NEW YORK – Garbage is inevitable in the restaurant and bar business. Kitchen employees toss onion skins and meat fat into the wastebasket almost instinctively. Once-used plastic wrap and slips guarding the linens find their way into black bags for trash-day pickup. Plastic bags are ordered by the bundle and then often discarded after customers use them to take leftovers home.
At the Brooklyn natural wine bar and restaurant Rhodora, however, taking out the trash works a little differently.
The new eatery is one of a handful of establishments in various cities that have begun to operate under a zero-waste ethos, meaning they do not send any trash or food waste to a landfill.
The aim is to lessen the restaurants’ environmental impact while running a profitable venture — with a possible added benefit of solidifying their eco-conscious bona fides among discerning clientele. Such radical idealism comes with challenges, including finding producers and distributors who can accommodate requests like compostable packaging and figuring out how to recycle broken appliances.
“We’re in the business of serving people,” said Henry Rich, a co-owner of Rhodora. “And it feels incongruent to take care of somebody for an evening and try to show them a great time, and then externalize the waste and carbon footprint of that evening onto people.”
A recent report from ReFED, a nonprofit organization focused on food waste reduction, found that restaurants in the United States generate about 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, or $25.1 billion in costs. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that food waste and packaging account for nearly 45% of the materials sent to landfills in the United States.
The reason zero-waste “is not a mainstream concept, that you don’t see it in gastronomy or hospitality in mainstream ways, is because we’re just waking up to it,” said chef Douglas McMaster, who runs the waste-free London restaurant Silo and advised the owners of Rhodora. “We’re just seeing the reality of wasting as much as we do.”
Rich and Halley Chambers, the deputy director of his Oberon restaurant group and co-owner of Rhodora, spent almost 10 months and $50,000 researching and transforming their space into a neighborhood joint that could operate without any trash pickup.
Out went many of their regular vendors who wrapped deliveries in single-use plastic. In came tools to aid their waste-reduction efforts: a cardboard shredder to turn wine boxes into composting material, a dishwashing setup that converts salt into soap, beeswax wrap in lieu of plastic wrap.
Much of the planning time was spent searching for distributors and producers who could adhere to Rhodora’s mission.
She Wolf Bakery and its sister butcher shop, Marlow & Daughters, deliver reusable plastic bins full of fresh-baked breads and jars of pickled vegetables and eggs via Cargo Bike Collective riders. Another company, A Priori Distribution, switched to using compostable packaging and paper tape when dropping off aluminum tins of fish.
The paper menus are fed to the compost pile when they become outdated or tattered. Anything left on customers’ plates is dumped into collection bins in the kitchen, which are fed into the commercial-grade composter. (Rhodora does not serve meat, which is more difficult to compost, although its composter does process any leftover fish.)
There are financial incentives for restaurants to invest in these zero-waste practices, with one study finding that restaurants save on average $7 for every $1 invested in kitchen food waste-reduction practices. The National Restaurant Association found that around half of diners say they are beginning to consider establishments’ efforts to recycle and reduce food waste when choosing where to eat.
But many establishments operate on slim profit margins, and it is not always immediately obvious how programs to reduce food waste can translate into financial gains, said Angel Veza, director of the Hospitality Advisory at First Principle Group, a global advisory firm.
“If they’re thriving, making money, they don’t have a reason to change,” said Veza. “Restaurants close all the time, too, so the last thing they’re going to think about is, ‘Am I going to use single-use plastic?’ ”