In just one year, Americans throw away 138 billion straws and coffee stirrers; 110 billion cups; 58 billion plastic forks, knives and spoons; and enough plastic bags to wrap the planet 4,000 times—and that's just the plastics.
Although it's impossible not to toss some stuff away, recycling experts say that foodservice businesses can significantly reduce the waste stream, but it takes some planning, training and creative thinking.
To start evaluating how "green" your deli operation is, begin with a Dumpster dive. "That's what I do to see what's in a company's garbage," says Anita Comer, who owns Waste-Not Recycling in Pierce, Colo. "Then I can evaluate what kind of products are being thrown away and if any of them can be replaced with something else."
Comer first takes aim at white-paper products—cups, plates and bowls. If they're white, she explains, it means they've been bleached. Lots of chemicals, including chlorine, are used in the bleaching process, which means toxic ingredients are being introduced to the environment, embedded in the paper and eventually leached into landfills.
She recommends replacing those products with unbleached brown-paper items, which are a bit more expensive but can be composted. Small brown boxes, coated to prevent liquid from being absorbed, are available for use at salad bars and delis. In many communities this type of cardboard can be recycled. "Technology is improving to get the fibrous material back out of those containers," Comer says.
Cafés and salad bars with sit-down areas should always offer washable plates and bowls, glasses and flatware. "Prevent waste from being generated in the first place; that's the best," Comer says.
Cafés should also give customers some incentives that send a positive environmental message, says Rick Meis, president of Treecycle Recycled Paper in Bozeman, Mont. Many coffee joints give customers discounts when they purchase the shops' mugs. The same could be done with various containers for other prepared deli items.
"If a deli advertises that they take containers back, that would create a clientele, save money and take trash out of the waste stream," Meis says.
A green message appeals to customers. Meis says one café owner in Helena, Mont., decided to buy brown unbleached bags for to-go orders. Because the bags were more expensive than the white ones she had been using, she explained the eco-logic of using the new bags to her customers and then added 5 cents to every to-go order. She worried that they would object; instead, she was complimented.
Ecologically friendly products do cost more, although it's tough to say exactly how much. Brown cups or bags might cost 5 percent more than comparable white products, and biodegradable plates might cost up to five times as much as plastic plates.
While most people think of using "green" products as strictly an act of environmental consciousness, store managers can't overlook potential savings. Using recyclable and reusable products cuts down on what goes in the Dumpster, and that reduces the trash bill.
But Meis, whose company distributes environmentally friendly cups, plates, salad boxes, bakery bags, hot cups and other paper products, hopes that ecological awareness, ultimately, trumps the bottom line.
"Let's move away from using these poisons," he says. "We don't need them."
Joseph P. Lewandowski is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 12, 16
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 16