"I don't want a straw, thanks."
"No plastic bag, please."
"Can I have a glass instead of a plastic cup?"
Battling the onslaught of plastic bags and packaging when grocery shopping or considering an Amazon purchase is tiring. But when going out to eat? It's a form of torture. Instead of walking into a restaurant in a relaxed mood, those of us concerned with reducing waste are performing a full-blown scan of the restaurant, alert to the presence of plastic straws, disposable cutlery and dishes. Some of us even bring our own reusable containers to bring home leftovers in an effort to forgo the dreaded styrofoam box.
But what if eco-minded folks (which should be all of us) could walk into our favorite dining establishment, sink into our seats and breathe a deep sigh of relief — because we knew food waste was being composted, the recyclables were actually being recycled and the takeout packaging was environmentally friendly?
With the recent expansion of of Denver's citywide composting program and businesses like pedal-powered Scraps filling in the gaps, excuses for a business forgoing an attempt at waste reduction are running thin. But China recently quit taking our recycling, so what's a local business or restaurant to do? Enter RootShyft, a company founded to respond to "consumer-driven demands for more corporate accountability," by helping the hospitality industry shift its daily business practices to a more sustainable model.
Beth Birchfield, director of strategic innovations at RootShyft, offers some pretty distressing statistics. For starters, the average restaurant creates 100,000 pounds of waste every year. "By far the biggest culprit of waste in restaurants is food waste," she says. "In our experience, we consistently see over 50 percent of the waste stream in restaurants is food waste that can be composted. There is also a significant amount of plastic and glass used daily in restaurants that typically ends up in the landfill. There is no requirement for recycling and composting in the food service industry in Colorado."
The fact that Americans throw away so much food has consequences beyond being wasteful. "As a whole, 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes to waste, and 90 percent of that food waste ends up in a landfill," Birchfield adds. "When food goes into a landfill, it produces methane gas, which is 23 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It also takes organic waste a long time to break down in the landfill. As an example: It takes a head of lettuce up to 25 years to break down in the landfill, as opposed to a couple of weeks in a compost bin."
To address these issues, RootShyft performs an audit of the restaurant looking for the company's expertise. RootShyft doesn't just address food waste; it takes recycling, energy efficiency and communications into consideration as well. "We currently work with some of Denver’s best restaurants, including Guard and Grace, Urban Farmer and Barolo Grill, helping them improve their triple bottom line — profit, planet, people — using a multi-faceted approach," Birchfield explains.
After successes with these restaurants, RootShyft is embarking on its "Larimer Square Project," which is focused on the heart of Denver's downtown restaurant scene.
"We’ve partnered with Urban Villages, the property manager of Larimer Square, to strategize on how to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of Larimer Square with a 'Shyft to Green' initiative," the director notes. "We are starting with a pilot program of four to five restaurants. TAG has already started its transition, [to be] followed soon by Euclid Hall, Ted’s Montana Grill, Bistro Vendôme, Russell’s Smokehouse and Green Russell, and possibly Rioja, as well."
While the Larimer Square Project seems ambitious, RootShyft has the data to prove it can work. "In our case study for Urban Farmer, we diverted 83 percent of their waste in the first year, which is about 170 tons of waste, or the CO2 equivalent of more than 11,000 trees," Birchfield points out. "Our conservative projection for Larimer Square in the first year, with all restaurants participating, will be 1,200 tons of diverted waste and the CO2 equivalent of 78,000 trees."
As for the cost benefit, Birchfield says businesses will see a return on their investment within the first year, pointing to a study of 114 restaurants across twelve countries that claimed restaurants gained $7 in return for every dollar spent cutting food waste. "It’s really a win-win for the hospitality industry," she says. "The biggest challenge they tend to face in switching to these programs is just the logistical implementation and the behavior change management, which is where we come in."
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Probably the most surprising change RootShyft has documented is the employee morale boost and better retention rate business can expect with making sustainable changes. "All businesses are concerned with employee turnover; this is especially important in the restaurant industry," Birchfield notes. "In general, 40 percent of labor costs are due to turnover. Responsibility programs can reduce turnover 25 to 50 percent. We've documented that morale was 55 percent better in companies with strong sustainability programs. We also saw a 16 percent increase in productivity."
If it all sounds too good to be true, consider the study that found that some millennials would take a pay cut to work at an environmentally responsible company. With an ever-growing consciousness of climate change and the plastic pollution problem, RootShyft has found quite the niche — and limitless business potential — in Denver's growing restaurant scene, and in Denver's growth in general.
Birchfield also has tips for actions consumers can take (aside from mentioning RootShyft to their favorite restaurant). "Restaurants are always looking for ways to create customer loyalty in this highly competitive market," she says. "They need to know their consumers care: 66 percent of global diners and 73 percent of millennials are willing to spend more money on sustainable goods, which translates to dining choices, as well. Asking to speak to a manager can have a huge impact. Ask if they recycle or compost. Ask if they still use straws and non-compostable to-go containers. Tell them it’s important to you. If you see a restaurant doing the right thing, tell a manager that you care."