Restaurant Waste Reduction

Waste reduction is one of the most effective low cost or no cost ways to reduce disposal fees, and green a commercial kitchen. Most waste reduction practices are just simple good business practices with the "green" designation being an added bonus. Most foodservice operation throw out a massive amount of garbage, most of which could be diverted. 75% of material in today's landfill is recyclable or compostable, while 50-70% of the weight of a foodservice operation's garbage consists of compostable food items. Food packaging makes up most of the remaining weight of the garbage's bins, but account for around 70% of the volume of foodservice trash. A foodservice operation without recycling, composting or any waste reduction program can reduce their disposal cost by at least half by implementing simple, structured practices. Rethink. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.


In the waste management vernacular Rethink encourages individuals and businesses to consider the way they use goods. Rethinking your waste production is not only the action of reducing the amount of waste a business produces, but a complete redesign of the way one uses goods, if it uses them at all. Rethinking waste involves looking at each and every product and person that passes through the doors or sits in a facility, then changing the way they eat, work, supply or purchase natural resources. For a school foodservice operation, this may be going to a trayless cafeteria, which is a new movement that has grown across college campuses. Removing the trays so students do not take too much food has reduced campus dining facility's food waste by around 35%, saved millions of gallons of water and chemicals and cut labor costs from the reduction of dirty dishes. Rethinking the way a kitchen operates takes innovation and the will to embrace change. The results are invaluable.


The first step in reducing the amount of waste a restaurant produces is to conduct a waste audit. Waste audits allow you to physically see what waste is being produced in your facility. It is a somewhat unpleasant experience, but a very valuable tool in reducing waste. A waste audit "how to" is provided here.

Once you have completed a waste audit, consider your current practices and how they are affecting your garbage. What is being thrown in the trash? Is it recyclable or compostable? Was it incorrectly dated and went bad? Burnt? Over portioned? What are your doing right? What are you doing wrong? Is your training of staff or the layout of the facility and recycling / compost / trash bins affecting what materials wind up in the trash? Recycling should be an easier task than throwing something away. Are there enough recycling bins? Every garbage can should be accompanied by a recycling and or compost bin and can often be smaller than the recycling bins. In areas like offices, there may not even be a need for a trash bin. The large majority of waste from an office consists of recyclable paper.

Training is an essential part of a successful waste reduction program. Recycling does not come naturally for many people and may even have cultural hurdles. Integrate waste reduction into all training programs and materials, and provide detailed intuitive materials to all staff in all needed languages. Pictorial recycling guides are a very helpful document to laminate and hang above all recycling areas.

After you have changed and improved your current practices, implement new programs. This could be composting, on-site worm bins, recycling of additional products or replacing plastic disposable goods with durable or compostable options. When implementing new programs, start slowly with one program and be ready and willing to make changes in your daily operations or how you implement the program. All operations are different and thus have different needs. One program may work fine at a particular restaurant, but need tweaking for another operation. Go slow and keep resolute. Find more info on composting and food waste options under the Food Waste section of this web site.


The best way to reduce waste is to not produce it in the first place. This is often called precycling or source reduction. Source reduction includes choosing products that come with less or no packaging like beer kegs versus bottles, bulk items and vendors that reuse their packaging. Source reduction also eliminates unnecessary items like frilly toothpicks, paper doilies and inedible garnishes. Precycling also implies choosing products that are packaged in more recyclable material such as items packed in cardboard rather than unrecyclable plastic, or products shipped in reusable containers.


The first and most important reuse option in foodservice is food donation. Thousands of organizations across the country are eager to accept all sorts of donations including old wares and equipment. The donations go to a great cause, and are tax deductable to boot. Read more on the Food Donation page.

Equipment repair is an option that is beneficial in many situations, but not always the best choice. Old equipment may have a little life left in it, but new equipment is often more efficient. Energy Star rated equipment often save enough energy that buying new is usually the best option. The Tools link provides several lifecycle calculators that compare the savings of new energy efficient equipment versus old, standard units.

Routinely maintaining equipment is also very important so that you are not forced to choice whether or not to buy new equipment. Find more information on equipment maintenance under the Equipment section.

