Restaurants Embrace Recycling

Restaurants Embrace Recycling

Survey shows most restaurateurs have some type of recycling program but also points to new business opportunities for haulers.

A new survey from the National Restaurant Association shows that waste service firms might have some solid business opportunities with restaurants in the coming years.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the nation’s restaurateurs operate some type of recycling program, according to the study, which the association conducted in partnership with Georgia-Pacific Professional. Of particular interest to waste service firms, 17 percent plan to start a program next year — and only 28 percent of surveyed restaurateurs recycle food waste, while just 13 percent participate in a composting program.

The paltry food waste and composting numbers in the survey weren’t a surprise to Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. Miller believes that food waste diversion is more prevalent than indicated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says that 2.5 percent of food scraps were recovered for recycling and composting in 2009, but he acknowledges that “there’s lots of room for improvement.”

Miller adds that he’s seen lots of interest in restaurant waste from the hauling community at WasteExpo sessions. “It’s the beginning of good infrastructure and interest [in the restaurant business],” Miller says. “I think there’s some tremendous opportunities” for waste service firms looking to provide food waste recycling and composting services.

The survey of 500 restaurant owners and operators and 1,010 consumers provides a comprehensive overview of restaurant recycling practices, the association says. “Sustainability is more than a fad,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the association’s Research and Knowledge Group, in a press release. “It’s the new way of doing business in the restaurant industry.”

Survey Specifics

Among the survey’s highlights: 74 percent of restaurant operators who recycle do so in the kitchen and office areas, but just 43 percent have a program in the customer areas. Nearly three out of four (72 percent) use products made from recycled materials; the most common items are bags, paper products and food containers.

The most recycled material in restaurants is paper/cardboard, with 85 percent of operators saying they recycle those products. Regionally, the Northeast had the strongest showing, as 80 percent of area restaurateurs said they operate recycling programs; the South was the poorest performer, with just 46 percent of restaurateurs in the region saying they did.

As for consumers, a large majority (85 percent) said they would sort recyclables in quickservice restaurants if those sites provide recycling bins. Sixty percent of consumers said they prefer to visit a restaurant that recycles, and half of consumers (51 percent) reported that they are willing to pay a higher bill (the median amount was 10 percent) for the service. However, 68 percent of restaurateurs thought recycling programs had no positive impact on sales.

Waste Management Inc., which has become more aggressive about organics recycling in recent years, sees the survey results as “absolutely” encouraging for service providers, says P.J. Foote, director of the food and retail segment for the company. “When you look at food waste recycling … restaurants are a big part of that,” he says.

Waste Management has been investing in organics recycling technology. For restaurants, “just making the commitment to recycling and diversion is key,” Foote says. “The more [waste service providers] can do to develop that infrastructure, the better it’ll be.”

The next step for the National Restaurant Association is education, says Chris Moyer, sustainability policy analyst for the association. The association will work to develop tools and resources restaurateurs can use to bolster their recycling efforts, he says.

The main area for restaurant recycling growth is organics, Moyer says. He said 70 percent to 90 percent of organics potentially can be reused.

The full National Restaurant Association report is available at

Allan Gerlat, the former editor of Waste and Recycling News, is a Sagamore Hills, Ohio-based writer.

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