What We Can Learn From Zero-Waste Restaurants and Food Businesses
If restaurants can be waste free, why can’t we?
Reducing waste in an effort to be more sustainable is not easy—especially in the kitchen. There’s leftover food from plates headed to the trash, yards of plastic wrap being used to seal up leftover ingredients, and bottles and cans crashing (hopefully into recycling bins).
But around the world, a handful of restaurants are trying to dispute the notion that kitchens and waste go hand-in-hand, and some of them have completely cut out waste altogether. If you think about the waste we create in our own kitchens, restaurants create that and then some. So if these restaurants that serve hundreds of people each day can avoid trashing excess food and products, I thought, why can’t we?
“Mindset is the real key here,” says Camilla Marcus, owner of west~bourne, a sustainable shop and catering company in New York City. “Step back, take a look at your day-to-day habits, and challenge yourself to become a more environmentally mindful consumer, one step at a time. And start small! When it comes to our carbon footprint, every bit counts.”
I sat down with a handful of chefs and owners of zero-waste restaurants and food businesses around the world to learn about the practices they’ve adopted in commercial kitchens, and how we can take some of their ideas and incorporate them into our day-to-day lives on a smaller scale.
Find a composting partner
No matter where you live or how much space you have, there’s a way to make composting work for you. And Marcus says it's the single most important way to combat waste in the kitchen. So much of what we use when cooking—from ingredient leftovers to the packaging our products come in—can be composted and it’s the best way to use up even the smallest scraps. It takes a little extra time and prep to “get the low down on what can and cannot be composted,” Marcus says, but once you incorporate composting into your life, you’ll be making a huge difference.
Take a closer look at the businesses you support
When the pandemic shuttered restaurants across the country, Marcus and the team transformed the space at west~bourne into a general store and they’re launching a line of packaged kitchen goods in June that will come in compostable, recyclable, or reusable materials.
So much of the waste we create at home comes from the way food and other kitchen products are packaged, so Marcus recommends taking a look at what you buy at the store to ensure you invest in reusables and recyclables whenever possible.
Make a meal plan
Matt Orlando, the chef behind Copenhagen’s zero-waste restaurant, Amass, said being efficient with shopping has been the key to his own sustainability at home. By making a meal plan (and sticking to it), every ingredient you have on hand has a purpose. Orlando starts off by planning two to three meals for the week, and then considers what ingredients will be leftover over to decide what he can whip up for the other few days.
“My goal is to buy groceries once a week and have the refrigerator as empty as possible on that last night,” Orlando said. “That’s a game I play now.”
Don’t be afraid of leftovers
Leftovers get a bad rap, but they don’t have to be boring. You don’t have to eat the same thing two or three days in a row to reduce food waste and use up your leftovers.
Orlando suggests thinking about how you can repurpose your leftovers in new ways. For example, if you roasted a chicken early in the week, use the leftover meat to make chicken burritos a few days later and boil down the carcass to have stock on hand for soups, or transform roasted vegetables from dinner into a pasta topping for lunch the next day. Orlando also said we should think small when utilizing leftovers—so before you toss that squeezed out lemon, consider throwing the rind into the blender and straining the product through a fine-mesh sieve to make your very own lemon oil.
Recycle your corks
For Halley Chambers, the co-founder of Rhodora Wine Bar in Brooklyn, one major hurdle of opening the first truly zero-waste bar in NYC was figuring out what to do with the corks, something that was an unavoidable source of potential waste. The bar ended up partnering with ReCORK, a recycling company that collects corks to be remade into yoga blocks, sandals, cork boards, and a whole host of other products.
Rhodora is donating corks to the company on a massive scale, of course, but you can make a difference by donating the corks you have at home as well. The Brooklyn natural wine bar serves as a drop off location, but you can also enter your zip code on ReCORK’s website to find a bar, wine shop, or other business near you that accepts corks to be recycled.
Be smart at the store
Every supplier that works with Rhodora Wine Bar delivers products in fully recyclable or reusable containers, and while you can’t always help how things are packaged at the supermarket, you can be smart at the store. Chambers says you should definitely bring your own reusable bags to transport all of your groceries in and think before you individually wrap all your herbs in flimsy plastic produce bags.
“Just thinking about what you're grabbing and what you're using to package things can make a really big impact,” Chambers says. “Your cloth bag may be a bit soggier at the end of your grocery trip, but nothing bad is going to happen if you don’t have everything wrapped in plastic—and it's actually much better for your vegetables as well to be stored in paper.”
Find creative solutions
When Douglas McMaster opened his pioneering zero-waste restaurant in London, Silo, there were innumerable problems to solve. From grinding down wine bottles into sand that later becomes ceramic plates, to using mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi, to make lamps and poufs to sit on, the restaurant has found no shortage of creative solutions that can inspire us all.
These are just some of the ways you can reduce waste in your own home, but there are always new solutions to be found. As Chambers says, “zero waste is not just some stagnant point that we get to. It’s a constantly evolving goal post because there's always so much more we can do.”