Along the lines of repairing equipment, if the coating on your non-stick pans is scratched businesses like the Frypan Man, can recoat them for a fraction of the cost of a new pan. While Teflon is not the healthiest product, recoating is better than throwing it away.

Then there is the coffee cup issue. Americans use an estimated 43 million disposable coffee cups every day. Disposable cups are not recyclable and the vast majority are not compostable either. Encourage your guests to bring their own cup with discounts and prohibit staff from using disposable cups at all. Disposable vs. reusable wares is a highly debated issue with many variables to look at. In general, durable wares are a more environmental option unless there is a commercial composting facility available. Even then, the environmental impact is debatable because of all the resources used in the manufacturing of the compostable goods. If you do choose to use compostable products, make sure the Biodegradable Products Institute certifies them as truly compostable.


Recycling, unfortunately, tends to receive the lion's share of the general public's attention when it comes to waste reduction. While, it is a very important step, reducing the amount of recyclables used in the first place is a far more important step.

Recycling varies across the country as to what is collected and how it is collected so contact your county waste management or waste hauler on details for recycling in your area. They should be able to direct you to drop-off sites that collect materials that are not collected through curbside recycling. also provides a list of collection sites around the country and items they collect. Many items can be recycled besides the standard paper, metal, plastic and glass. Plastic wrap used to protect linens and disposable items can be recycled at some facilities or anywhere that accepts grocery bags. Shipping companies will take your Styrofoam peanuts and schools may take your bottle caps for art projects, be creative and willing to make a few calls. Other recyclable items include corks via, candle wax, wood, construction debris and old or broken utensils and kitchen ware made from at least 75% metal.

At a minimum, all foodservice operations should recycle fryer oil and materials that are toxic such as fluorescent lights, old thermostats, batteries, unused chemicals, paints and miscellaneous hazardous materials. Again, contact your local waste management department or for information on hazardous material collection.

Many municipalities have also implemented electronic recycling programs along with national programs from a variety of electronics companies. Much more information regarding electronics recycling is in the Office section of this web site.

Buying Recycled

The final step in waste reduction and recycling is to 'close the loop' by purchasing products made with recycled content. Most foodservice paper products, office goods and many building materials have recycled content options. Recycled products require less energy and produce less green house gases when they are remanufactured into new goods as compared to virgin material. Recycled goods also add value to the products you recycle. Demand for recycled products creates a demand for recyclable material, which in turn opens up the potential for greater recycling in a wider area of the country.

Set purchasing policies for buying goods with recycled content such as napkins, paper towels and all other food related paper goods must contain 35% post-consumer recycled material AND office goods made with 100% post-consumer material. Written policies will help ensure that these products are used in an organization regardless of who is doing the purchasing.


Waste impacts can be viewed from three sources: upstream, downstream and direct. The upstream impact of goods and services is the amount of natural resources and human capital consumed in the production and distribution of goods purchased for your facility. These are indirect impacts that an operation will only see in the price of goods. For instance, a can of soda is just a can of soda in a cafeteria, but the single can does not show the true costs associated with its production. The upstream impacts of a can of soda includes the growing and harvesting of corn for the corn syrup, mining and smelting of aluminum, pumping and refining of oil to produce the poly lining and the worldwide distribution of each element from one facility to the next in order to create an aluminum can to be fill with liquid that will be consumed in a matter of minutes. Paul Hawken refers, in detail, to this soda can example in his book Natural Capitalism. After consumption of the soda, the can then becomes a direct waste your facility must deal with, or a downstream impact if the customer takes the drink away. With both upstream and downstream wastes, the costs and environmental impacts are invisible, but can still be somewhat lessened with the knowledge that these costs exist. You can serve sodas from reusable soda kegs to reduce the upstream and downstream impacts and remind customers to recycle, which highlights the lack of control with downstream wastes. The customer may choose to recycle it or throw it in the garbage destined for a millennia in the landfill, then repeat the numerous steps with their next can of soda.

Wal-Mart has recently started looking at the upstream impact of the millions of products it purchases and requiring efficiency standards from its manufacturers. While no foodservice operations have the buying power of Wal-Mart, educated choices can be made that affect the upstream environmental impact of the goods used. Recycled content paper is a simple example. The amount of resources consumed is much smaller with recycled content paper compared to virgin pulp paper. The Environmental Defense Fund has an on-line calculator to show the environmental differences between virgin and recycled paper. Similar choices are available for almost every product available.

