A new study, conducted by the non-profit Zero Waste organization Eco-Cycle, finds restaurants can play a crucial role in diverting food waste away from U.S. landfills. One way to accomplish this: offering durable or compostable plates, cups, and utensils, which the study suggests makes it easier for customers to compost their food scraps and sort their waste into the right bins.
The study noted that restaurants are recovering some food waste, but far too much is still thrown out. “Less than 15% of restaurant food waste is collected for composting, and these efforts have primarily focused on collecting food scraps from the kitchen,” wrote the study authors. “However, on average, diners leave 17% of their meal uneaten, and more than half of these potential leftovers are not taken home. This means there is a large, untapped potential to recover food waste generated by diners through front-of-house composting programs that collect food scraps from customers.”
The study discovered that for composting to work well, one of the keys to success is for restaurants to simplify their service ware by using durable plates, glasses, and utensils, or using all compostable service ware. Nationwide, 85% of customers say they are willing to sort their waste after eating out if bins are provided.
However, for recycling and composting to succeed, the sorting has to be done properly. Observations in the study found consumers struggled considerably with how to sort materials when there were several different types of foodservice ware. By contrast, those restaurants that used one primary type of service ware—either durable, reusable plates and utensils or a fully compostable system—had higher rates of success.
The quick-service restaurant with all compostable foodservice ware performed well—meaning they captured most of their food scraps with very little contamination—as did the quick-service restaurant using all durable foodservice ware, suggesting both of these approaches can be used successfully to capture food scraps for composting, the study found.
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