Restaurants: Eating without Waste

Nick Murray
Zoo School of Environmental Studies

Estimates are that one fourth of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste. This wasted food costs $31 billion annually. The restaurant business, one of the fastest growing industries in the world, is a major contributor to food waste. There are almost one million restaurants nationwide, and those restaurants have spent about $1.2 trillion this year (this includes sales in agriculture, transportation, wholesale trade, and food manufacturing). They are undoubtedly an integral part of our economy, and should be taking steps to reduce their waste. Fortunately, many materials commonly generated from restaurants could easily be recovered for recycling.

Cardboard, plastic, metal, glass, and food waste can all be recycled, but restaurants are still responsible for much of what’s put into landfills today. Studies have shown that restaurants that recycle have reduced their solid waste levels by at least 50%. Although recycling may not be every restaurant’s first priority, many of them own cardboard balers and most of them provide containers for glass, plastic and/or metal. The Thunderbird Hotel and Convention Center in Bloomington has developed a successful program for recycling in their restaurant. By implementing their program, they saved $920 per month and decreased the rate at which their dumpster was filled from five days to every two to three weeks. According to the head chef, “the success of that program required daily management of the recycling area and the support of the employees in order to work effectively. The problem is, most restaurants probably aren’t aware of how much they could be saving, and if they are, they may not have the time or patience to monitor each of their employees.”

Every year it’s becoming more common for the average American to eat out, and that trend is expected to continue its growth for years to come. In 1998, 42% of the average household food dollar was spent away from home. That equals out to about $2,394 annually, for every person in the U.S. With more and more money being brought into restaurants, more restaurants are being built. As a result of this, more restaurants are being built and will inevitably lead to a greater, more dangerous output of waste. With this enormous amount of waste becoming a threat in the near future, it’s clear that we must find a way to decrease it. There are already many businesses that donate to food shelves or will donate to other organizations upon request. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking the restaurant at the end of the day if they have any food, such as bread, they are giving away that they would otherwise throw out.


For businesses, reducing food waste is not only helping to reduce waste, but also cost effective. When dealing with food waste it is important to evaluate the current waste methods and to consider the cost to your business. Are your waste disposal costs excessive? Have you explored ways of dealing with your food waste? Like any solid waste, the “three R’s” can be used to help reduce what goes in the dumpster and save your business money.

REUSE: Donating food, resusing the food at home for future meals, or giving it to food agencies or industries that can use food waste for animal feed are all options that will save you the money of disposing your waste and will add the extra benefit of feeding people in need or animals.

REDUCE: Purchasing only what you need, proper storage and handling of your food and planning ahead will all cut waste and save you money.

RECYCLE: You can create healthy soil for your landscaping by composting your food waste. You can also turn food by-product into animal feed or for landspread.


Even though dining out is our time to relax and get away from the kitchen, we still are responsible for the foods we put into our body and the foods we leave on our plates. Think about what you do at home for portions and leftovers to help you decide how to order.

    • Ask questions about the entrees so you won’t get a dish you don’t like and won’t eat.
    • Order less than what you think you can eat. You can always order more if you are still hungry.
    • Have a smorgasbord. Order a few different dishes and share with friends, especially if the restaurant serves large dishes.
    • Take off any side dishes if you don’t think you’ll eat them. You pay the same, but if you won’t eat it, why waste it?
    • Ask your server if they recycle food and beverage containers. If they do not, take it home to recycle or better yet, don’t order it!
    • Bring your own dishes and utensils, including chopsticks, to the restaurant if they only have disposables available.
    • Bring tupperware or bags for your leftovers so you don’t have to waste non-recyclable styrofoam or plastic containers. You can freeze your leftovers if you don’t think you’ll eat them right away.
    • Be sure to give suggestions to the restaurant about changes they could make to reduce waste.

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