Applicable products and practices may vary depending on type of businesses, local recycling and composting options and available storage, but all foodservice operations can and should implement some sort of waste reduction practices into their policies. Write the practices into company statements and training guides, and allow new ideas to grow from staff. Create and post recycling guides to remind staff and customers what is and is not recyclable and how to recycle each item.

There are literally thousands of options available to reduce waste, most of which should be structured into policy like prep pars and food rotation schedules. Others may need more legwork in order to implement successfully.

Here are a few suggestions for reducing waste upstream, direct and downstream

  1. Talk to your suppliers about using reusable packing. Tell them you would prefer to receive items like new tongs, for instance, in a milk crate rather than a cardboard box. Smaller, local farmers and suppliers are often more interested and structured to work with reusable packing for food packaging compared to large distributors.
  2. Develop a composting program
  3. Develop a comprehensive recycling program if there is not one already in place
  4. Call around and find recycling or reuse option for miscellaneous items
  5. Bottles and cans are not the only things that can be recycled. Old cracked hotel pans, broken tongs and anything made of at least 75% metal can usually be put in the metal recycling bin. Contact your local recycler to confirm that they can accept these items.
  6. Use compostable products for items that are normally discarded in-house such as straws, stir sticks and drink skewers, then compost them
  7. Find products that come in less packaging, and also more recyclable packaging
  8. Use reusable options with everything possible. Coffee filters, coffee cups, drink coasters, etcetera
  9. Replace bottled beers with keg beer and bottled or canned soda with bag-in-box syrups or 5 gallon pre-mixed soda kegs. Most people will tell you the premix tastes better, but they are getting harder to find.
  10. Develop a relationship with a food donation program in your area
  11. Donate old tableware, kitchen utensils and equipment to a church, school or soup kitchen
  12. Buy in bulk - while this is standard operation for most foodservice facilities, consider all the products not normally taken into account for bulk purchases such as alcohol and cooking wine.
  13. Discontinue use of any non-essential products like paper place mats, frilly toothpicks and practices like putting two straws in cocktails
  14. Have staff distribute disposable items like napkins and plastic forks rather than placing them in self-serve stations.
  15. Use napkin dispensers that dispense one napkin at a time
  16. Invest in nice wood tables rather than using linens or other table covers. This small upfront cost saves thousands of dollars in linen services every year.
  17. Buy cleaning chemicals in concentrated form and reduce the number of chemicals on site by using multi-purpose cleaners
  18. Have employees use reusable cups for their own drinks
  19. Offer discounts to customers that bring a reusable coffee mug
  20. If applicable, charge a deposit and allow neighboring workers to take plates and utensils back to their offices
  21. Reduce the amount of excessive takeout packaging - a sandwich wrapped in paper inside a paper bag worked just fine up until the 80's, it can work again
  22. In quick serve operations where the customer is disposing of waste, make obvious, easy to understand labels on each bin for "bottles," "cans," "plates and silverware" and "garbage only." Because some people see everything as garbage - even your reusable silverware, labels may need to be more specific to identify waste like "paper cups and wrappers only." Also, make the garbage can opening small so guests do not just dump their entire contents in the garbage. Better yet, use a bus tub for garbage so staff can remove any silverware or recyclables thrown into the "garbage only" container.

In the end, as with any change to structure, the main component of making waste reduction work is staff and customer involvement. Implementing new products and programs without integrating a comprehensive training program will result in failure. Most employees are excited to implement sustainable practices at the work. Properly training them will ensure that new sustainability programs are accepted and successful.

Additional Waste Management Resources

Food Service/Cafeteria
Guide to reducing waste in school cafeterias

Waste Reduction Fast Facts: Food and Agriculture
If you are not convinced that food waste is a significant issue, check these facts compiled by the waste management department in Portland, Oregon.

Waste Wise Events
A very useful guide for event organizers that sets out the planning of a Waste Wise Event with tips, suggestions, checklists, sample planning documents, surveys, media releases and a flowchart.

Zero Waste Alliance
A non-profit partnership of universities, government, business and other organizations working to develop, promote and apply Zero Waste strategies.

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