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4 New Restaurants Rethink Food Waste

Eating out without the waste

takeout containers for restaurant leftovers

Photo Credit: Planet Takeout via Compfight cc

By now, you have probably heard the NRDC estimate that we waste about 40 percent of all edible food in the U.S. That’s 20 pounds of food wasted per person per month, and plenty of that happens at restaurants. A 2005 University of Arizona study estimated that the total amount of food loss per day in full-service restaurants in the U.S. was almost 50 million pounds. Over 85 million pounds were lost daily in U.S. fast food restaurants. This happens both before the food reaches our plates, and then when we don’t finish our meals or take home the leftovers to eat later.

Conscientious restaurateurs have begun to take notice of this waste of energy and resources, and some are going the extra mile to address food waste where they work.

Sandwich Me In, Chicago, IL
Chef Justin Vrany is passionate about food and equally passionate about waste. His restaurant, Sandwich Me In, has gone a full two years without creating any garbage. As a small business owner, Vrany is able to accomplish this seemingly by sheer force of will. He carefully recycles everything himself and takes all the food waste to his house where he has many compost buckets. Vrany says a typical restaurant discards about 8 gallons of garbage per hour. It took Sandwich Me In two years to produce that amount! To top it off, Vrany had an artist turn that 8 gallons of garbage into a sculpture, officially making Sandwich Me In a true zero-waste restaurant. According to Vrany, the restaurant also uses only renewable sources of energy, and serves local produce and meat.

NationSwell produced this short film about Vrany and Sandwich Me In, entitled The Garbageless Restaurant.

Silo, Brighton, U.K.
Founder and Chef Douglas McMaster appears to be equally passionate about the concept behind his new endeavor, Silo, a restaurant, bakery, and coffeehouse that will embrace a “pre-industrial food system” and produce zero waste. Set to open in September, the business will receive all deliveries of produce, wine, wheat and meat package- and bottle-free, according to The Argus. Silo will have a £22,000 composting machine on-site that can reduce 640kg (about 1,411 lbs) of organic matter to compost in 24 hours. McMaster told The Argus it is the first machine of its kind to be used in a U.K. kitchen.

McMaster has other waste-reducing tricks up his sleeve as well. To mitigate consumer waste from coffee to-go cups, Silo will offer a free coffee for every five cups a customer returns. The cups returned will be composted in-house. Silo’s Toilets will flush using wastewater from the coffee machine. Half of the small item menu will be vegetarian, which is less resource- and fuel-intensive as meat.

Lest you think McMaster sounds a bit dogmatic, he explained to The Argus, “I don’t want to tell people how to do things, but I like the idea of working with other like-minded people to implement a more conscious food system. I like to think this is an ideas environment, a hub of creative thinking. I want people to be inspired by the way we do things and see that considering how transparent our system will be, it’s not unrealistic.”

McManus has serious culinary cred to back up his ideas. He’s worked at over 100 restaurants, including the world’s best, Noma in Copenhagen.

The Pay As You Feel Cafe, Leeds, U.K.
Another U.K. restaurant is tackling the same food waste problem using a very different approach. The Pay As You Feel Cafe, run by The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP), aims to reduce food waste by cooking up food that was set to be thrown out. According to Deutsche Welle (DW), the cafe operates with the help of volunteers who collect ingredients from supermarkets and packaging warehouses before they are thrown out. Private individuals can even contact the cafe to donate the contents of their refrigerator before they go on vacation. Ed Colbert, one of the directors of TRJFP, told DW that Prince recently donated excess food from one of his after-parties in the area, and it “had some pretty weird stuff in it.” One man’s weird stuff is another man’s caviar, and vice versa we’re sure.

It may not be for everyone, but customers at The Pay As You Feel Cafe told DW they had no qualms about eating food that would have been thrown out. It helps that customers are able to pay what they want as well. They can even pay in labor or favors like washing dishes or providing flower boxes.

Daily Table, Dorchester, Mass.
A similar, arguably more streamlined, concept is set to open stateside this year. Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, plans to open Daily Table, a low-cost supermarket-restaurant hybrid serving up perfectly good food made from ingredients that would otherwise have been wasted, like blemished fruit and items only one day past their sell-by date. Daily Table is scheduled to open in an under-served area of Dorchester, Mass sometime in 2014.

What Any Diner Can Do
We’re hopeful that restaurants’ concern with food waste will become a bigger trend. To find restaurants in your area that are committed to green practices like this, search dinegreen.com. In the meantime, there are a few things you can do at any restaurant to decrease your personal food waste.

  1. Order what you can eat. Ask questions about portion size. Many restaurants offer small or half portions, and you can always split something with a friend.
  2. Take home your leftovers. And eat them. Bring a reusable to-go container from home for extra points!
  3. If your favorite restaurant doesn’t offer small portions, ask them to consider it. The American portion size has grown over time. Check out what Halfsies is doing to encourage more restaurants to offer half portions.
  4. Don’t load your plate up at buffets. Get a small plate the first time. You can always go back for seconds!
  5. If you don’t want what comes with your meal, just tell your server to leave it off. Most servers will have no problem skipping the complimentary rolls or chips, especially if you aren’t going to eat them anyway.

Nicole Rogers
Sustainable America Contributor

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.