Dining out may give you a night off from washing dishes, but your environmental impact could be working overtime. Restaurants consume more energy per square foot than any other US industry—over 2.5 times the average commercial building; use large amounts of water; and produce an average of 50,000 pounds of trash a piece per year. Almost half of the money spent on food in the US is spent in restaurants, with sales nearing $400 billion in 2002. In an industry with such a large and varied environmental footprint, finding and supporting green restaurant options can have an enormous impact.
The Green Restaurant Association acknowledges 10 areas that make for green dining out, including the categories listed below.
Energy efficiency/conservation and green power
The restaurant industry accounts for 33 percent of the electricity used by retail outlets in the US, making them the largest electricity consumer in that sector. Electricity generation creates more pollution than any other single industry in the US, from smog- and global warming-contributing air pollution to toxic waste byproducts. According to ENERGY STAR’s restaurant fact sheet, restaurants can reduce energy bills and pollution emissions by 10 to 30 percent by replacing standard equipment with energy-efficient alternatives. When Tripp’s Bar and Grill in North Bend, Pennsylvania, replaced their old freezers with ENERGY STAR-certified appliances, they reduced their electricity usage by 31,700 kWh, thereby preventing more than 50,000 pounds of CO2 emissions. And Reedville Café in Hillsboro, Oregon, is preventing almost 39,000 pounds of CO2 from entering the environment by using ENERGY STAR-qualified gas fryers.
In addition to using more energy-efficient equipment, energy-saving experts encourage smarter energy use, including turning equipment off when it’s not needed, keeping thermostats set to factory-recommended temperatures, replacing light bulbs with energy-efficient versions, and keeping up on maintenance of equipment, ventilation systems, and air conditioners. More than 40 percent of the average restaurant’s energy consumption is spent on cooling.
Restaurants can further lessen their energy impact by choosing green power from their electricity provider. The Austin Grill chain of Tex-Mex restaurants, for example, was the first restaurant company in the US to utilize 100 percent wind power. Green power has even found its way into fast food chains. The Holland Inc. announced in 2005 that all of its Burgerville restaurants throughout Oregon and Washington would be powered exclusively by wind. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides a list of Green Power Partners, including restaurants.
Water efficiency and conservation
The average restaurant uses 5,800 gallons of water every day, more than half of which is used in kitchen operations. The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority’s studies have found that, depending on size and popularity, a single restaurant meal requires anywhere from 6 to 29 gallons of water, meaning most restaurants use anywhere from 1 million to 13 million gallons per year.
Recycling and composting
Sixty-four percent of the waste created by quick service (fast food) restaurants is paper and plastic from the packaging. Recycling paper and plastic from restaurants can have a large environmental impact. When Wilmington, North Carolina began requiring restaurants and bars to recycle garbage, the amount of recycling increased by 75 percent—from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds per day to 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per day—within the first month. The recycling process produces less pollution and uses fewer resources than manufacturing products from virgin materials. The Green Restaurant Association recommends that restaurants not only recycle their garbage, but also carry recycled paper goods, tree-free paper products, and biodegradable dishes and flatware for take-out.
Most of the waste generated by full-service, sit-down restaurants, on the other hand, is food waste (60 to 80 percent of their total trash). Almost 30 percent of all waste that ends up in landfills is this food-related waste. A 2006 survey by the American Restaurant Association found that only 20 percent of fine dining restaurants recycle food waste, and casual and family restaurants’ rates were even lower. As an alternative fate to landfills, some restaurants have begun to compost biodegradable and organic waste: Local organizations pick up the food waste and convert it to compost, which can then be sold for use in home gardens at home improvement stores in as little as eight days.
Restaurants that serve local produce and small-farm meat lessen their environmental impact by cutting out pollution-ridden and fossil-fuel intensive transportation from farm to table. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture researchers found that conventionally grown US produce travels up to 27 times the distance of its locally grown counterparts. The support to local, small farms also helps preserve rural open space and conserves the immense amounts of water, energy, and other resources used by factory farms.
Serving organic produce and organic meat keeps dangerous pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals out of the environment. To be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are not only believed to be harmful to human and animal health, but they also pollute ecosystems and waterways.
With overfishing and questionable fish farms abounding, it’s important to choose restaurants that serve sustainable seafood— that which has been harvested or grown in an eco-friendly manner—and fish that is low in environmental contaminants. Seventy-five percent of worldwide commercial fish stocks are already considered fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted from overfishing. Fish-farming, also known as aquaculture, contributes to wild habitat and biodiversity loss, and algal bloom growth, among other problems. You can check which fish are safe to order at Ocean’s Alive's “Eco-best and eco-worst fish list” from Environmental Defense.
Local vs. meatless
A study by Carnegie Mellon University scientists has concluded that eating less meat will reduce carbon emissions even more than purchasing food locally. The study found that transporting food is responsible for only 4 percent of food-associated greenhouse gas emissions, while production contributes 83 percent; researchers say that means that buying all local food is like driving 1,000 fewer miles in your car annually, which is what you get cutting dairy and meat one day a week. Go totally veggie and you'll slash a whopping 8,000 miles in vehicle emissions. In fact, researchers say that delivery to the consumer accounts for only 1 percent of total red meat-associated emissions.
Why is meat-eating more problematic than driving a car or purchasing far-flung food? The production of meat and dairy products creates a high amount of nitrous oxide and methane emissions, from fertilizers, manure management, and animal digestion. Methane, which is much more potent than carbon dioxide, is produced both during digestion in cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels, as well as during the anaerobic decomposition of livestock manure. Nitrous oxide results from the nitrification and denitrification of nitrogen in livestock (most commonly of cattle) manure and urine. Stats like these have led to questions like: "Can going vegan do more to slow global climate change than shopping my local farmer's market?"
