How to Reduce Your Restaurant’s Carbon Footprint

How to Reduce Your Restaurant’s Carbon Footprint
Liam Hallam

By Liam Hallam

Ever wondered about the carbon footprint of your restaurant? It’s no surprise the food industry leaves behind a large footprint—and while much of the supply chain is inevitable, there are many innovative and simple steps we can all take to reduce waste and our own carbon footprint.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, as planes were grounded and industries came to a halt, news broke that CO2 in the atmosphere had dropped to 2006 levels—a modicum of positivity for the environmentally conscious among us.

Unfortunately, that drop was a blip on the radar and CO2 levels have again reached all-time highs—once again highlighting the impact we’re having on the planet.    

As consumers become more aware of their own carbon footprint, they’re seeking eco-friendly alternatives in all aspects of life—from driving electric vehicles to growing their own produce.

Industries are having to adapt—in particular the foodservice industry, which is making strides in the right direction with new innovations such as biodegradable packaging and plant-based meat. Our own data shows that over 10% of restaurants are looking into offering more vegan and plant-based options.

But how can restaurants reduce their carbon footprint on a granular level? There are simpler alternatives than investing in new energy-efficient equipment or reworking your menu with plant-based dishes—though they would help!  

In fact, the answer becomes much clearer when you reframe the question: How can you meet the expectations of your environmentally-conscious customers?

Positioning the challenge of creating a restaurant with a small carbon footprint is much easier when you think of the people you’ll be serving.

So let’s dive into the positive changes you can make and your customers will admire.

Reduce the use of plastic

Reducing your restaurant’s plastic waste is the most simple and actionable step you can take to shrink your carbon footprint and stop unnecessary waste ending up in landfill or the ocean.

Many independent restaurants are taking it even further by banning single-use plastic altogether and using biodegradable alternatives such as bamboo cutlery, paper cups, and cardboard packaging. One creative example we love is coffee shops replacing plastic stirrers with dried spaghetti!

Depending on your establishment, banning single-use plastic may not be possible—but reducing plastic waste can be achieved easily.

  • Add small signs at self-serve stations to ask customers to consider the environment and take only what they need.
  • Better still, remove self-serve stations (if possible) and only give out cutlery and straws when asked.
  • For online orders, add a checkbox for customers to request cutlery. Most ordering apps now have this feature.
  • Replace plastic cutlery and packaging with biodegradable alternatives.

Finding affordable eco-friendly suppliers used to be a challenge, but now the cost difference is marginal, though it should be considered before you switch.

Start by asking your current supplier about their plastic-free alternatives, and if they don’t have any, ask them to start. If you find the options are too expensive, ask fellow business owners if they’d be willing to purchase in bulk with you, so you can both enjoy a lower price.

Grassroots movements like this have popped up around the world and can lead to bigger change. Cities that have banned plastic straws only did so because of restaurant owners and customers taking action.

Taking these steps to reduce plastic waste in restaurants is crucial, and it can be supported further by educating your customers with in-store signage and social posts.

👉 Takeaway: By showing your commitment to reducing plastic waste, you’ll encourage customers to do the same.

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Reduce energy waste

You may already be conscious of your energy bills—and doing all you can to keep them down—but it’s good to know where your main usage is coming from.

PG&E’s graphs below shows that over half of the electricity used in restaurants is from cooking and refrigeration, two essential components you can’t do without (the same is true for most home energy use). Buying new energy-efficient equipment is the most effective solution, and your local government may offer rebates to help offset the cost.  

Simpler and more cost-effective alternatives that will have an incremental difference to your energy bills and carbon footprint is to install automated lighting and use energy-efficient LED bulbs. Lighting accounts for 6% of CO2 emissions, and a global switch to LED lighting could save 1.4 billion tons of CO2 entering the atmosphere.

Major Electricity Use in Restaurants

It’s a similar story for gas usage, too, with 73% coming from cooking. Whether you’re operating gas or electric fryers and ovens, switching to ENERGY STAR-certified equipment can help you save between $100 and $450 annually.

Major Gas Use in Restaurants

Another plus of ENERGY STAR-certified equipment is the shorter cooking times and higher pound-per-hour production rates, so they can help you run an even tighter ship in more ways than one.

You can also run maintenance tests on your equipment to determine how energy-efficient it is. A simple part change could improve its efficiency and lower your energy bills.  

👉 Takeaway: While buying new equipment may seem expensive at first, lower energy bills and faster cooking times mean it could pay for itself in the long run.

Reduce food waste

Using the leftovers from Friday’s fresh catch in Monday’s seafood chowder is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and perhaps one of the oldest methods of restaurants reducing their carbon footprint—even if the eco-friendly intentions were accidental.

But it’s a great example of how restaurants have always tried to avoid wasting food.

