When we think sustainability, we immediately think recycling.
Waste is a huge issue that must be addressed appropriately, whether viewed at the level of a single pizzeria or the nation as a whole.
According to the Green Restaurant Association, an average restaurant produces about 100,000 pounds of garbage per year. However, the GRA also offers this optimistic figure: restaurants that implement comprehensive recycling and composting programs can divert about 90 percent of their waste out of landfills.
Many regions and municipalities take an active role to reduce the waste stream by requiring recycling or commercial composting, and by restricting the types of disposables that restaurants may use. Examples include local bans of Styrofoam and plastic straws.
If you haven’t yet implemented a recycling program in your pizzeria, you can look forward to significantly reducing your waste stream. For operators that are already recycling, it’s important to stay abreast of the latest recycling news. This dynamic field changes often. Cities and haulers change policies, recycling markets change, and product availability varies. For these reasons, reevaluate your program regularly and update it according to the latest developments.
What Can You Recycle?
The restaurant materials that are easiest to commercially recycle include plastic, glass, steel, aluminum, paper, cardboard and cooking oil. Additionally, many plastics can be recycled, but note that a recycling symbol on any item does not indicate that it can be recycled locally or at all. As Michael Oshman, founder and CEO of GRA, states, “You need to find out from your waste hauler what they’ll take. That’s it. Nothing else matters.”
You also need to know the sorting regimen required by your hauler. Some places welcome mixed recycling, some expect very specific sorting, and others are in between.
The Compost Question
While organic matter such as food can be composted, this category can be challenging. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” says Jay Gust, chef and owner of Pizzeria Rustica, a GRA-certified table service restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “It does cost us a little bit more. It’s a bit of an inconvenience and a bit of an eyesore due to the size of our restaurant. Our compost scrape bin is not right in guest sight, but not that far off.”
Not all haulers take compost, and some municipalities such as the Metro regional government in Portland, Oregon require restaurants to participate in compost programs.
Perform a Waste Audit
Launch your recycling reboot by performing a waste audit. You can’t manage what you haven’t measured, so examine your waste stream and evaluate the types and quantities of materials you must address.
You can perform this independently or hire a consultant, and definitely check with your municipality and your hauler. Both entities might have helpful resources. There are also lots of resources online. Reviewing previous waste quantities and expenses is part of the process, so gather past invoices.
The audit will reveal how much recyclable material, food waste and landfill waste you generate on a daily basis. At the end of your audit, you’ll have a list of your waste items sorted into where they’re destined: recycling, compost or landfill.
Reevaluate Purchasing Habits
Now that you know which items can’t be recycled locally and which items make the bulk of your landfill, reevaluate your purchasing decisions with two things in mind: reducing landfill waste and streamlining your recycling. For example, if you’re buying ingredients or supplies in packaging that cannot be recycled locally, can you buy them in different packaging? Can you buy in larger containers, or more concentrated products, to reduce the volume of packaging? Can you choose packaging that has re-use demand, like five-gallon buckets and one-gallon glass jars?
To streamline your recycling, make purchasing choices that simplify the recycling process for your employees and your customers. For example, if you have a case of grab-and-go beverages, simplify the packaging options so your front-of-house recycling is crystal clear. If this category is dominated by glass and cans, you could eliminate plastic bottles. Apply this strategy back-of-house, too.
Refining your procurement habits can have a big impact on reducing your waste stream.
Set Up Your System
Back-of-house systems will be similar in all types of restaurants. Front-of-house systems depend on your type of restaurant: fast food, fast casual or table service.
Table service restaurants have it easy: they only need to train their employees, not their customers. If your operation is table service, your front-of-house and back-of-house recycling can be very similar, although certain items may dominate each location. For example, front-of-house may generate lots of wine bottles, while back-of-house generates #10 steel cans in large volumes.
If your customers bus their own tables, your system must be extremely user-friendly to succeed. Some such establishments use signage to direct customers to “put everything in the bus tub, and we’ll sort it out.”
Both systems must rely on clear, abundant and simple signage to explain what goes where. Oshman urges operators to use both pictures and words, in multiple languages if appropriate.
For best compliance, don’t use abstract images of bottles, cans or paper. Instead, show images of the exact items destined for that bin, to the extent possible. “Then, it’s less about what’s recycled, it’s just a preschool game of what goes where. As long as you understand pictures and match them, you don’t need to know anything about the environment. That’s how to make a simple program even simpler.” Oshman notes that some operators post the actual, real-life objects above corresponding bins to make it even clearer.
Recognize that, like any system, it won’t be perfect at the beginning. Incorporate employee and customer feedback and tweak it as you go to solve friction points.
Include your recycling system in your manuals and onboarding, and train employees to comply. Establish it as a routine part of your business culture and a non-negotiable expectation, like washing hands.
“Arm the staff with knowledge and share that knowledge,” advises Gust of Pizzeria Rustica. “There can’t be a hidden secret of how to recycle — it has to be on the tips of employees’ tongues. It’s nothing more than saying ‘I’m glad you enjoyed your pizza and you couldn’t finish it. Please remember that once the box is grease laden we can’t recycle it.’ We actually have some of our guests trained to bring in their old boxes and we’ll just reload them with their next to-go pizza.”
Annelise Kelly is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer.