From relying more heavily on locally produced ingredients to using more eco-friendly place settings, the $580 billion food service industry is looking to cut costs as it cuts waste.
Enter Green Seal, which "provides science-based environmental certification standards that are credible, transparent and essential in an increasingly educated and competitive marketplace." Green Seal certification appears on a variety of products from coffee filters to air chillers and offers the first nationally recognized standards for green restaurants.
"Our life-cycle analysis showed that agricultural production as well as distribution, storage, preparation and disposal of food represent the vast majority of the impact of an operation. To truly make a difference you have to reduce these impacts," said Cheryl Baldwin of Green Seal.
Certification requires a site audit and regular monitoring. Following the Green Seal guidelines can reduce a restaurant's overall environmental impact by an average of 75 percent, Baldwin said.
The inspection covers everything from kitchen practices to the fixtures in restrooms. Baldwin said stopping leaks and installing sinks and toilets that use sensing technology can reduce water usage significantly.
Carrying things a step further is Elemental Impact, which wants to help the food service industry turn its operations into zero waste zones. Elemental Impact spokeswoman Holly Elmore says food waste represents a valuable asset.
"The time is now to stop sending (it) to landfills," she said. The alternative, she said in a release, is composting to help ease soil erosion and enhance its nutrient quality, and to reduce greenhouse gases in landfills.
Among the top 20 trends cited by chefs in advance of last month's National Restaurant Association trade show was use of "locally sourced" meats and seafood, "locally produced" wine and beer, which would reduce transportation costs, and foods produced through sustainable farming and fishing practices.
"I'm not sure that even 20 percent of our customers know or care that we are doing all this (using environmentally friendly practices)," said Mike Roper, owner of the Hopleaf restaurant on Chicago's North Side and a lifelong environmentalist, "but it helps to make a difference and the payback is strong -- less waste and better environmental footprint."
Eco-Products, which offers products made from renewable and recycled materials, urged restaurants to rethink their operations, starting the ReTHINK Your Impact Challenge, which will provide the winning eatery a free, one-year disposable makeover. The company also is offering the ReTHINK Sustainability Grant "to enable a current Eco-Products customer to have a positive social and environmental impact on their community while partnering with Eco-Products to initiate local greening projects." Winners likely will be announced in October, a spokeswoman said.