Food waste is a huge problem that doesn’t just boil down to some gone-off produce. There’s a whole supply chain of wasted energy that comes with it. That’s not all, the WWF reports that food waste produces even more waste:  

“When we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. And if food goes to landfill and rots, it produces methane—a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. About 11% of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system could be reduced if we stop wasting food.”

During the COVID-19 lockdown when restaurants were forced to close, there were many heartwarming stories of restaurant owners and communities coming together to help feed the homeless and vulnerable. It was an amazing gesture that shows the kindness of human nature while helping the environment at the same time.

Programs like this are essential to some of the most vulnerable people in society, and there are many local and national food bank charities that can help facilitate your donations.

👉 Takeaway: There are many initiatives you can take advantage of to reduce food waste and feed the hungry that won’t cost you a dime. Search your local area’s food banks and charities to start your food donation drive.

Reduce the carbon footprint of your menu

Just like food waste, the food we eat still leaves the same footprint. Visualizing the carbon footprint of the food supply chain shows just how energy-intensive certain foods are, and which steps cause the biggest spikes in CO2.

While much of it is inevitable, there are many solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of your menu without compromising its quality or value. Start by analyzing your current menu’s profitability, and see which unpopular items you can replace for eco-friendly alternatives.

Get the formula to analyze and create a more profitable menu with our Menu Engineering blog.

Creating a meat-free menu once a week will encourage you to expand your vegetarian menu, which can be shared on your social feed with popular hashtags to reach new audiences. You can reduce your carbon footprint by 8 pounds and save 133 gallons of water for every meat-free meal you serve1.

One step of the supply chain you can control is transportation. Of course, you may run a restaurant that specializes in New Zealand lamb or Argentinian steak and don’t want to change your entire brand—but buying from local farmers and suppliers has its perks:

  • Local suppliers mean fresher ingredients.
  • Less fuel is used to deliver your produce.
  • Greater quality assurance and quality control.
  • You’re supporting the local economy.

Leveraging local suppliers allows you to make unique seasonal menus too. This can open new opportunities such as tasting menu events, and it challenges you to get creative and refresh your menu more frequently. Seasonal menus add exclusivity to restaurants which will encourage first-time customers to come and visit, and entice regulars back to try something new.

Better still—if possible—grow your own fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs. Many restaurants are turning rooftops and patios into mini gardens and becoming even more self-sufficient. Creating your own allotment eliminates all transportation pollution and cost, and turns your restaurant into an eco-friendly experience—a surefire way to boost those Instagram followers.

👉 Takeaway: Bring your suppliers closer to home, and experiment with new vegan/vegetarian dishes. New menus = new customers.

How to cut costs along with your carbon footprint

We can’t discuss all these tips to reduce your restaurant’s carbon footprint without mentioning the single most important aspect of your business: money.

Money talks, and if the cost of going green outweighs the benefit, it’s not going to be worth your while.

But you don’t need to spend hours fretting over calculations, we’ve created the Ultimate Guide to Restaurant Costs. When searching for new suppliers or equipment, make this your go-to guide for restaurant cost formulas spanning food, utilities, labor, and operations.

It will help you understand the difference between costs and expenses—important factors to consider when going through a transition such as reducing your carbon footprint or reworking menus.  

While some expenses may seem high at first, the initial investment will pay for itself in the long run. If we think of the bigger picture it will benefit us all, because greater demand will increase supply and lower costs. Suppliers will push biodegradable over plastic, and there will be an eventual switch in use—much like the electric versus gas vehicle battle happening now.

👉 Takeaway: Balance out new costs by finding ways to reduce old or unnecessary bills and processes.

Ready to make a change?

Now you’re armed with ideas on how to lower your carbon footprint and attract a new customer base, it’s time to start implementing them. Whether it’s with biodegradable cutlery or creating a meatless menu once a week, get your eco-friendly initiatives out there and share it across your social channels for everyone to see.

  1. Reduce (or ban) single use plastics and use biodegradable alternatives.
  2. Consider investing in energy-efficient equipment and LED lighting. It’ll pay for itself in the long run.
  3. Eliminate food waste as much as possible through new menu items and donations to food banks.
  4. Use local suppliers to create seasonal menus, or try a meat-free menu once a week to attract new customers.
  5. Factor in all new costs, and see where you can reduce costs elsewhere to help minimize the outlay.

You’ll soon have new customers walking through your door and a refreshed buzz about your restaurant. Your environmentally-conscious staff will love to see your new ideas and be eager to share them with customers.

What the dip in CO2 levels due to COVID-19 has told us is that we’re in control of greenhouse gasses—and that reversing the damage is possible. It’s up to all of us—individuals, businesses, governments—to be the change we want to see, and make sure it’s lasting change. And the best way to do that is by starting now.

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Liam Hallam
Liam Hallam

Liam is a freelance writer with 5+ yrs experience writing for life & entertainment brands. He loves fine dining but can never say no to gluttonous street food—call him the AA Gill of the street.