How to Run a Zero-waste Restaurant

Many restaurants serve up something unsavoury alongside their delicious dishes – lots of avoidable waste. There’s all the leftover food, packaging from ingredients, and even furniture when it’s time for a refurbishment every five or so years. A growing trend for low and zero-waste restaurants aims to make the sector more sustainable.

The UK hospitality industry creates £3.2 billion of food waste each year according to WRAP. This includes hotels, bars, and other entertainment venues alongside restaurants, and they produce many other waste materials at high cost too. Running a zero-waste restaurant could help your business save money as well as the planet.

There are many areas to look at if you want to operate a low or no-waste restaurant. Small changes and large improvements can help cut your waste management costs and benefit the environment. Find out how to run a zero-waste restaurant with these ideas.

How to reduce waste in restaurants
empty restaurant with tables set out.

Conduct a restaurant waste audit

Every restaurant is different. The best way towards becoming zero waste is to audit your existing waste management practices. Review the current types, number, and sizes of bins you use to assess what waste materials and volumes your restaurant produces on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

This should highlight how much waste your restaurant regularly creates and identify key areas where reducing waste is most important. Start by setting small achievable targets to cut back on waste in these areas and building an action plan. Over time you can increase the targets until you eventually eliminate waste from every stream.

The following sections provide useful ideas for ways to minimise waste across all areas of your restaurant.

Phase out plate waste

Leftovers from customers – also known as plate waste – are a big reason for the high levels of food waste created by restaurants. Research found plate waste makes up 34% of food binned in restaurants, so it’s a key area to tackle. These are a few things you can try to phase out plate waste in your restaurant:

  • Offer doggy bags – an easy way to get rid of plate waste is to let customers take any leftovers home with them. Use a recyclable box or bag if possible. You can’t guarantee they won’t throw the food in the bin at home, but it at least provides an opportunity to eat it later.
  • Improve portion sizes – lots of plate waste could be a sign your portions are too big. Either reduce plate and portion sizes or offer a choice of portion sizes (at different prices) so customers can choose what they fancy.
  • Make extras optional – side salads, bread, and some vegetables are often included with dishes as standard and common reasons for plate waste. Simply ask customers when ordering if they want them or not to avoid adding food to their plate they’re never going to eat.
  • Stick to short menus – generally, restaurants that have long menus with many items create more food waste. Working with fewer dishes and ingredients enables closer control over stock levels too. It also helps improve quality by specialising in select dishes.
  • Remove trays from buffets – if your restaurant includes a self-service or buffet element don’t provide trays and only offer small plates and bowls. This reduces the amount of food diners pile onto plates and can carry back to their tables that ultimately gets wasted.

Eliminate food waste in the kitchen

It’s estimated that food service and hospitality companies throw away 920,000 tonnes of waste food annually. According to WRAP, 21% of food wasted is due to ingredient spoilage in UK hospitality every year. Eliminating waste in your commercial kitchen is something you have more control over when running a restaurant than plate waste.

Use the following tips to reduce waste food from your restaurant’s kitchen:

  • Store ingredients properly – review your fridges, freezers, and other storage facilities to ensure they operate at the right temperature to keep ingredients fresh. Keep the areas clean and tidy and place lower-risk foods on higher shelves to reduce the risk of spoilage.
  • Explore ways to use leftovers – save leftovers from your meal preparations and find ways to incorporate them into your menu. Vegetable peelings and animal bones are great for making stocks, soups, and cooking vinegars while old bread can be turned into croutons or breadcrumbs.
  • Juice imperfect fruit and veg – if you receive any fruit or veg that’s squashed, out of shape, or too soft to use in your dishes, juice them. It avoids waste and you can add to your menu or offer a small glass to customers on the house as a nice amuse bouche.
  • Use local and seasonal produce – there’s less distance to travel when sourcing local ingredients. This saves energy and minimises fuel pollution. Plus, there’s less chance of spoilage during shorter transportation and foodstuffs should arrive fresh.
  • Regularly review your menu – track your orders to see which dishes are most and least popular. Use this information to adapt the ingredients you use to avoid over-ordering items that go off. Remove any unpopular dishes from the menu too.
  • Train kitchen staff – upskilling chefs and other kitchen staff by sending them on training courses can help reduce food waste in the kitchen. Little things like chopping, cooking, and preparation techniques can all help lower waste levels and inspire new ways to cut down on restaurant kitchen food waste.

Responsibly dispose of waste food

However hard you try to create a zero-waste restaurant you might still create some level of waste food. Responsible disposal of it can help ensure the waste goes to good use. Move towards becoming zero waste with these options for dealing with leftover food or ingredients:

  • Compostcomposting is the natural way to recycle waste food. If your restaurant has space and a garden then you could build a compost heap onsite. Otherwise, send it to a local or industrial compost site.
  • Donate meals and ingredients – partner with a local food bank to provide any leftover meals or usable ingredients. Animal charities or farms may accept any inedible leftovers for animal feed.
  • Use resale apps – sign up to apps such as Too Good To Go and OLIO where you can sell any leftover meals at the end of the day for a discount to help those on lower incomes and avoid wasting food.
  • Book commercial waste collection – at Business Waste we can collect your waste food and transport it to a composting site or for anaerobic digestion, which creates energy from waste.

