Restaurants with no leftovers

In the United States, a few Earth-friendly eateries are finding ways to eliminate food waste from their premises

A bin from Terracycle – which turns hard-to-recycle trash into new goods – at Rhodora.
A bin from Terracycle – which turns hard-to-recycle trash into new goods – at Rhodora.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Cheese at Rhodora, a wine bar and restaurant in Brooklyn, is kept in beeswax cloth rather than single-use plastic wrap.
Cheese at Rhodora, a wine bar and restaurant in Brooklyn, is kept in beeswax cloth rather than single-use plastic wrap. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Garbage is inevitable in the restaurant and bar business.

Kitchen employees toss onion skins and meat fat into waste bins almost instinctively.

Once-used plastic wrap ends up in black bags for trash disposal.

At Brooklyn natural wine bar and restaurant Rhodora, however, taking out the trash works a little differently.

The new eatery is one of a handful of establishments that have begun to operate under a zero-waste ethos, meaning they do not send any trash or food waste to a landfill.

There is not even a traditional trash can on the premises.

The aim is to lessen the environmental effect while running a profitable venture - with the possible added benefit of solidifying their eco-conscious bona fides among discerning clientele.

Such radical idealism comes with challenges, including finding suppliers that can accommodate requests such as compostable packaging and figuring out how to recycle broken appliances.

"We're in the business of serving people," said Mr Henry Rich, a co-owner of Rhodora. "And it feels incongruent to take care of somebody for an evening and try to show him a great time, and then externalise the waste and carbon footprint of that evening onto people."

A recent report from ReFED, a non-profit organisation focused on food-waste reduction, found that restaurants in the United States generate about 11.4 million tonnes of food waste annually.

The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that food waste and packaging account for nearly 45 per cent of materials sent to landfills in the US.


The reason zero-waste "is not a mainstream concept, that you don't see it in gastronomy or hospitality in mainstream ways, is because we're just waking up to it", said chef Douglas McMaster. He runs waste-free London restaurant Silo and advised the owners of Rhodora.

Mr Rich and Ms Halley Chambers, co-owner of Rhodora and the deputy director of the Oberon restaurant group, spent almost 10 months and US$50,000 (S$67,500) researching and transforming the Fort Greene space into a neighbourhood joint that could operate without any trash pick-up.

Out went many of its regular vendors who wrapped deliveries in single-use plastic.

In came tools to aid waste reduction: a cardboard shredder to turn wine boxes into composting material, a dishwashing set-up that converts salt into soap, and beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.

"It's not arcane, secret knowledge," Mr Rich said, adding that "it's just a couple of things that are very specific, and you need to kind of re-engineer how you think about (operating a restaurant or bar)."

The paper menus, which feature a mini-essay on the restaurant's green mission, go to the compost pile when they become outdated or tattered.

Anything left on customers' plates is dumped into bins in the kitchen, which are fed into a commercial-grade composter tucked inside hutches adjacent to the bar.

Rhodora does not serve meat, which is more difficult to compost, although its composter does process any fish that is left over.

Natural wine bottles and most other non-compostable containers are removed for recycling via Royal Waste Services, which also accepts broken glass.

Corks are donated to ReCork, a recycling programme that repurposes the material for shoe soles and yoga blocks.

There are financial incentives for restaurants to invest in zero-waste practices, with one study finding that they save on average US$7 for every US$1 invested in kitchen food waste-reduction practices.

The National Restaurant Association found that around half of diners say they are beginning to consider establishments' efforts to recycle and reduce food waste when choosing where to eat.

But many establishments operate on slim profit margins and it is not always immediately obvious how programmes to reduce food waste can translate into financial gains, said Ms Angel Veza, director of hospitality advisory at First Principle Group, a global advisory firm.

Many chefs and restaurant owners see little incentive in pursuing more environmentally friendly ways to order ingredients - much less pay an extra US$800, as Rhodora does for a bin from TerraCycle.

The company turns hard-to-recycle trash left behind by customers, such as gum or plastic wrapping, into new goods.

"If they're thriving, making money, they don't have a reason to change," said Ms Veza.

"Restaurants close all the time too, so the last thing they're going to think about is: 'Am I going to use single-use plastic?'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2020, with the headline 'Restaurants with no leftovers'. Subscribe