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Eco-Cycle study shows compostable plates and cutlery key to lowering high-volume restaurant waste

In order for recycling and composting to succeed, sorting has to be done properly

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A new study finds restaurants can play a crucial role in diverting tons more food waste away from landfills. The study, conducted by the non-profit Zero Waste organization Eco-Cycle, details the growing problem of food waste in North America and identified ways that restaurants can be part of the solution. One way to accomplish this, according to the study, is by offering durable or compostable plates, cups and utensils, which is proven to make it easier for customers to compost their food scraps and sort their waste into the right bins. 

"Restaurants play a critical role in reducing and recovering food scraps, and composting is one of the fastest, most cost-effective solutions for reducing carbon pollution and reducing waste," said Kate Bailey, Policy & Research Director for Eco-Cycle and one of the study's authors. 

The study noted that restaurants are recovering some food waste — but far too much is still thrown out.

"Less than 15% of restaurant food waste is collected for composting, and these efforts have primarily focused on collecting food scraps from the kitchen," the study said. "However, on average, diners leave 17% of their meal uneaten, and more than half of these potential leftovers are not taken home. This means there is a large, untapped potential to recover food waste generated by diners through front-of-house composting programs that collect food scraps from customers."

The study discovered that in order for composting to work well, one of the keys to success is for restaurants to simplify their serviceware by using durable plates, glasses, and utensils, or using all compostable serviceware. Nationwide 85% of customers say they are willing to sort their waste after eating out if bins are provided. 

However, in order for recycling and composting to succeed, the sorting has to be done properly. Observations in the study found consumers struggled extensively with how to sort materials when there was several different types of food serviceware. By contrast, those restaurants that used one primary type of serviceware — either durable, reusable plates and utensils or a fully compostable system — had higher rates of success. The result: more of what composters love (food scraps) and less of what composters hate (materials like non-compostable plastic that contaminates the compost).  

The quick service restaurant with all compostable food serviceware performed well — meaning they captured most of their food scraps with very little contamination — as did the quick service restaurant using all durable food serviceware, suggesting both of these approaches can be used successfully to capture food scraps for composting, the study found. 

Bailey said restaurants have been reluctant to collect food scraps from customer-facing bins because of the perception that it would be more packaging than food scraps, and the potential for contamination in both recycling and composting bins. But the new study shows that composting can be done right in every sector, and that restaurants that do not offer customers the chance to compost are missing out on a real opportunity to cut down on food waste.

"This report is first of its kind to demonstrate this can be done well and is worth doing," Bailey said. "Food establishments are capable of very high diversion rates, making them a key partner in moving toward Zero Waste, reducing our carbon emissions and building healthy soils through composting."

The study focused on Boulder, Colo., where all businesses are required to provide recycling and composting collections for both front- and back-of-house operations. The study was designed to learn how bin set-up, signage and packaging can influence how much food waste is collected through front-of-house systems. 

Waste audits were conducted at 18 businesses that included corporate cafeterias, grocery store delis, quick-service restaurants, coffee shops and full-service restaurants. Improvements were then made to the collection bins and signage at 10 of the 18 locations and a second round of waste audits was conducted. 

The study demonstrated that if the right efforts are made, every kind of foodservice establishment can successfully divert food scraps with little contamination. 

"The study demonstrates that food establishments of all types can achieve very high diversion rates and capture significant amounts of food scraps through front-of-house collections," the report said, noting that front-of-house collections "could be a valuable new source of food scraps for composting facilities."

The study, written by Bailey and Dale Ekart of Eco-Cycle, was supported by a grant from Eco-Products. To read the full study, visit www.ecocycle.org/SPECIALREPORTS/RESTAURANT-COMPOSTING

"This report is the first of its kind, and we encourage other cities to perform similar studies so we can compare results and build a better suite of best practices for communities and food establishments of all types," Bailey said. 

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