Restaurants that do not clean out their grease trap regularly or do not dispose of grease properly are leading contributors to stormwater pollution, which can kill plants and animals in nearby waterways. Waters clouded with oils and grease do not provide the light needed for plant survival and deplete water oxygen levels for fish. Restaurants using deep-fat fryers are known to produce nine times more smoke than buses, contributing to smog and air pollution. In 1994, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air quality in four counties surrounding Los Angeles, estimated that restaurants emit 13.7 tons of particulate matter and 19 tons of volatile organic compounds every day—as much as an oil refinery.
Chlorine-free paper products
Restaurants that opt for chlorine-free paper products help keep hundreds of chemicals out of the environment, including dioxin, a known carcinogen. Manufacturers of paper products often use chemical chlorine or chlorine compounds to brighten wood fibers and guard against yellowing. Chlorine bleaching also uses large amounts of water.
Nontoxic cleaning and chemical products
Cleanliness and sanitation are essential in a successful restaurant. But the cleaning products used often contain chlorine, amonia, caustic soda, and volatile organic compounds. The fumes from these products can cause respiratory problems—for workers and patrons alike—and the products can affect water quality when they are flushed down drains and enter the sewage system.
From generating power from their own wind turbine to tabletops made of reclaimed wood to 100 percent recycled milk jug walls, restaurants can green their buildings in a variety of ways. US Green Building Council (USGBC), has begun a pilot program called “LEED for Retail” that will work to get restaurants certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. LEED is a points-based rating system that takes into account six categories (Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Innovation in Design).
The Green Restaurant Association also takes green buildings into account, among other criteria, when certifying a restaurant as green.
- aquaculture, mariculture, or fish farming: The practice of farming seafood for human consumption.
- food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
- kWh : Kilowatt-hour, a measure of electric energy equal to the amount of electricity needed to run ten 100-watt light bulbs for one hour.
- Partnership for Bar and Restaurant Recycling
- RRFB Nova Scotia - Sorting It Out: A Guide to Waste Reduction, Recycling and Composting in Quick-Service Restaurants
- California Integrated Waste Management Board - Restaurant Guide to Waste Reduction and Recycling
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - Recycling in Restaurants and Taverns
- Bon Appétit - The Meat of the Matter
- California Environmental Protection Agency - Pollution Prevention for Restaurants
- New York Times - It Takes More Than Veggies to Make a Kitchen Green
- Green Living Ideas - Eco-friendly Dining
- Going Greener - Opportunities to Improve Your Restaurants Environmental Practices
- WBUR - Dining Green Take a look inside a green restaurant with this interactive tour posted by Boston's National Public Radio station.
- New York Magazine - An Interactive Tour of the Country’s Greenest Food Business
- New York Magazine - Grub Street: What's the City’s Greenest Restaurant™? This article rates New York City restaurants on how green they are, and offers info about what makes them that way.
- Ode Magazine - Not the same old drive-thru
- Energy Information Administration - Food Service Buildings
- Thimmakka - History
- Environmental News Network - Maximum Impact Restaurant Greening
- Hospitality Net - Hey Kermit, Being Green Is Getting Easier (part I)
- Restaurant Industry Webguide - The Restaurant Industry
- Environmental News Network - The Greening of Restaurants
- Power Scorecard - Electricity and the Environment
- ENERGY STAR - Energy Use and Energy Efficiency Opportunities in Restaurants
- Energy Ideas - Restaurant Energy Saving Tips
- San Diego Gas and Electric Company - Energy-Saving Solutions for Restaurants
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Partner List
- Bonneville Environmental Foundation - The Holland Inc. Standardizes on 100 Percent Renewable Wind Power
- City of Tampa - Water Efficiency Checklist for Restaurants
- Massachusetts Water Resources Authority - Water Efficiency and Management for Restaurants
- What I Found In Las Vegas Hotel and Restaurant Waste
- WWAY News Channel - Bar and restaurant recycling creates jobs
- Full Circle Resources - Restaurant Waste Reduction Manual: A Step-by-Step Approach Page 8
- Portland Business Journal - Restaurant trash-talking
- Environmental Defense - An Eco-friendly Mother’s Day
- Sustainable Table - The Issues: Fossil Fuel and Energy Use
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Are organic fruit, veggies worth the extra cost?
- Modern Brewery Age - Hops in beer often laced with pesticides, writer says
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006 report
- Discover News - Eating Green: Food Type Trumps Distance
- Science News - It's the meat, not the miles
- Carnegie Mellon - Headlines: Researchers Report Dietary Choice Has Greater Impact on Climate Change Than Food Miles
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Where does methane come from: Livestock enteric fermentation & Livestock manure management
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Where does nitrous oxide come from: Livestock manure management
- About.com - What does eating meat have to do with fossil fuels?
- New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency - What causes stormwater pollution?
- New York Times - Rule Is Sought on Air Pollution by Restaurants
- Treecycle - Use Post-Consumer! It is the goal!
- Chlorine Free Products Association - Confronting Chlorine
- Green Restaurants - Use safer cleaners
- US Green Building Council - LEED for Retail
- Organic Consumers Association - Food Bytes: USDA Propaganda Event Will Accompany Release of the Controversial National Organic Food Standards
- ProQuest CSA - Genetically Modfified Foods: Friend or Foe?