also as environmentally friendly as they come."
As more Americans seek out products with green credentials, more quick and casual restaurants are ready to serve them. Eating green no longer means just ordering from a vegetarian menu. In fact, it doesn't even have to mean eating healthy.
"For a restaurant to be truly green, they have to think about the lighting, the napkins, the cleaning products, the waste, the grill – everything," says Michael Oshman, founder of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), a national, nonprofit consultancy in Boston that helps eateries become more environmentally friendly. "But what a lot of restaurateurs don't realize is that taking the necessary steps is not only good for the environment and good for their image, it's also a way to lower costs."
Thanks to improved technology and increased adoption of sustainable products, even burger joints can go green.
After opening in June, Grille Zone became the GRA's first certified environmentally friendly fast-food restaurant. Its green features surround the lunch crowd of mostly college students. Co-owner Ben Prentice points to the infrared grill, the energy-efficient lighting, the locally grown vegetables, the wall decoration taken from an old New England schoolhouse, the plates and cutlery made completely from corn and wheat starch – even those confusing compost and recycling barrels are from an old brandy distillery.
Because of its focus on biodegradable cups, utensils, and paper, Grille Zone produces an average of 15 pounds of waste a day. Mr. Prentice compares that to the US restaurant average of 275 pounds.
"Restaurants are typically huge waste producers, particularly, when guests are eating off disposable plates," Prentice says.
This problem hits fast-food places the most. While upscale restaurants wash and reuse their silverware, fast-food waste often just winds up in the trash. Those millions of Happy Meal bags and Whopper scraps are then dumped into landfills, which over time can produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
But for his restaurant, Prentice touts that the rubbish is brought to a compost facility and "in 30 to 60 days all that food waste is now mulch, and it goes back into a farmer's field or into your garden."
The Massachusetts burrito chain Boloco is pushing toward a similar low-waste future. In the next few weeks, its stores will phase out Styrofoam cups and use ones made of cornstarch instead, says Mike Harder, the company's president.
"We knew that Styrofoam was out," he says. (While recyclable, Styrofoam left in landfills is virtually nonbiodegradable.) "And we didn't want just plastic cups. So, we chose a material that was good for the environment, and most people will never notice the difference."
Such a claim couldn't be made a few years ago. Early cornstarch spoons would melt in hot soup, while potato-based cups would leak when filled with hot coffee.