Are Zero Waste Restaurants Really Possible?

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“Every year an estimated 100,000 tonnes of commercial food waste is generated in South Australia by the hospitality sector and other businesses – and only 6000 tonnes is recycled or composted. Food that ends up in landfill creates methane – a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.” (Zero Waste SA, 2012)

It is no secret that the food service industry is notorious for creating massive amounts of waste that ends up in the landfill.

Alarming Amounts Of Food Wastage

From alarming amounts of food wastage to mountains of unnecessary packaging, the environmental impact is hefty and is taking its toll.

Gaining Momentum

The movement of zero waste is gaining momentum in the hospitality sector and more restaurants are getting on board and striving for a minimal to zero waste philosophy.

The Four R’s of Zero Waste Restaurants

The idea of zero waste is to mimic the closed loop eco-systems that happen in nature by eliminating things going to waste.

The mantra of aspiring restauranteurs is “rethink, reduce, re-use, and recycle”.

Examining your restaurant operations

Rethinking involves examining every aspect of your restaurant operations and striving to do things in a more sustainable way. From transportation of goods to food management, every piece holds the potential for zero waste.


Reduction translates into minimizing the use of resources in your restaurant business. Consider ideas like planning your menus carefully to reduce the amount of food waste, shopping locally to diminish the financial and environmental impact of transportation, and limiting your use of chemicals in your establishment.


Re-use is being given more considerable attention lately by restaurant owners and is a term taken quite literally by the chefs. Using by-products of the cooking process like leftover corn kernels to make a cream that tastes similar to coconut milk or serving off-cuts like broccoli stems is a brilliant and creative move.


Recycle is not a new concept and one that many restaurants have embraced for some time. This “R” is a critical one and keeps a significant amount of waste out of the landfill. Composting food waste is a next step for restaurants and one that can be adapted to any food service environment.

The Challenges of Aiming For Zero Waste

Chef Douglas McMaster, owner of the innovative and sustainable restaurant ‘Silo’ in Brighton, UK, promotes his restaurant as zero waste. However, he is the first one to say that the viability of this ideal can be challenging to live up to.

Despite his best intentions, he does admit that silo generates some waste by having wine on the menu. With a cartful of wine bottles at the end of each night, he hopes that one day he can buy local wine on tap and that local artists will be able to repurpose the empty bottles into inspired creations.

Although zero waste is the ideal, minimizing waste as much as possible is a tremendous step forward for the restaurant business.

McMaster goes on to say that:

“Really, it’s about everything being natural and everything either going back into the system or going back into nature”.

Of course, the biggest source of waste may not be from the restaurant’s meal prep or even inaccurate food ordering, but the actual diners themselves.

Tanya Holland, owner and chef of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California, says that it’s her customers’ ordering habits that may be the problem. Ordering too much food from the menu and then leaving half of it on the plate leads to a substantial amount of food wastage.

Mindful Food Choices

Diners should be mindful of their food choices and to only order what they can manageably eat at one sitting. Chefs can also help with this by offering smaller portions on the plate.

However, sometimes it’s the actual municipal infrastructure and bylaws that block the efforts of eco-inspired restaurants.

Local Restrictions

Josh Fontaine, one of the founders of Quixotic restaurant group in Paris, discovered that local health laws imposed restrictions on what they could do.

For example, using plastic wrap to cover their food was absolutely mandatory. They counter this with sourcing local food whenever they can, reducing food waste, and turning some leftover food into natural gas.

Local Restaurant

Closer to home, a Melbourne restaurant was forced to close its doors in 2015 due to an ongoing struggle with the city’s officials over the restaurant’s composting bin in the alley.

Joost Bakker’s zero-waste soup restaurant, Brothi, collected food scraps from local eateries and transformed them into sustainable soups.

Any food wastage went into his dumpster-sized composting bin.

Problems arose when Bakker refused to obey the city’s requests to put a fence around his compost bin, sign an intimidating legal document, and to pay a hefty municipal fee of $12,500. His defiance led to an eviction notice.

Moving Towards Minimal Waste

Being zero waste doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Perhaps the pursuit of such an ideal takes away from the small, consistent steps that restaurants are doing to slowly chip away at this monumental problem.

‘Moving towards minimal waste’ may be more of an appropriate phrase that acknowledges the sustainable efforts of restaurants and empowers them to keep going.

Josh Fontaine of the Quixotic restaurant continues with:

“So I guess in that sense, we are far from zero waste…But we’re doing the best we can.”


Zero-Waste Restaurants: Is It Possible?

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