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Waste Is Up as Restaurants Struggle With Takeout Packaging and PPE

Sporks and other plasticware are hard to eat with and hard to get rid of.
Sporks and other plasticware are hard to eat with and hard to get rid of.
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Chef Paul C. Reilly is the co-owner of Beast + Bottle and Coperta as well as a member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition's leadership group. On westword.com, Reilly will be sharing his thoughts regularly on the restaurant industry, and sharing information on local, seasonal ingredients to enhance your home cooking with tips and recipes.

Several years ago, the American restaurant industry began to finally pay close attention to food waste and its massive repercussions within our food system, especially after statistics came out showing that more than 45 percent of food grown domestically ends up in the trash. Almost overnight, this became the new national trend: What were you doing to combat this issue in your own kitchen? There was even chatter of a “food waste revolution,” with new restaurant concepts opening based solely on diverting their losses, composting and feeding runoff to local livestock ranches.

Within my own kitchens, I was being asked by media to come up with new recipes made from waste — and some were quite tasty, such as octopus-head Bolognese and asparagus-stem vichyssoise.

But even before the trend became news, most of my kitchen peers were already doing their part, because it is in a chef’s nature to avoid waste at all costs. It's even arguable that a chef’s position depends entirely on the balance of waste and purchasing, two primary factors involved in calculating food cost. Classic European cuisine has createdsome seminal dishes based on using waste: lobster bisque, a soup made from using previously cooked lobster shells and cheap rice, for example, and remouillage, a second-use, weaker-flavored veal stock made from expensive femur bones to squeeze out every last bit of meaty goodness.

Producing multiple creations from a single ingredient is in a chef’s DNA; it is one of the most fun parts of our jobs, and if you're not paying close attention to getting the most out of every ingredient, your career with a chef title is more than likely waning.

Takeout packaging and PPE have become a standard part of nearly every restaurant's inventory.EXPAND
Takeout packaging and PPE have become a standard part of nearly every restaurant's inventory.
Courtesy of the Lobby/Facebook

Restaurants rose to the challenge and found ways to champion this issue, but soon consumers were moving on, captivated by other new trends. Still, the issue of food waste in our country remains. And a new kind of waste has arisen over the past year, as the food-service industry has had to adapt to new COVID-based health and safety measures.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been thrust upon restaurants to help counter the pandemic. While necessary to carry out our duties in the safest, most sanitary fashion, PPE cost and waste are poised to have major implications on the already ravaged industry. For a daily service, PPE can include masks, face shields, latex gloves, hand sanitizer and hundreds upon hundreds of paper towels. While businesses are getting help with their PPE purchases through government programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, the CARES Act and provisions in the new American Rescue Plan, the reality is that most of these products end up in the landfill after one use.

Since so many restaurants have adopted more robust to-go programs, nearly all of their disposable carry-out products also end up as single-use. Neither of my restaurants had consistent to-go or delivery business before the pandemic hit, but suddenly we were purchasing not just the typical containers for leftovers, but five or six different sizes beyond what we'd previously used, based on what customers value most: temperature, freshness and presentation. We were now forced to stock items never before in our inventory, such as drink carriers, multiple sizes of disposable ramekins and carry-out bags. Worst of all are plastic forks, spoons and knives, which are hard to find in recyclable or compostable form — at least if you want them to carry out their duty of transporting food to your mouth. And unlike PPE, government programs do not cover this increased need for paper and plastic products.

When you dine out at a restaurant, your plates, glasses and silverware are washed and sanitized by the restaurant’s unsung heroes, the dishwashers, then promptly reused again and again. To try and re-create a restaurant-quality meal at home, we are forced to deconstruct every menu item as much as possible and pack everything into as many as a half-dozen plastic and paper containers per dish.

One shining light for my businesses this year was the success of finish-at-home brunch “kits.” My team and I were so proud of the menus we created for these events, but privately I shuddered every weekend thinking of the excessive paper waste essential for finalizing the meal at home for just four guests. Week in and week out, I was convinced someone would call us out on this, and not order a second or third time.

A restaurant’s success is emphatically tied to a chef’s ability to battle potential waste and get creative with ingredient trim and loss. More than likely, takeout and delivery programs are here to stay. This could potentially mean that restaurants, through no fault of their own, become the waste generators that supermarkets and grocery stores already are.

The combination of PPE and takeout-container waste now has the same connection to a restaurant that food waste has had for years, and operators are being held accountable for this increase in our landfills just to survive. Coming up with creative solutions to reducing waste is just one more element of a chef's job during an already taxing time.

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