US Restaurants Recycling Without Reservations

More than three out of five U.S. restaurants recycle glass, cardboard, paper and other materials, which scores big points with their customers. 

Nearly two-thirds of patrons want to eat at restaurants with recycling programs in place, according to a new survey from the National Restaurant Association. Eighty-five percent said they'd even lend a hand by sorting quick service recycling items into the appropriate bins, if provided.

"Patrons want to go to these places that recycle," said Chris Moyer, the NRA's director of Conserve Solutions for Sustainability. "I can't put a dollar sign on that goodwill, but there is a value there."

Restaurants most frequently recycle paper and cardboard, while 13 percent said they compost their food scraps, a finding that surprised Moyer. 

"What's encouraging about it is that it's something that's gaining momentum," Moyer said. "If you would have asked that question five years ago, they would have said, 'What is composting?' "

The figure also surprised Rachel Balsey, a program manager with StopWaste, a public agency in Oakland, Calif. "We think we've reached about 20 percent of our businesses with organic waste collection, but we've been really aggressive about it, and most jurisdictions don't have composting available," she said.  

Sensing the potential for a growth market, Waste Management is working to bolster its own network of facilities that process organic waste. Meanwhile, retail giant Walmart had to satisfy its own demand for an organic waste infrastructure by creating a nationwide network to handle all the food waste generated in its operations.

Recycling infrastructure varies by region. The Northeast and West regions boasted the highest recycling rates, with 80 percent and 77 percent, respectively, according to the NRA survey, followed by the Midwest (63 percent) and South (46 percent).

While infrastructure is an oft-cited barrier to restaurant recycling, education is a big challenge, too, Moyer said. "It all comes back to education. There are some misconceptions out there from the operators' standpoint. We hear all the time, 'We'd love to do it but we don't have the space to do it.' "

Staff turnover can also play a role; if new workers aren't versed on proper recycling procedures, the program may be useless.

Adopting a recycling program can benefit the bottom line of industry with traditionally tight profit margins. In the San Francisco Bay Area, restaurants can get a discount on their garbage collection fees if they recycle, ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent depending on the jurisdiction, Balsey said. "The more of a discount, the more incentive there is to sign on because they can save money."

The survey of 500 restaurant owners and 1,100 consumers was conducted in March and April. Other highlights include:

• 72 percent of restaurant operators buy products made with recycled materials, 30 percent buy compostable products.
• 73 percent of restaurant operators said the cost of doing business stayed the same as a result of using recycled materials, while 18 percent said costs increased.
• 51 percent of consumers indicated they would pay a little more at a restaurant with an active recycling program.
• 57 percent of consumers expect recycled products to be cheaper than conventional products.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user auntjojo.