Back when Michael Oshman founded The Green Restaurant Association (GRA) in 1990, environmental sustainability hovered as a fringe issue. The popular press rarely reported on climate change and plastic waste was only beginning to find a spot on consumer radars.
Fast forward 32 years, however, and sustainability is now baked into the American lexicon and engrained in daily habits. Recycling, for instance, has been institutionalized while the use of smart devices to reduce energy consumption is commonplace in U.S. homes and businesses. The typical consumer is not only aware of sustainability, but often factors it into their everyday decision making, including where they dine.
In a 2021 poll of U.S. consumers conducted by C.O.nxt and Menu Matters, more than 80 percent of consumers identified sustainability as an important factor in their food and beverage purchasing decisions. That hefty figure lines up with a global study of more than 10,000 people by Simon-Kucher & Partners in which 85 percent of consumers reported shifting their purchasing behavior over the past five years toward more sustainable options.
Consumers, it’s worth noting, also double as potential employees, and they, too, appreciate businesses embracing an environmental bent. More than two-thirds of workers said they would be more willing to apply for and accept a position with an environmentally sustainable business, according to IBM’s Institute for Business Value study released earlier this year.
With consumers and employees increasingly prioritizing sustainability, pizzerias and their restaurant brethren have plenty of compelling reasons to pursue more sustainable and environmentally conscious operations.
But there’s a dollars-and-cents argument worth considering here as well. Sustainability-minded practices can – and often do – spark monthly savings on energy, water, waste and food costs.
“And when you’re operating on a five percent profit margin, those savings are real,” Oshman says.
So, how does one create a more environmentally sustainable pizzeria?
1. Audit the restaurant.
Energy and food waste audits from credible agencies can help a restaurant identify its existing strengths and pinpoint opportunities for improvement, such as incorporating new equipment, spotting inefficiencies or instituting a recycling and composting program.
2. Take a proactive approach.
In municipalities across the country, eco-conscious legislation is forcing foodservice establishments to eliminate plastic bags and straws as well as Styrofoam containers. By acting proactively and shifting purchasing to these more environmentally friendly options before legislation kicks in, Oshman says restaurants get “ahead of the game” with customers and employees as well as suppliers.
“Do you want to do it when it’s advantageous for you or when the law dictates you must do it?” he asks.
A proper recycling and composting program not only diverts waste from landfills and gives products a second life, but it can also lower a restaurant’s waste-hauling charges by hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each year. Greg Christian of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, a Chicago-based consulting company that helps foodservice clients create more sustainable and health-conscious operations, suggests restaurants separate their waste streams into categories like compost, cardboard and metal.
“It’s not sexy, but it works,” Christian says.
4. Check your pizza box.
The pizza box is central to any pizzeria, serving as a vessel for the restaurant’s flagship product and, in many cases, as a marketing and branding tool for the pizzeria as well. To be eco-friendly, use a 100 percent post-consumer recycled pizza box rather than a pizza box crafted from virgin trees. (The same goes for napkins, too, Oshman adds.)
Also, inform customers their pizza box can, in fact, be recycled. Though long a source of confusion, pizza boxes are now almost universally accepted among companies manufacturing from recycled cardboard.
5. Buy local goods.
The current food system is overwhelmingly global. Food is shipped around the world, driving pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. When restaurants buy local, however, food travels a shorter distance to the plate, which reduces one’s carbon footprint and impact on the environment.
6. Address food waste.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills and combustion facilities than any other material in everyday trash. In landfills, food rots and produces methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Reduce waste by executing proper portion sizes, weighing plates and shrinking the menu.
“If you don’t think you’re producing waste, you’re kidding yourself, and food waste is a real burden on the environment,” Christian says.
7. Reduce water use.
Water is a precious resource in our world – and frequently wasted. While pizzerias might already have a high-efficiency pre-rinse spray valve in their kitchen, Oshman urges operators to install the “most”
efficient spray valve they can find. Often less than $100, a high-efficiency spray valve can spark energy and water savings that easily pays for the investment in year one. Similarly, make sure bathroom and kitchen sinks for handwashing have the appropriate aerators. These handy gadgets reduce the amount of water coming out of faucets, which saves water and energy.
8. Switch the lighting.
Installing LED lights is the low-hanging fruit in the move toward a more sustainable restaurant. Compared to conventional incandescent or company fluorescent lights, LEDs last up to six times longer and greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
9. Ask consumers.
When customers order carryout or delivery online, which continues to become more commonplace at pizzerias, ask them to “opt in” to the disposables they need, such as plates, cutlery or the tiny plastic containers holding condiments, spices or grated cheese. With an opt-in process, fewer of these plastics will hit landfills. Notably, a GRA study found restaurants could save about $5,000 a year with an opt-in process.
10. Highlight sustainability with staff.
Sustainability is a team effort. It takes training and mindful action from everyone. After all, what good is a composting and recycling plan if workers toss everything into the trash? Oshman urges operators to talk with staff about the different sustainability practices the restaurant has in place, defining what they are and why they exist.
“This way, staff are attuned to these issues and there’s purpose behind their work,” Oshman says.
Daniel P. Smith Chicago-based writer has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.