5 Ways to Make Your Restaurant More Sustainable

Last night, I went to a panel on plastic straws hosted by MoneyVoice at West of Pecos, a delicious San Francisco restaurant know for their margaritas that recently changed from automatically including plastic straws in their cocktails to offering paper straws upon request only. At the event, I learned from a panelist who works for the Surfrider Foundation that many of the restaurants in San Francisco that have moved away from plastic straws and implemented a paper-straw upon request policy are actually saving money, both on the cost of straws as well as on their garbage bill as generating less waste has reduced their trash bill by hundreds of dollars per month. Crazy, right? After the panel, attendees broke out in small groups and discussed different ways that restaurants could make simple changes that benefit their pocketbook, the planet and the health of their customers.Based upon those discussions, here are five things that restaurants can do to pave the way for a brighter, more sustainable future for our planet (while saving you money):

  1. Always offer reusables when customers dine in. There seems to be a growing trend in recent years for businesses to exclusively use single-use products regardless of if you are dining in or out. This creates a lot of unnecessary waste and just feels kind of cheap. Offering reusable cups, plates, bowls and utensils feels far more classy. It may have an up-front cost, but it over-time will almost always save a business money. Plus much of the single-use packaging (even compostable products) has plastic lining to prevent leakage which can contain harmful chemicals like PFAs.
  2. Offer single-use or individually wrapped items upon request only. Do you automatically put a straw in all of your drinks? Consider switching to offering straws upon request only. Do you automatically put plastic utensils, chopsticks, sauce packets, etc. in to-go bags? Instead, put together a station for customers to grab what they want on their way out with a playful reminder to take only what they need.
  3. Switch to compostables. If you must offer single-use packaging for customers taking food to-go, switch to compostable options if you have not already to prevent more plastics from polluting our planet. Compostables have problems of their own, but they are a big improvement for our planet compared to plastic due to how easily they can be broken down in an industrial compost facility while most plastic cannot be recycled and ends until in landfills, or blowing out of landfills into our yards, parks, and waterways.
  4. Reward customers for bringing their own to-go container. By bringing their own container, they are saving you money both on packaging and your garbage bill. Philz coffee offers a large coffee for the price of a small, a $1 savings for customers who bring their own mug. This pricing model is smart because it costs them the small cost of of extra coffee beans to do a larger coffee and is a major incentive for customers to bring their own reusable mug. In circumstances where offering a large for the price of a small doesn’t make sense, consider offering 25 cents off each reusable container the customer brings in.
  5. Offer more vegetarian / vegan options. While the foodie in me loves everything covered in bacon and cheese, meat and dairy has a massive carbon footprint and eating less animal products is the single easiest thing that an individual can do to reduce their carbon footprint dramatically. Empower people to try out plant-based entrees and if possible, try to avoid just substituting in tofu or highly processed fake meat as many restaurants do in order to have one vegetarian option on the menu. There are far tastier options; for example, my favorite taco place makes killer wild mushroom tacos and offers a black bean and grilled plantain vegetarian burrito.

Try making signs around your restaurant or share on social media the reasons you are making a change to your restaurent policies to educate your customers on why you are making the changes. I was at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco before the panel yesterday and noticed a sign next to their compostable utensils station that said “Please take only what you need.” This was a great reminder of what they want customers to do and I am certain makes people think twice before grabbing things, but I would have re-written it to also remind people why to only take what they need: “Help us keep our city beautiful! Please take only what you need.” That shifts customer perception so the changes you feels less like a cost cutting move and more like a simple step they can take to keep their city beautiful.

If you are like me and eat at restaurants but don’t work at one, you can make an impact by asking your local restaurants to implement these policies. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to the manager, you can post recommendations on MoneyVoice, an iOS app that works like a digital suggestion box to allows customers to provide feedback to businesses of changes they would like to see. I personally enjoy talking directly to owners but sometimes, I don’t have time or the staff seems too busy, so I will instead submit an idea on MoneyVoice.

Do you work at a restaurant? Please comment with other things you have done in the past to reduce waste or the challenges you face in transitioning to more sustainable policies at your restaurant!

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