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Restaurant Sustainability: How the Industry Is Reducing Food Waste

The restaurant industry loses billions of dollars annually due to food waste. Here's how it's taking steps toward a more sustainable future.

Written by
Tehrene Firman

When you sit down at a restaurant, your stomach is growling with anticipation as you await your order. Once it arrives, you enjoy your meal. And after finishing, and the server picks up everything that's leftover, dumping it into the trash.

Guests don't put much thought into how wasteful the restaurant industry is. But behind the scenes, the amount of trash being sent to landfills is nothing to brush over. According to the USDA, the restaurant industry loses $162 billion annually due to food waste. There's also waste from Styrofoam food packaging, single-use plastic cups and cutlery, and beyond.

With such massive losses, the restaurant industry needs to find ways to address its waste issue. Luckily, some entrepreneurs are already figuring out ways to make a difference. Here's how the restaurant industry is taking small steps toward a more sustainable future.

3 Ways the Restaurant Industry Is Becoming More Sustainable

1. Using Technology to Get the Most Out of Frying Oil

The restaurant industry uses a lot of oil. In fact, fry oil is a top cost; restaurants and commercial fryers spend $80 billion on it every year.

While there are ways for restaurants to extend the life of frying oil, it doesn't take long for it to start affecting the taste. But Jeremiah Chapman, the CEO and co-founder of FreshFry, came up with a solution.

In an episode of Good Together, Chapman explains how his tech startup has created upcycled, biobased FreshFry Pods from agricultural food scraps that reduce frying oil total costs by 25% on average and don’t require any equipment or the movement of hot oil.

"The way we try to approach it is okay, your oil is in the back of your restaurant—it's going to leave either in a good way or a bad way. The good way is you're selling it in quality food. The bad way is you've got to throw it away because it's gross," he says. "So what FreshFry is trying to accomplish here is to keep your oil around long enough for it to be sold in quality food."

To learn more about how Chapman is changing the restaurant industry for the better, listen to the latest episode of Good Together here.

2. Ditching Single-Use Plastic for Sustainable Options

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste and packaging account for 45% of the waste sent to landfills in the United States. But AirCarbon—which was founded after 10 years of research—is trying to make a difference.

While AirCarbon feels and looks like plastic, the straws, forks, and knives are made using a process that naturally occurs in the ocean. First, microorganisms use air and greenhouse gases to make an energy storage material called PHB. Then, that PHB is transformed into pellets that are melted into food packaging items.

What's cool is that even though AirCarbon products are reusable, they're also compostable and biodegradable both on land and in water. Shake Shack is already using AirCarbon in certain locations, and hopefully, other restaurants start utilizing the eco-friendly technology, too.

3. Adding Plant-Based Items to Menus

In our 2022 Sustainability Trends Report, we shared restaurants are incorporating plant-based options into their menus more than ever before. That's not only at fast-food establishments, like Burger King and McDonald's. Smaller restaurants are seeing the positives of including planet-friendly offerings, too.

While vegan and vegetarian options have always been easy to find in big cities (check out all the options in Chicago, Austin, Denver, and Atlanta) restaurants in smaller areas have historically had limited menu offerings. But zoom in on some of the least vegan states in the country, and you'll be surprised to find "green" meals are becoming easier to order there, too.

Take Iowa, for example. The state came in at spot number 42 of 50, yet there are multiple examples of restaurants offering planet-friendly menu items: Reds Alehouse in North Liberty has a vegan sesame noodle bowl with Gardein Chick'n, an Impossible Burger with dairy-free cheese and mayo, and a vegan tamale. Then there's Family Table in Decorah, which has vegan pancakes, meatless chicken strips, and dairy-free nacho fries, and Cruz's Cafe in Cedar Rapids, which has a full vegan breakfast menu.

The restaurant industry still has a long way to go. But if more establishments follow suit and adopt some of these sustainable changes, the world will be in a much better place.