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Restaurant Waste Management

According to a recent EPA study, restaurants account for 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste annually. Understandably, eliminating all of this waste will be next to impossible, but steps can be taken to reduce it and manage it better. Without having a system in place to handle waste, all of that discarded food will end up in a landfill which accounts for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond the direct environmental impact, unused food is an unnecessary expense and lost revenue potential. Restaurants typically operate on very thin profit margins and having to throw food away before it can even help make you money is counter-productive. Here are several ways to reduce waste and improve inventory management within your restaurant.

The Biggest Contributors to Restaurant Waste

Restaurant waste can be broken down into two categories:

  • Pre-point-of-sale waste”, before and while food is prepared
  • Post-point-of-sale waste”, after the food is served

Food waste that occurs before the point of sale typically comes from inventory going bad and food discarded during preparation. Packaging and containers from product deliveries are another big source of restaurant waste.

Controlling food waste after serving it entails proper disposal of leftover food and utilizing eco-friendly packaging for leftover and take-out food. Take-out packaging accounts for a fair portion of waste that can be allocated to restaurants. While you can’t determine what guests do with their leftovers once they leave, you can provide to-go boxes made from sustainable materials that are compostable, biodegradable, or made from post-consumer recycled content.

Challenges with Restaurant Waste Management

Key challenges to implementing a waste reduction program fall into four areas: inventory management, recycling, composting and employee culture.

Inventory management

Without regularly scheduled inventory checks to monitor the amount of perishable goods in stock, restaurants will be left with spoiled products.  Poor monitoring of buying trends and selling trends also leads to waste.

Employee culture

Creating a green culture involving all members of the staff, from chef to dishwasher, is not always easy. Without the head manager or owner setting goals, leading by example, and enforcing policies, there is no team ambition or incentive for staff members to adopt sustainable practices.


Poor or misinformed recycling policies and habits are an issue in many restaurants. Making recycling a priority can be difficult when employees’ time is stretched thin and only focused on tasks that directly drive sales and profits.


Composting also poses a challenge to restaurants. Due to the extra time and effort required to maintain healthy compost, the practice tends to not be a priority for many restaurant owners. However, establishing an efficient and effective composting program is arguably the most important portion of a restaurant’s waste management program.

Inventory Management Solutions to Restaurant Waste

As a manager or owner, counting inventory is a tedious yet necessary part of running a successful restaurant. Closely monitoring and routinely recording your inventory gives you a detailed look at where food waste comes from and how these inefficiencies can be avoided. Additionally, it should be the responsibility of the staff, both front of house and back of house, to keep running tabs on any food waste that occurs during daily hours of operation. Understanding exactly how and why food waste losses occur will allow you to plan waste reduction initiatives more confidently and lower waste-related costs.

How A Green Culture Supports Goal Attainment

Creating an eco-conscious culture within your restaurant and establishing policies to guide your employees’ waste habits will be a key to achieving your green goals. Clearly communicating waste management policies and empowering employees to be good environmental stewards will set the tone of your green culture and drive success.

Further, a successful green culture requires active guidance and engagement from the head manager or owner. This is a critical opportunity for leaders to lead the charge and encourage their colleagues and employees to follow.

Not only does a green business culture increase employee engagement and support goal attainment, it can also attract potential new hires, partners, and customers to your business. Studies have shown that Millennials and Gen Z feel strongly about world issues and are highly motivated to support organizations committed to sustainability. Consumers in general are looking to support local businesses that have a commitment to sustainability and the issues they care about. Promoting a green culture is a sure way to stand out within the market.

Restaurant Recycling

Optimizing recycling efforts through proper handling of packaging, single-use containers, and other materials is an important and simple way to reduce your carbon footprint. However, it’s critical to create a recycling procedure that does not hinder the fast-paced restaurant environment. Through thoughtful planning and placing recycling bins conveniently around the restaurant, staff can easily sort recycling while keeping the business running smoothly.

Coordinating with your suppliers to have produce delivered in less packaging and switching to eco-friendly packaging alternatives are other ways to reduce your non-recyclable waste. Don’t forget that contacting your local recycling facility to confirm which materials are accepted is a simple and necessary step to ensure you are following proper recycling practices. Implementing an effective recycling procedure will help reduce your restaurant’s waste and process it appropriately.

Composting Solutions

While composting continues to gain popularity worldwide, this microorganism-driven method of waste management may still seem foreign or impractical to some restaurant owners. However, it is a tried and true way to eliminate food waste-to-landfill. New modern equipment makes it both practical and cost effective to compost food waste on site. Composting solutions and equipment take the task of responsibly discarding food waste and make it easy to implement in your restaurants and there are many different approaches restaurants can take to composting.

One step in the process of developing a composting program for your restaurant is to decide on the best location on your property to install a composting station. If you don’t have adequate space or a suitable climate to compost naturally outdoors, solutions exist to process food waste indoors. Like composting, biodigesters also utilize the power of microorganisms to break down organic waste into useful byproducts and help to reduce your carbon footprint.

Executive Summary

Adopting these practices and educating yourself further on sustainable waste management are powerful steps towards becoming a successful green business and lowering your overall carbon footprint. Here are some take-aways to keep in mind as you begin to evaluate your waste management practices:

  • Routinely monitoring and recording inventory is essential to identifying sources of waste and how to eliminate them.
  • Creating a green culture and leading by example are key to engaging employees to follow green practices and attracting new hires, partners, and customers.
  • It is possible to actively recycle while maintaining convenience for the fast-paced restaurant industry.
  • Composting and biodigesters are ambitious ways to prevent food waste from entering landfills and reduce the associated emissions.

These practices can help manage and reduce restaurant waste but they still require a sustainability plan, policy enforcement, upper management leadership and company-wide engagement in order to be successful.

About the Author

Travers Schelleng

GBB Green Ambassador

Travers Schelleng is a content writer for Green Business Bureau who is looking to actively promote sustainability within the foodservice industry. With over a decade of restaurant expertise, he is currently working to help small businesses get a foothold in sustainability initiatives. Outside of work, Travers is passionate about music, film, and cooking.

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