Follow FIFO for stock 
inventory and storage

First In First Out (FIFO) is a simple system to prevent food spoilage and waste in your restaurant. Essentially, you move ingredients with the shortest use-by dates to the front of shelves in cupboards, fridges, and freezers. When deliveries arrive put the latest food with longer dates to the back.

Train your staff in the FIFO process to minimise the risk of food spoilage. Regular reviews and stock rotation every week should highlight any items that have been missed so they can be moved forward and used. And it identifies any food you’ve got too much of so you can adapt your menu to use them up.

Clear labelling of ingredients with use-by dates and allergens helps chefs identify any gone-off ingredients. It also makes keeping track of your inventory easier to avoid over-ordering ingredients that go off. Plus, knowing what’s in every container avoids accidentally throwing out usable food because you don’t know what it is.

Cut down on oil waste

Many restaurants, cafes, and pubs produce lots of waste oil from frying up food in their kitchen. It can clog drains and sewers due to improper disposal and pollute the environment. There are a few ways to cut down on oil waste in your restaurant:

  • Reuse cooking oil where possible. It can be cleaned, filtered, and reused for frying in your kitchen.
  • Reduce the number of fried items on your menu to minimise how much oil you use each day.
  • Grill, bake, poach, or steam ingredients where possible rather than frying or deep-frying. This significantly reduces how much oil you use and offers healthier options for diners.

Prevent packaging and plastic waste

The single-use plastic ban means restaurants should no longer provide plastic cutlery and cups. Avoid offering any other disposable items – have washable and reusable chopsticks on the table, for example. If you have a takeaway service consider a discount for anyone with a reusable cup for drinks.

Packaging is a big source of plastic waste for restaurants. Try to only partner with suppliers that have plastic-free packaging or that reduce packaging as much as possible. For example, Restaurant Nolla in Helsinki only works with suppliers that deliver food with no packaging – so it is possible. Buying in bulk is another way to cut down on plastic wrap and other packaging.

Trim waste at the table

Out front in your restaurant is another place where you can reduce waste with a few simple steps. At the table, many waste materials may build up beyond leftover food. Transition to a zero-waste restaurant with these actions to minimise waste at your tables:

  • Switch to cloth napkins – used paper napkins aren’t recyclable due to contamination and their thin paper fibres. Cloth napkins can be cleaned and reused, which eliminates waste.
  • Ditch the tablecloth – disposable tablecloths should be avoided at all costs, while even cloth ones can be problematic. This is because often those washed professionally are returned in thin plastic bags that aren’t recyclable. Bare tables offer an appealing aesthetic and are easier to clean too.
  • Keep condiments in containers – avoid little packets of salt, pepper, ketchup, and other condiments as the packaging isn’t always recycled. Bulk buy such condiments and put them out on tables in glass containers that can be refilled and reused.
  • Provide jugs of tap water – plastic water bottles have a hugely negative impact on the environment. Simply put a jug of tap water with glasses on every table to avoid the need to sell them.
  • Serve draught drinks – cut back on glass and plastic bottle waste by providing beer, soft drinks, and even cocktails on draught.
  • Create recycled table decorations – clean and dry empty wine bottles and add light strings inside or use old ingredients jars as candle holders or vases. It’s cost-effective and good for the environment.
wine glasses and cloth napkins on restaurant table.

Provide paperless menus and receipts

Switching from physical menus on every table to an online one saves sheets of paper in the short and long term. Stick a QR code on each table that diners scan to see the menu. It’s also good to have a couple of tablets with the menu loaded up available for any customers without a smartphone or who need larger print.

Your kitchen will appreciate this method too, as you can update the menu in real-time to remove any dishes if they sell out. It also avoids wasting paper when it’s time to change over to a seasonal menu as you won’t need to print an extra Christmas menu – just put it online.

In a pub, café, or restaurant with a small menu, you could even just write out the dishes available that day on a chalkboard. Remove paper bills and receipts and switch to email instead to save even more paper. Or ask customers if they want a paper receipt, as most people throw it away shortly after anyway.

Clean up bathroom waste

Restaurant toilets are an often-overlooked area where you can reduce waste as well. Most bathroom bins will be full of paper towels that aren’t recyclable once used. Remove any paper towels and replace them with electric hand dryers. Use recycled toilet roll in cubicles for an eco-friendlier approach. At the sinks have refillable soap containers to minimise plastic use and waste.

Washroom services

Repair and upcycle 
furniture and equipment

Many restaurants have a refurbishment every five or seven years. Rather than chucking out old furniture when the time comes, consider upholstering chairs and tables instead. Repairing and upcycling furniture saves lots of waste going to landfill. You can always donate furniture to a charity if you must get rid of it.

Repair rather than replace broken equipment from your restaurant where possible too. Get some experts to repair any kitchen equipment such as ovens, dishwashers, or even electric whisks. This saves huge amounts of WEEE and should be cheaper than buying brand-new equipment.

Learn more about restaurant waste management
someone eating food in a restaurant.
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