From Farm to Table to Dumpster, an Ungodly Amount of Food is Going to Waste — and This Chef Blames the Restaurant Industry
Reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s like a Beatles song you can’t get out of your head. The millennial mantra, the rallying cry for saving the planet.
Unfortunately, despite the buzz of the sustainability movement, we ain’t doing so great. According to a landmark study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a whopping 40% of food ends up in the landfill. It’s not just college cafeterias and Vegas buffets that are culpable — every link in the food chain is broken. Unharvested crops dye on vines in the field, blemished produce in supermarkets are tossed out for cosmetic reasons, illogical expiration dates send rivers of milk down the drain, and yes, even in the home fridge, leftover salmon and last week’s half-eaten burrito bomb are decomposing in the back
I’m not preaching here. As a long-time restaurant owner, I’m part of the problem. When it comes to food and paper waste, restaurants are the biggest culprits. It’s no secret that the food industry has been slow to embrace the Save the Planet movement. Notoriously cut-throat (i.e. cost-conscious and hyper-competitive), restaurants are too busy trying to save their own ass, not the planet. Hence the ubiquity of cheap styrofoam coffee cups and take-out containers, the proliferation of supersized portions and all-you-can-eat buffets (encouraging over-consumption), and the industry-wide reliance on single-use containers (which are too often sent to landfills.)
The biggest (and most complicated) problem are the surplus of food scraps, overripe and blighted produce, leftover perishables, and food-stained pizza boxes that fill up the nation’s dumps. The simplest, most economical solution: throw the scraps into a compost pile. Problem solved! When my restaurant had spacious outdoor seating, we did exactly that. Every spring we tilled our loamy ‘black gold’ back into the landscaped soil and by summer fresh herbs and lush flowers sprouted. From farm to plate to compost to soil and back to a flourishing garden — it was one big blooming cycle of life.
But what about establishments located in a dense urban environment? What if the back alley is a harrowing row of putrid overflowing dumpsters (and dare I say — home to slithering rodents?) What if the nearest parking garage is eight city blocks away and the staff takes public transportation or rides their bike to work? No one is going to transport a box of odorous food trimmings to an offsite composting center. Start an indoor compost pile? Good luck. Space is already so cramped that the restaurant owner or manager is lucky to have a desk, let alone room for a compost bin.
Composting for urban commercial establishments is unrealistic. Restaurant managers are dealing with clogged drains, broken fridges, espresso machines on the verge of exploding — and you want them to find space for a compost bin? “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out” is the likely response.
In addition to serving supersized portions, my fellow restaurateurs are known for serving up supersized egos. But somehow, you gotta believe that Earth’s problem of going EXTINCT is a tad bigger deal than the restroom’s toilet overflowing.
Outer space may be infinite, but the Earth is finite, and we’re filling it up fast with garbage. The systemic epidemic of food waste is not going to solve itself. The restaurant industry bears a good portion of societal blame for promulgating the all-you-can-eat culture of waste, and it’s time for an intervention.
I can’t change the world, but I can change my corner of the world. Here are three proposals that are small but purposeful steps towards preventing Planet Earth from becoming Planet Garbage.
- Local governments that manage residential trash and recycling pick-ups must be compelled to add commercial compost stations and/or dedicated compost trucks to their municipal umbrella of services. (Many progressive cities, such as Denver where I live, provide composting pick-ups to residential homes but not to commercial properties.) This is an environmental problem that needs a political solution. By enshrining the composting routine into law — and providing the requisite services to back it up — ‘be the change’ can be more than just a slogan.
- Commercial composting will only succeed when it is subsidized by government agencies. Most restaurants — I’m painting a broad swath here — will not ante up to pay for composting pick-up. This is not due to greed or apathy; the harsh reality is that restaurant profit margins are already slim to none. If you want broad participation in the zero waste movement, make it free.
- Social media websites that feature business reviews — you know who I’m talking about, the sites that sent a generation of restaurant reviewers to the unemployment line — should add a sustainability index to their review templates. Customers should be encouraged to rate establishments on their environmentally friendly (or unfriendly) practices. How does the restaurant manage excessive food and waste? Does it donate overflow meals or surplus ingredients to local charities? Does it have an eco-conscious policy, yes or no?
Perhaps one day soon, factors that influence how people spend their dining out dollars — chef-driven cuisine, attentive staff, customer-centric mission statements — will be joined by where a restaurant stands on the zero-waste continuum. Trust me, once a restaurant is publically called out for shoddy recycling procedures or for displaying a haughty indifference towards the sustainability ethos, they’ll change their tune real fast.
Saving the planet is going to take more than just switching from plastic straws to paper or banning plastic bags. We’ve barely scratched the surface on personal and institutional food waste. It will take a sustained effort to change hearts, minds, and behavior — and most importantly, find a way to get restaurants on board, no matter how big or how small, rural or urban, down-home or haute sophistiqué — we can turn rubbish into black gold. And everything will come up roses.
- Jay Solomon is a writer, youth sports coach, father of four, and owner of www.jays2go.com. He lives in Denver, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.