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Want to keep customers loyal? Try trimming your waste

Photograph: Shutterstock

Restaurants generate a lot of waste—up to 22% of what’s found in landfills, according to some estimates. Food waste, paper waste, plastic straws, bottles, cans and to-go ware add up to mountains of discarded material that too often end up in landfills. In addition to many cities running out of landfill space, as the waste decomposes it emits harmful C02 and methane gases. 

Consumer attitudes toward sustainable business have evolved in recent years. According to Nielsen research, nearly half (48%) of consumers say they are likely to change their consumption habits to help reduce their impact on the environment. Among millennials, that figure jumps to 75%. Some 83% of millennials, 66% of Gen Xers and 62% of baby boomers also believe, “It is extremely or very important to me that companies implement programs to improve the environment.”

State and local authorities are reacting to this changing consumer sentiment and have started mandating eco-friendly practices, banning foam packaging and plastic straws, for example.

Foodservice giants have taken the message to heart, understanding that committing to sustainable practices is tied to customer loyalty. McDonald’s recently opened two “green” stores in Canada that use wooden cutlery, recyclable cold drink cups, wood-fiber lids that eliminate the need for straws, smaller napkins and thinner packaging for certain menu items. Independent restaurants, too, would do well to respond to this shift in attitude by moving away from a linear approach to doing business and embracing a circular economy. A linear philosophy means creating, using and simply disposing of products. Joining a circular economy, by contrast, entails responsibly sourcing products that have minimal environmental impact and sustainable end-of-life options such as composting or recycling.

While change can be daunting, a step-by-step approach can ease the process. Those steps include:

Reuse. Serving food and drinks using permanent ware is one obvious way to keep product out of landfill. Not every operation is equipped to handle dishware, and the growth of takeout and delivery also presents a challenge, but options in this area are expanding. Reusable bags are the next likely solution to the single-use plastic bag conundrum, for instance. Reusable cups have taken off in some locations, especially if they have value beyond the cup. At Ohio State and other universities, students are supplied with personalized, RFID-embedded stored-value that allow them to self-serve beverages. And Starbucks, which has struggled to encourage patrons’ use of their own containers, recently spurred purchases of a reusable plastic cup by rolling out a color-changing version that consumers snapped up immediately. “While there are cost, customer satisfaction, logistic and hygienic factors that need to be considered, reusable solutions will play a role in certain settings to help advance circularity,” says Jeff Sturgis, vice president of sustainability at Georgia-Pacific.

Reduce. The goal with this step is to deter overuse of disposable items like napkins, paper towels and plastic utensils. Options include “lightweighting”—sourcing products that use less material—controlled dispensing, and minimizing or eliminating secondary packaging. Technology has enabled the replacement of traditional double-walled cups with single-wall cups that perform as well as their heavier counterparts, but with less material. Innovative soap, towel, napkin and cutlery dispensers have impacted the reduction of unnecessary product use while supporting cost-cutting efforts of operators.

Certify sources. “Ensuring that the products you use are responsibly sourced or certified safe is an easy step,” says John Salvador, director of sustainability at Georgia-Pacific. A variety of organizations provide third-party certification, which is especially important for paper products because of concerns about deforestation. Look for opportunities to increase the recycled content of your packaging products. This can send a powerful message to your customers while also helping to support the circular economy by establishing healthy demand for recycled content.

Support recycling and composting efforts. Specifying 100% recycled or compostable paper products is yet another way to participate in the circular economy. But before jumping into use of recyclable or compostable products, operators should check to make sure their waste management provider or the local community is equipped to handle them properly. “Absent adequate infrastructure, ‘recyclable’ and ‘compostable’ packaging just ends up in the landfill.”  Sturgis says.  

Aligning with a circular economy isn’t just good for the environment; it can be good for an operator’s bottom line, too. “Using products designed to control dispensing or decrease waste falls in line with profitability goals as well,” says Salvador.

This post is sponsored by Georgia-Pacific, manufacturer of GP PRO and Dixie® brand solutions

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