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Insights on Better Dining Out and Food Wastefrom a Restaurant Insider by Dan Rosenthal

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

I’ve been in the restaurant business for more than 50 years now. Ten or so years ago, I started to make my seven restaurants in Chicago more environmentally sustainable. Here are a few of the more interesting things I’ve learned about sustainable restaurant dining in the hope that it may help you make better choices when you decide to eat out. Those compostable cold cups, lids and straws you’re getting at restaurants probably aren’t helping the environment at all. Plastics are divided into seven numbered categories, each of which is based on the chemical makeup of the plastic in that category. These are the numbers you find in the “chasing arrow” triangles stamped on the bottom of most disposables.

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Those plastic-like compostable knives, forks, spoons, cold cups, lids and straws are made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is generally produced from corn. (Is there anything that can’t be made from corn?) These fall into the #7 category, which is OTHER. That’s the catch-all category. The good news about PLA is that it IS compostable. The bad news is that it will only compost in a commercial composting facility that closely monitors the carbon/nitrogen levels of the pile to ensure the optimal environment for decomposition.

At present, there are commercial composting centers operating in only 20 states across the US, mostly on the east and west coasts. (Luckily, there are a few of these centers in the Bay Area.) So, what happens to that clear compostable cold cup, lid and straw you get at your favorite local restaurant? It most likely ends up being thrown away in the trash. Off it goes to the landfill where it can’t decompose. What happens when you put it in with your recyclables? Well, unless your recycling center has the up-to-date infrared technology to identify and sort PLA, it either contaminates other recyclables or gets mixed in the rest of the #7 stuff and may well go to the landfill.

So, at the end of the day, buying and using these expensive compostable disposables is very likely a waste of money and it is also not helping the environment. Until waste technology improves, we feel that it’s better for the environment to use recyclable cold cups, particularly #1 and #3, for which there appears to be a viable market for reuse. I realize this decision is debatable, but I’ve seen no life-cycle analyses comparing compostable vs. recyclable service ware that would give us a definitive answer. The solution will only come with mandated commercial composting.

What you can do to help?

  1. Never EVER buy or use a product made from #6 polystyrene. That includes all STYROFOAM. Why? Of all the plastics out there, this one will never degrade. According to the EPA, it could take more than one million years for the millions of tons of polystyrene made each year to degrade. As a result, polystyrene waste is found literally everywhere on the planet. If your favorite restaurant is using this stuff, tell them to please stop. Now. And then vote with your dollars and don’t go there again. 

  2. Ask your restaurant management about their recycling program. If they’re using compostables, ask them what they do with them. My guess is you’ll be amazed at the misinformation you’ll get.

  3. Before you buy and use compostable disposables, check with your waste hauler to see if they have a commercial composting facility that will break down disposables made from PLA. Check the website below to see if one is near you. Be sure to ask what they do with PLA. Visit the site if they give tours. You'll find it highly educational!

  4. Petition your local government to award waste hauling contracts only to those firms that have access to state-of-the-art recycling and commercial composting facilities.

  5. Whenever possible, use reusable china and glass. That means, don’t order your food “to go” if you’re dining in at a fast-casual restaurant. If you anticipate needing a to-go container at the end of your meal, bring a reusable one from home with you. Conscientious fast-casual restaurants have a reusable service-ware program for guests who dine in. 

  6. Throw that Starbucks hot cup (and the other 60 billion consumed in the US each year) in the trash. It’s not recyclable (yet); even though it’s primarily cardboard, it’s got a plastic film liner on the inside to keep it from leaking. No good for recycling. Better yet, bring your own reusable cup!

Now on to the issue of food waste...

What's the problem with food waste? Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve likely already heard a hundred times that in this great country of ours, around 40% of all the food grown here is never eaten. It’s either lost in the growing, transporting and production process (this is called food LOSS) or it is not consumed after it gets to the grocery store, restaurant or to your home (this is called food WASTE). The two combined are often referred to simply as FOOD WASTE.

When you add up all the other waste associated with this tragedy: in land, fertilizers, labor, water, fuel and such, we’re talking about a whopping cost to the US economy that’s on the order of $218 BILLION a year! That’s no small potatoes! (Sorry.)

