For Restaurants, Food Waste Is Seen As Low Priority : The Salt Food waste is a big problem — for public health, the environment and consumers. Chefs and restaurant owners seem like they'd be the least likely to waste food, and yet 15 percent of all the food that ends up in landfills comes from restaurants. Some restaurants are starting to take action.
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For Restaurants, Food Waste Is Seen As Low Priority

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For Restaurants, Food Waste Is Seen As Low Priority

For Restaurants, Food Waste Is Seen As Low Priority

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Americans throw out tons and tons of food, even restaurants. But as NPR's Eliza Barclay found, the restaurant world is only just beginning to think about cutting down on its waste.

ELIZA BARCLAY, BYLINE: The row of restaurants in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington looks tantalizing. There's Vietnamese, Italian, New American. But if you walk around to the alley at the back of this row, you might gag.

Dumpsters packed with trash are lined up, and they get emptied only twice a week, which means a lot of food sits here filling the block with a deep, rank odor. Some of the dumpsters aren't properly sealed, and so there's grease and putrid juices pooling beneath them. And that means...

DR. ROBERT CORRIGAN: Pigeons, rats, cockroaches, ants, you know, flies, certainly flies. They're looking for fresh food spills.

BARCLAY: Dr. Robert Corrigan runs something called the New York City Rodent Control Academy, which trains restaurant workers how to keep pests away. He says dumpsters filled with restaurant garbage are one of the main reasons why pests are multiplying across the country.

CORRIGAN: Even you know a half a lemon that drops off a dumpster and rolls underneath a stairwell, tiny flies will lay hundreds of it not thousands of eggs on that half a lemon.

BARCLAY: And even when the dumpsters are emptied, the food waste is just moved somewhere else. Dump trucks transport thousands of tons of food waste, every day, to landfills. That's where food waste becomes Jean Schwab's problem. She's a senior analyst in the waste division at the Environmental Protection Agency.

JEAN SCHWAB: Food waste is huge. Food waste is now the number one material that goes into landfills and incinerators.

BARCLAY: Schwab says food waste from restaurants makes up 15 percent of all the food that ends up in landfills. And all that food doesn't just take up space. It's also changing the climate.

SCHWAB: Because it rots so fast, basically it starts to generate methane really quickly.

BARCLAY: Methane is a greenhouse gas that's 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And reducing methane emissions from sources like landfills is one of the EPA's biggest priorities in the fight against climate change. But in spite of the fact that as much as 10 percent of the food a restaurant buys ends up in landfills, hardly anyone in the restaurant industry gives it a second thought.


BARCLAY: Cruz Goler is head chef at Lupa, an Italian restaurant owned by Mario Batali in New York City.

CRUZ GOLER: And it's something. It's just another thing that we're used to, as a restaurant professional, is the amount of garbage that is thrown out on a nightly basis. It can be a little staggering, I guess, but that's just what happens.

BARCLAY: Back in Cleveland Park in Washington, D.C., a cook at Ripple Restaurant is prepping potatoes for a French fry cutter. When he sees a blemish, he lobs off as much as half of a whole potato. Loga Cox is the executive chef here. He says chefs obsess over the quality of their vegetables and their technique. They want to make sure everything looks and tastes just right. Food waste comes in low on the long list of priorities.

LOGA COX: I've never taken the time to actually weigh or, you know, measure how much we do throw away.

BARCLAY: According to Jonathan Bloom, who wrote a book last year called "American Wasteland," consumers are part of the problem too.

JONATHAN BLOOM: There's about a half pound food waste created per meal served. And, so that's taking into account both back of the house and front of the house waste. So the restaurants and the customers are joining forces to waste a whole lot of food.

BARCLAY: About three cents of every dollar consumers spend on food away from home ends up in the trash. That doesn't even include the food left on your plate.

At the National Restaurant Association, Chris Moyer says getting restaurants to focus on food waste is a big challenge. Food scraps, of course, are inevitable, but a lot of food waste is still edible.

The hardest part for many restaurants may just be getting the workers to become aware of how much edible food they waste every day. A few years ago, when Moyer was managing a big chain restaurant, he wanted to show his cooks that there were plenty of opportunities to reduce waste. So he took away the garbage can.

CHRIS MOYER: And you'd be surprised, once you take away the garbage cans - if people have to ask permission to throw something away - how little you throw away. It was really quite amazing.

BARCLAY: But Moyer says getting the whole industry to take on food waste is going to take a lot of training and education.

MOYER: I think the hardest part about doing anything to benefit the planet and benefit your bottom-line is behavioral change. 'Cause that's really what we're talking about, is changing mindsets, it's about changing behaviors.

BARCLAY: Mindsets are a lot harder to change than the menu. But as the problems pile up, restaurants are going to have find ways to put less food in the dumpster.

Eliza Barclay, NPR News.


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