Recycling, of everything from glass and cardboard to cooking oil, can be cost neutral or even put money back into the pockets of restaurant operators, supporters of restaurant conservation efforts say.
Solar-thermal technology, LED lighting, energy-efficient appliances, start-up and shutdown schedules for equipment and occupancy sensors in storage areas can save restaurants money and help conserve resources, said Chris Moyer, senior program manager for the National Restaurant Association's Conserve Sustainability Education Program.
Something a simple as low flow spray valves can save a restaurant as much as $1,000 a year, the association's Food Service Technology Center estimates.
"We try to show them that it's not just good for the environment, it's good for the bottom line," Moyer said.
The Conserve initiative, which is being featured at this weekend's National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, was developed in 2006 as an online resource for members looking to reduce the cost of running their operations in an environmentally friendly manner.
Conservation practices are being adopted across the board at U.S. restaurants, from quick service establishments to fine dining. One in four operators is asking about recycling, Moyer said, and more than 60 percent of operators are investing in energy-efficient technology this year.
"What we try to do is provide them a place to go and to make it a turnkey solution," he said.
Moyer said the conservation measures are being driven, in many cases, by younger workers, fostering the creation an entire industry of "eco-entrepreneurs" to support the effort.
In some parts of the country, restaurants that once had to pay the grease man to take used cooking oil off their hands are being offered cash in exchange for the inedible grease.
The oil, which has long been used in animal feed, soap and other products, has become a hot commodity in the biofuels industry.
The Alternative Fuel Foundation and the Association of Restaurant Owners for a Sustainable Earth are working with restaurants to take the fat-based food waste out of animal feed, and out of the human food chain, and convert it into biofuel.
Bob Hiller, director of marketing and strategic initiatives for AROSE, said cooking oil recycling is an unexpected and lucrative revenue stream for restaurants and foodservice establishments, offering a way to feed the bottom line while being socially responsible.
The oil is used to produce fuels that can replace coal and other fossil fuels currently being used for heat generation, co-generation at power plants and for residential heating oil.
Hiller said more than 40 million gallons of used cooking oil is collected each year from the more than 14,000 restaurants that have signed up for the recycling program.
Restaurants can choose to sell their used cooking oil or donate it, with the proceeds going to fund the project's growth and sponsor projects that promote sustainability. Restaurants that agree to donate their waste vegetable oil to the foundation are provided free collection and recycling services.
"Our push is to make fuel, not feed, and to encourage the greening of the product," Hiller said. "This is a process that will help (restaurants) get started thinking down the green path."