Green Gets the Green


By Lauren Monahan & Katie Israel Mar/Apr 2008 Issue

Going green. Sustainability. Inconvenient Truth. Eco-friendly. Carbon Footprint. These words, and the ideas behind them, have been working their way into many aspects of American culture since the 1980’s. A consistent flow of new information about how to “get green” has gotten an increasing number of people turned onto the idea – and the restaurant industry is no exception.

Restaurants have been an enormous part of American life and culture for over a decade – we consume 70 million restaurant meals each day, and spend nearly $500 billion on prepared foods each year! These numbers alone are astounding, but the statistics of restaurant waste that accompany them are even more so – and they continue to rise year after year. Recently, however, many restaurateurs have recognized the adverse effects of their businesses on the environment and are beginning to take responsibility for this by making certain changes around their stores.

An immediate, full-scale “green-amorphosis” would be both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect from a restaurant – it would be almost impossible for an establishment to stay in business during the process. However, there are many potential baby steps these businesses can take to become more eco-friendly, and these small steps will lead to big strides. Read on to discover these methods, and start turning waste-prone restaurants into green machines.

How many chefs does it take to change a light bulb?

Energy efficiency in a commercial kitchen is a tough problem to tackle, which is why many restaurants start addressing it by changing their lighting strategies. “Lighting constitutes about 15 percent of a restaurant’s energy use,” says Richard Young, an electrical engineer with the Food Service Technology Center. Switching from traditional 100-W incandescent bulbs to energy efficient 27-W compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s) is an easy and immediate way to both greenify and see returns on your investment.

According to “Boosting Restaurant Profits With Energy Efficiency: A Guide for Restaurant Owners and Managers” issued by Flex Your Power, a little change in lighting goes a long way. They say that if each of the 80,000 restaurants in California replaced one incandescent light bulb with a CFL, the industry would save $4.4 million and reduce CO2 emissions by 50 million pounds each year! They also narrow it down for an individual perspective: Say your restaurant has eight incandescent light bulbs turned on for 16 hours each day, and cost $0.13/kWh. After the math, that’s $607 per year for those eight bulbs. Now, for eight CFL’s operating for the same price and the same amount of time, the cost is only $164 per year. That’s an annual savings of $443 – just on eight light bulbs! Imagine the savings – both in wattage and dollars – a restaurant could accumulate by switching to CFL’s entirely. And this is the simplest of changes.

Get Certified — Restaurants can be green machines – case in point: the Green Restaurant Association. The GRA, founded in 1990, is a non-profit environmental consulting group based in Sharon, Massachusetts. Michael Oshman started this organization with the goal of transforming the restaurant industry and helping restaurateurs convert their establishments into more eco-friendly businesses by becoming “certified green restaurants.” Sounds daunting, but the GRA is there to offer help along the way. A “certified green restaurant” uses a comprehensive recycling system for all products that are accepted by local recycling companies and does not use any form of styrofoam. In order to become certified, an establishment must not only meet these standards, but must submit to a top-to-bottom environmental inspection and assessment. Based on the results, the GRA proposes four annual changes for the restaurant to complete (which are boasted to be both convenient and cost-effective), and the new GRA members must agree to follow the set of environmental guidelines provided to them. Some of these guidelines are: the use of sustainable food and chlorine-free paper products, energy and water efficiency and conservation, education and recycling and composting programs. “We don’t leave them [restaurants] to figure out everything on their own,” Oshman has said. “We find the product names, distributors and waste management providers. We’re there at every step, so it takes a big load off the restaurateur.” So far over 300 restaurants in the US, from pizza parlors to white-cloth establishments, have been certified by the GRA, and the numbers are continuing to grow.

There are countless other steps to increase energy efficiency in the commercial kitchen. Low-flow spray rinse valves, demand defrosters on walk-in coolers and Energy Star appliances such as dishwashers and steam cookers are all items that will reduce energy consumption. Companies like Southern California Edison and the Gas Company have even started offering rebates to businesses on the purchase and installation of certain products that improve energy efficiency. Vendors also reiterate that buying an energy-efficient appliance is indeed an investment; saving energy means saving money, so as soon as this equipment is installed it starts paying for itself by taking dollars off of the energy bill. Want to know how energy-savvy your business is? Energy audits and free classes and seminars are offered by Southern California Edison to help get your restaurant on track.

