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Diverting food from landfills is simpler than it looks

July 23, 2015

A growing number of restaurants are tackling an issue they never thought they’d encounter: how to keep food out of the trash can.

As more restaurants work to keep materials out of the landfill, interest in “zero waste” is rising. Legislators in some areas are banning food scraps from landfills, and customers increasingly are voting with their wallets by dining out at more environmentally-friendly establishments.

Reducing food waste can seem complicated, especially in the beginning. Here are five questions to think about, and answers to lead you in the right direction.

 

Why is it so challenging to keep materials from going to the landfill?

Peek into any recycling bin or trash can at a restaurant and you’re likely to see a lot of “contamination” (i.e., the wrong stuff in the wrong place). Let’s face it: It’s not easy to get customers to first scrape the melted cheese off a recyclable plate and then toss each item into a different bin. That’s why it’s important to keep things simple for your customers.

 

So what’s a restaurant to do?

If you use disposable plates and cups, you have two options for keeping them out of the landfill: recycle or compost them. It can get complicated. Recyclers don’t want food waste because it lowers the value of materials. Composters like food waste because it can be turned into compost. So recyclers hate food scraps and composters love them. In a restaurant that offers both recycling and composting, recyclables go in one bin and food waste in another. The biggest challenge can be sorting the packaging – which bin should it go in? One solution is compostable packaging, which can go in the same bin as the leftover food. There’s no need to wrestle leftovers off a plate. Because of this, many restaurants are turning to compostable plates, utensils, containers and cups.

 

What does compostable packaging really mean?

Compostable packaging will break down into organic material at a commercial compost facility and turn into something useful, like compost, which is sold to local farms to improve their soil.

 

How do you tell if a cup or plate is compostable?

Make sure the products meet the ASTM standards for commercial composting and are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. BPI provides third-party assurance that a product is compostable in a commercial facility within a specific time frame. If you’re using something that doesn't decompose, your customers could accuse you of “greenwashing.” More information on BPI-certified products may be found here.

 

Do environmentally friendly cups and plates cost more?

In a word, yes. You’ll likely spend more to make the switch. That’s especially true if you’re now using cups and plates made from foam – a relatively inexpensive material. The size of the cost increase will depend on what you’re currently using. New bins, signage and staff training also will be required. And you’ll need someone to haul your compostables away. Start with your waste and recycling haulers to learn if they offer this service. You’ll also want to make sure there’s a local composter who is able to accept your compostable materials. Here’s a good place to check: www.findacomposter.com.

 

The process takes some getting used to, but could be great for business.

Sarah Martinez is “Sustainability Maven” for Eco-Products, a producer of foodservice packaging made from renewable resources and post-consumer recycled content.

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