Who's to blame? When you look at the problem in terms of pounds of food wasted, the culprits become pretty clearly defined. ReFED estimates that nearly 62 million tons of food was wasted in the US alone in 2015. Where did that waste come from?

Image by Andrew Schlesinger, information courtesy of REFED.

This chart shows that nearly 70% of all the food wasted in this country comes from just two sources. The first and biggest source—at 43%—is households, end consumers like you and me. The second largest source of food waste—at 26%—is all food-service operations, which includes both institutional and food-service and restaurants. My restaurants, of course, are in that group.

Is there a solution? There is. Below is a list of some things that my restaurants and the rest of us as household users can do to reduce waste and better enable us to meet tomorrow’s challenge of feeding the world’s exploding population.

What can restaurants do? In our restaurants, we’ve been working like crazy for the last decade to reduce waste—not only related to food, but with water, with energy and packaging as well. Here are some of the things we have done to reduce food waste.

  • We conduct regular audits of both pre-consumer waste (what goes in our garbage BEFORE it gets to the guest) and post-consumer waste. This means that we actually sort through the garbage cans to see what we’re wasting in the preparation phase and how much is coming back from the guests after eating. As a result of these audits, we’ve been able to:

  1. Reduce over-production

  2. Better utilize raw product

  3. Reduce over-ordering

  4. Adjust portion sizes

  • We donate wholesome leftovers to food pantries. (It’s worth noting that as we have become more efficient at reducing waste, the size of our donations to food pantries has declined.)

  • We make half orders available on most entrée and sandwich items.

  • We encourage diners to take uneaten food home with them.

  • We try to keep as little food on hand as possible and have more frequent deliveries.

  • We have reduced the number of items we have on our menus to eliminate weak sellers.

  • We have implemented composting programs so that unused food scraps stay out of the landfill.

What can home consumers do?

  • Shop wisely by planning meals, using shopping lists and purchasing accurate quantities.

  • Never shop for food when you are hungry.

  • When buying proteins, 5-6 oz. of any raw boneless product is plenty for one person.

  • Beware of impulse buying, particularly at farmers' markets.

  • Buy from the bulk section at the grocery store to get as close to the exact amounts needed for your recipe.

  • Interpret date labels as estimates of top quality rather than end dates for safety. Misinterpreting the words “best by” “use by” and “use before” is one of the most significant causes of food waste. These terms are suggested guidelines by the manufacturer, indicating that peak flavor begins to decline after the date shown. Many of these products are still safe to eat. See this US Department of Agriculture site for more specific information.

  • Take uneaten food home from restaurants, no matter how upscale the restaurant is. 

  • Prepare appropriate amounts of food and save leftovers.

  • Freeze food before it spoils, including milk, cheese, eggs and meat:

  1. Milk: Make sure the container is large enough to allow for expansion.

  2. Eggs: Freeze whites and yolks separately. 

  3. Cheese: You can freeze cheese successfully if you are planning to use it for cooking purposes. Frozen cheese will remain safe to consume, but it will typically change texture and often become crumbly once thawed (according to the National Dairy Council).

  • Declutter the kitchen and refrigerator so that items do not get lost. Place foods that may spoil sooner toward the front of the refrigerator, in full view.

  • Share extra food with family, friends or neighbors through leftover swaps, “share tables” or apps that facilitate exchange.

  • Visit for many more great suggestions.

  • Sign up here to join in the Great Food Waste Challenge 2019. 


Dan Rosenthal

Dan Rosenthal has been in the restaurant business for more than 50 years and is president of the Rosenthal Group of six restaurants in Chicago, which includes Trattoria No. 10 and 5 Sopraffina Marketcaffès. He is also the founder of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition. All of his restaurants have been independently certified as sustainable by Green Seal, the nation’s preeminent certifying body for environmentally friendly products and services. His restaurants serve more than 30,000 meals a week and purchase more than 600,000 pounds of animal proteins a year, every ounce of which has been certifiably raised without antibiotics. Dan has been a frequent speaker on sustainability issues before groups such as the National Restaurant Association, the State of the Plate Summit, Chef’s Collaborative and the Chicago Good Food Festival. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Lin.

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