Green Businesses

Renowned chef Akasha Richmond caught the green bug, and incorporated it into her restaurant. AKASHA, a new restaurant/bar/bakery in Culver City, is one of the greenest eateries in the southland. Featuring locally grown sustainable foods, fair-trade coffee products, eco-friendly and energy-efficient building materials, and 100% biodegradable cleaning products (among a list of others), this establishment is an example for all restaurants to follow. AKASHA’s employees even don hemp aprons and 100% organic cotton jeans from Levi’s eco line. “I am very selective about the suppliers I work with for AKASHA,” Richmond has said, “they must share my values to keep their food on our menu.”

These environmental values are important to Courtney and Carter Reum, the brothers behind the new acai­-based spirit VeeV. The 60-proof liquor boasts antioxidants, vitamins, and a green mentality. Energy-efficient distilling, regular green audits, sustainable packaging and becoming certified carbon neutral are all actions VeeV has taken to make itself an eco-example. The company also donates $1 from every bottle sold, to ensure that the acai­ berries its product comes from are organically grown, wild-harvested and sustainable.

Greasy Fuel

Food in your gas tank? Well, sort of. With more and more attention focused on eco-friendly practices and going green (not to mention non-sustainable petroleum sourcing), it has become important to research and develop alternative resources for fuel that are not harmful to the fragile environment. Since its emergence in the late 1990’s, biodiesel has gained support and proven its effectiveness as a substitute for petroleum. In fact, 2000 marked the year that biodiesel became the only alternative fuel in the country successfully complete the Clean Air Act’s Tier I and Tier II health tests. The tests conclusively determined that biodiesel’s regulated emissions are significantly less than regular petroleum, and the biodiesel poses no threat to human health.

So what is this magic fuel? Biodiesel is a clean-burning fuel for diesel engines derived from natural oils, such as soybean oil, and contains no petroleum, but can be combined at any level with petroleum to produce a biodiesel blend. It is a renewable, domestic product, which eliminates getting tangled up in the foreign oil trade. Biodiesel is non-toxic, biodegradable, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics.

Popularity and awareness about biodiesel is on the rise. The fuel can be purchased from biodiesel producers and makers, from petroleum distributors, and even at some public gas pumps across the country.

So what does this phenomenon have to do with the restaurant industry? Tons. Oils of any kind are used daily in every restaurant across the United States. Once biodiesel hit the scene in the late 1990’s, its producers began appealing to restaurants for their used oil.

Why would anyone object? A free removal service for a good cause seems almost too good to be true – but it’s not! There a number of companies already specializing in cleaning restaurant grease traps (something that restaurants already need), and many of them have incorporated this oil removal aspect into their regularly scheduled service. Free containers are provided and replaced with each service, so there is no hassle for restaurants. The oil is then picked up and taken to the biodiesel producers for its transformation into non-toxic, clean burning, biodegradable fuel. Why not help your restaurant while helping the environment?

As one of the largest and most dominant industries in the US, restaurants have an immense amount of power and opportunity to make significant advancements in getting green. Some changes seem big and daunting, but with each small step they become closer and more attainable. And remember – let the public know about what you’ve done to help the environment. Get the word out about what changes have been made in your establishment. Who knows? A whole new clientele could be waiting at your door to check out your new energy-saving light bulbs or biodegradable to-go containers. Little steps are the key, so help the restaurant industry to get going – and get green!

Some Suggestions – Where to Start:

– Paper Towels and Toilet Paper

o Many “green” paper products are made from 100% recovered paper fiber and contain at least 80% post-consumer materials

– To-Go Containers

o Styrofoam is out – paper is in. There are many options now available made from 100% biodegradable materials that are water and greaseproof, microwaveable, and all-naturally constructed.

– Cleaning Products

o There is a whole world of non-toxic, biodegradable cleaning products out there. Keep employees and the environment safe!

– Locally Grown Produce

o Less travel time means fresher ingredients – what’s not to like? Support other businesses in your community.

– To-Go Cutlery

o These days they’re making biodegradable cutlery from potato starch, bamboo, and who knows what else. These utensils fully decompose in a compost pile in 40-60 days, and do the same job as plastics in a better way.

– Tankless Water Heaters

o Also knows as “instantaneous” or “demand” water heaters, these devices heat water only as it is needed. With proper installation and upkeep, tankless water heaters can save energy and last more than 20 years.

– Solar Panels

o These things have been around for a while, but with new advancements in technology they are becoming more compact and more efficient.

– Recycling and Composting

o Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! By simply adding another receptacle for recyclable goods, your business can reduce its waste immensely. There are companies who can help you get started on this and cut down your trash pickup bill.