Have you ever thought about what happens to your trash after the waste truck picks it up that one day each week from your curbside or your school campus? Every week in the U.S., households, businesses and institutions produce approximately 4.7 million tons of waste or over 245 million tons per year (1)! How can we manage all this waste to reduce the environmental impact?
Less is Best
Without a doubt, the best way to manage waste is to create less of it by reducing your consumption of energy-intensive manufactured goods. Before you think about the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of your waste (e.g., recycling or composting), consider what you can do to prevent waste. Having less waste to dispose (and in turn conserving resources, reducing pollutants, and saving energy) is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of waste. For example, using fabric tote bags (instead of paper or plastic) to carry your groceries and filling up your own re-usable travel coffee mug (instead of paper cups) at cafés are small ways to create less waste.
Reducing waste doesn’t only pertain to paper and plastic; minimizing food waste is also important because of its impact on climate change. At your café (especially if it has an “all you care to eat” station) take less than what you think you’ll eat and go back for seconds rather than taking too much and wasting leftovers.
There are various methods of waste management and disposal and each system affects the environment differently. There is no one “right answer” because proper waste management depends on many factors, including the availability of municipal facilities and the type of waste material. Below are summaries of common ways our waste is managed.
One of the most traditional disposal practices is taking garbage to a landfill. Historically, landfills used to be nothing more than open pits in the ground that were filled with trash. Needless to say, the resulting odors, air pollutants and flies became a significant problem, which led to the development of “sanitary” landfills. These new landfills are designed to contain water pollutants, for example, but environmental groups argue that they are not really that different than traditional pits (2).
Combusting waste at high temperatures is called incineration. The recent development of “waste-to-energy” facilities not only decreases the amount of waste sent to landfills, but also utilizes the combustion process to produce steam and electricity. However, the benefits of incinerating are highly controversial because the process can pollute the environment with heavy metals and toxic gas emissions such as dioxin (3).
Recycling is the reprocessing of materials such as glass, plastic, paper and metal. Benefits of recycling include reducing the energy and raw materials needed to produce brand new resources as well as reducing the amount of waste for disposal (4). Critics question, though, whether or not the amount of energy consumed in the recycling process (collecting, transporting, processing) makes it worthwhile (5).
In the U.S. today, 32% of our waste is recycled (4). Although this is double the amount recycled 15 years ago, there is still much room for improvement.
Composting is the controlled decomposition of waste materials such as food scraps, plant material and paper products into organic matter. The resulting biodegradable substance can be used as mulch or fertilizer for agricultural or landscaping functions (6).
Composting appropriate materials can significantly benefit the environment by reducing climate change. For example, organic waste such as food scraps and biodegradable disposables that is taken to a landfill emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. However, if these organic wastes are composted properly, they don’t cause emissions. According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, landfills are second only to livestock production in causing methane, greatly contributing to global warming (7).
Although recycling is a great way to manage waste, it still takes energy and other resources to collect, process, and produce recycled materials. Reducing overall waste by using china instead of disposable food containers, for example, is the most environmentally responsible approach.
1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste. Accessed June 2007.
2. Brower, Michael and Leon, Warren. The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Three Rivers Press, New York: 1999.
3. Greenpeace International. Incineration: The Problem. Accessed August 2007.
4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste-Recycling. Accessed August 2007.
5. Tierney, John. “Recycling Is Garbage.” New York Times; June 30, 1996. (article reproduced) Accessed August 2007.
6. Earth 911. Composting. Accessed August 2007.
7. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Accessed June 2007.
Just like our food choices, our selection of to-go containers and disposable serviceware has environmental impacts. At Bon Appétit we try hard to reduce the effects of the production and disposal of the containers used in our locations.
Since 2001 we’ve been beta-testing environmentally-friendly products manufactured by companies such as Earthshell, Biocorp and Natureworks. These companies have developed plates, clamshells, cups, bowls and flatware from renewable sources like corn, sugarcane, and potato starch. Product quality, appearance, availability and price have prevented large scale use thus far. However, several of our cafés across the country are currently using the polylactic acid (PLA) products from Natureworks. Many new options are being developed and we continue to test them. We also continue to ask: How are they made? What material is used? Where are they manufactured? We continue to test additional options and hope to find a viable solution for all our operations in the near future.
What happens after the products are used is crucial as well. We recycle whenever possible and compost at many locations. Our commitment to reduce waste is portrayed in the examples below:
- In Silicon Valley, America Fresh both delivers fresh, local produce to our cafés and picks up compostable material to bring back to the farms
- San Francisco has a city-wide composting plan so our team at AT&T Park can compost much of the waste generated by the ballpark
- In Portland a large corporate account collects kitchen scraps and the chef transports them once a week to the municipal composting facility
- At St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, the school has installed a composter that converts daily food waste into rich fertilizer in as little as 14-21 days.
- In San Jose, CA, Cisco sent over 2.7 million pounds of food waste to the local composting facility this year! They also divert plastics (containers, bags, films, etc.) and other food containers from the landfill.
At Bon Appétit we’re open to trying new things and are always looking for ways to decrease our environmental footprint. Our people are committed to research and experimentation. We are confident that will lead to innovative ways to further reduce, reuse and recycle.