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How Chipotle Is Making Fast Food Eco-Friendly

Chipotle has been making steps toward sustainability through supply chains, ingredient sourcing, and more.

Written by
Brightly Staff

When someone says “fast food,” “sustainability” might not be the word that comes to mind. Chipotle Mexican Grill, the fast-food restaurant best known for burrito bowls and #extra guac, is trying to change that. 

Chipotle has always worked hard to source fresh ingredients, preferably local, organic, and humanely-raised ones, too. It is now changing how their supply chains function and reevaluating what it does with restaurant waste in the name of a more sustainable fast food industry. 

Chipotle's Origin Story

Founded in Denver, Colorado in 1993, Chipotle didn't start as a sustainable restaurant. Steve Ells, Chipotle's founder, had just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and wanted to open up a French restaurant. He got a loan to start a smaller restaurant that would raise funds for his dream project. That smaller restaurant was Chipotle's first location in Denver. 

Ells was inspired by San Francisco's Mission District restaurants, where delicious food cooked for hours and hours was served up quickly. He noticed, though, that pork at Chipotle was drying out on the line. He started researching alternatives and stumbled upon Niman Ranch in Iowa, where meat is sustainably and humanely raised. The pork from Niman simply tasted better (and didn't dry out).

Sustainably-Sourced Ingredients

From that moment on, Chipotle has focused on sourcing its 53 key ingredients that are raised, cultivated, and farmed in the most sustainable way possible.

An example of this is one of Chipotle's star ingredients: cilantro. A couple of years ago, Caitlin Leibert (Chipotle’s Head of Sustainability and Executive Director of the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation) visited Chipotle's cilantro supplier with CEO Brian Niccol and the produce team. The supplier couldn't get organic cilantro for Chipotle because it just wasn't grown on such a large scale.

Rather than accepting that answer, Niccol asked the supplier to find a way to grow the organic cilantro they needed. Chipotle hopes to have 100% of its cilantro be organically-grown this year. 

Organic isn't the only metric that Chipotle looks at, though. The company reviews each ingredient on an individual basis. “There is no one size fits all when it comes to sustainability...what’s most sustainable for chicken, for instance, is not necessarily going to be our approach for red onions or romaine lettuce,” says Caitlin. For beef, Chipotle might look for grass-fed. For produce, local might be the most important measure. 

This kind of  “innovation and sustainability need to happen at all different levels,” says Caitlin. Whether that’s a zero-waste mom-and-pop shop or a multi-national conglomerate, it’s possible to make small decisions that lead to a more sustainable future. 

Innovative Ways of Reducing Waste

Now more than ever, we’re dependent on single-use takeout containers, bags, and cutlery when we order or go out to restaurants for sanitary reasons. Chipotle recognizes this and is working to reduce their waste through several innovative programs.

Caitlin and her team start by conducting waste audits year-round at different Chipotle restaurants around the country. They go through the dumpster and recycling bins to sort every piece of trash, from avocado pits to plastic waste bin liners to cardboard boxes. 

“Down to the very dollar of restaurant sales, we're able to predict pretty accurately how many forks or avocado pits or pounds of romaine core we have there...Chipotle’s waste make up is unique [because] we prep all of our ingredients in house,” says Caitlin. 

Cardboard Waste

About half of the waste Chipotle produces is cardboard. Their ingredients are freshly delivered regularly, which means a lot of cardboard boxes come into each restaurant. Takeout containers, soda cups, and other single-use items are usually delivered in cardboard packaging, too. 

They do recycle this cardboard, but Chipotle is also working with distributors to reduce the overall amount. This is done by fitting more cups, forks, or guac containers into each box, for example. Putting more in each case means that there are fewer deliveries each year, too. That means fewer trucks on the road and lower carbon emissions. It’s this kind of small change that can have a significant impact at a company of Chipotle’s size.

Gloves to Bags Program

9% of all Chipotle waste comes from film plastic gloves. Eliminating gloves isn't possible. And gloves can clog traditional recycling machines, making them non-recyclable. 

Chipotle found another way to recycle them, though, with their glove to bag program. The company collects the used gloves, processes them, and turns them into the waste bin liners they use in their restaurants. Recycling its gloves allows Chipotle to cut down on the virgin plastic it sends to landfills.

Avocado Pit Dye for Sustainable Clothing

In addition to dealing with the cardboard and single-use plastic each store accumulates, it can be challenging to deal with so much organic waste. The patchwork waste management systems in the United States don’t help—only 700 of the 2500+ Chipotle locations are able to compost. 

Chipotle’s newest sustainability effort deals with some of this compostable material: its 300 million avocado pits (that’s a lot of extra guac!). Avocado pits have already been turned into straws or cutlery, but Chipotle takes a new approach. It soaks its leftover pits to create clothing dye

Soaked avocado pits create a natural “millennial pink” hue. Chipotle takes that dye and uses it to dye its Chipotle Goods line of clothing and accessories. The products are also made with organic cotton and are GOTS certified. 

Caitlin’s Tips for an Eco-Friendly Lifestyle

It can be tough to know where to start with personal sustainability. Caitlin says, “I think that there is almost like a paralyzing fear that comes over people when you look at sustainability as a whole. It's like, how could I possibly live a sustainable lifestyle?” 

That’s why she recommends making just one area of your life more sustainable. It could be your clothes, your food, your cosmetics, or even your pet products. Making small changes in one area is more accessible than trying to change your entire lifestyle at once. 

Caitlin also finds it helpful to track everything you buy in a day or a week, and then evaluate your transactions based on their sustainability. That way, you can see all of the opportunities you have to make a more planet-friendly choice.

Even in the middle of a pandemic, it’s exciting to see companies like Chipotle taking steps toward a more sustainable future. “in these unprecedented times, I think, just individually, we're more aware than ever of who we are, what we stand for, and what matters to us...that, at its core is an ethical and sustainable movement.”

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