Green Restaurants

Here’s another one of my “Growing Greener” columns in Public Garden, the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. This one appeared in Vol. 25 No. 2 (2010). In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: I’ve heard that it’s possible to have our restaurant certified “green.” Is this true, and if so, what does it entail?

A: Missouri Botanical Garden’s restaurant Sassafras and Phipps Conservatory’s Café Phipps have joined the ranks of top-rated American restaurants that have been certified by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), and for good reason. It’s a little known fact that restaurants consume vast amounts of water and energy and generate an astonishing amount of solid waste and pollution each year.

Some statistics to chew on:

• A restaurant can easily generate 50,000 to 100,000 pounds of garbage a year, 95 percent of which could be recycled or composted.

• On average, restaurants consume 300,000 gallons of water annually.

• Just one piece of restaurant equipment, the ice machine, can consume more water annually than an entire household.

• The restaurant business uses five times more energy than other retail, office, or lodging industries.

And when you also consider that Americans spend more than half of their food dollars on meals prepared outside of the home, as well as the growing number of restaurants established to serve them, the environmental impacts really pile up.

For the past two decades the Green Restaurant Association, a national nonprofit organization, has been providing a convenient and cost-effective way for restaurants to become more environmentally responsible. Three types of certification are possible through the GRA—for existing restaurants, for new builds, and for special events. To qualify for certification, existing restaurants must accumulate a minimum of 100 points in seven categories: Water Efficiency, Waste Reduction and Recycling, Energy, Disposables, Chemical and Pollution Reduction, Sustainable Food, and Sustainable Furnishings and Building Materials. According to the GRA, there are a lot of little things that can be done to achieve points in these categories that don’t cost a lot but can make a big difference—and can even save money. In the Water category, for example, adding low-flow spray valves and aerators garners 5.75 points toward certification, and adding low-flow faucet aerators that use only 0.5 gallons of water per minute to hand sinks achieves an additional 3 points. For a total investment of only a couple of hundred dollars, making these simple changes can conserve some 263,000 gallons of water a year, while water bills can be slashed by about $5,000.

To be certified green, restaurants must accumulate at least 10 points in each of the seven categories, and there are a few prerequisites. For example, the operation must have a full-scale recycling program, and the use of polystyrene foam (also known as styrofoam) is prohibited. To maintain certification, each year a restaurant must increase its number of points by 10, until year nine and thereafter, when only 5 additional points are required. Three levels of GRA certification are possible: Two-star certified restaurants have accumulated at least 100 points; three-star certified operations have a minimum of 175 points; and four-star restaurants are trailblazers that have achieved 300 points or more.

According to Vice President for Sustainability Deborah Frank, when Missouri Botanical Garden was looking to green their restaurant a few years ago, it became clear that they and their caterer needed a “common language” about which products and practices would truly move them toward sustainability. One of the big benefits of the GRA certification framework is that it fulfilled this need, helping the Garden to make “measured and manageable improvements.” Frank also appreciates the fact that the GRA certification program is an ongoing process. Because you must continue to accumulate points to maintain certification, “it keeps you moving forward.”

After a process of information gathering, feedback from the GRA, and implementation, which took about six months, Missouri’s restaurant was certified green in 2008. “The cost has been fairly minimal,” Frank says. By encouraging Sassafras to take actions that save water and energy and reduce solid waste, certification is indeed saving money, although some steps, such as using 100 percent recycled paper products, have entailed a somewhat higher cost than the conventional choices. Frank points out that it is possible to “ease into” the certification process financially, beginning with the small steps and making the more capital-intensive improvements such as replacing equipment with more energy and water efficient models later, as necessary.

Kelly Ogrodnik, Sustainable Design and Program Manager at Phipps, says the certification process took them only about a month. “We really wanted to speed it up,” she says, “because we wanted to be certified in time for the G-20 meeting” that was held at Phipps last September. According to Ogrodnik, “The process was nicely streamlined—very simple,” and the GRA certification consultant who was assigned to Phipps was very helpful at guiding them through the process. She predicts that green restaurant certification will become as well known as the LEED rating system for sustainable buildings.

Both Phipps and Missouri Botanical Garden are happy with the public’s response to the program. “The PR aspect of this has been a good investment,” says Missouri’s Deborah Frank. The Garden publicizes the fact that they are the first certified green restaurant in Missouri, and visitors have responded enthusiastically. “They even make suggestions about other steps we can take!”

For more information on the Green Restaurant Association, how to get certified, and access to the organization’s database of environmentally preferable restaurant products, from aerators and cleaning chemicals to take-out packaging, plates, and bowls, see the GRA website.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.