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  • Writer's pictureThe Climate Coach

Does eating out at restaurants create excess waste?

Most people have at least a few meals out - either at cafe, restaurant or takeaway, and most of you have probably also seen the big waste bins outside. Is that just everyones leftovers and packaging or do they actually generate a lot of waste?

I went for a meal out for the first time in a while recently. It was a themed night at a local fully plant based restaurant and they put on 10 tables of 2 and everyone had the same set menu. The tables were all booked for 7pm so they served each of the five courses at the same time across each of the tables. It was actually one of the best meals out I've ever had - every dish was delicious and we didn't leave a single thing on our plates throughout - I'm pretty sure no-one else did either. But what struck me most about the whole meal was how low the environmental impact of the whole night was... I know what you are thinking, what a weird thing to think during a nice meal out. I'm fun on a night out, I promise.

Let me explain...

Obviously I care about climate and I'm always trying to learn more about the impact of the things I see and do. Most restaurants offer a broad and varied menu - and from experience, there is always quite a bit of waste no matter how well managed it is (the same way there is in a shop that offers a large range like a supermarket - where from experience, managing waste is really tough). For example, if a restaurant offers 40 different mains - but over a week of trading, no-one orders 2 of those 40 dishes, any fresh ingredients that are only used for those dishes will likely end up going to waste - this is obviously a generalisation but you get the idea. It's the same reason you'll see items reduced in a supermarket - to try and avoid them going to waste because they haven't sold. In restaurants, "Specials" are sometimes put on to avoid fresh ingredients going to waste! And yes there are schemes that exist to donate excess food to food banks and other charities but ultimately - it's still waste, it's just being handled in a better way.

Then, there is also the consideration of what types of foods are on the menu. We know from most research to date that in general, plant based products have significantly lower emissions than animal products. Big restaurant chains also tend to buy their products from a wholesale supplier - which for animal products tends to mean utilising industrial agriculture which has the highest emissions from within the high emission animal products. Again - I'm not saying this is the case for all but it is definitely the case for the majority. Obviously smaller local restaurants often try and utilise local suppliers - which may indeed have lower emission animal products because of the way they are produced (e.g. not large scale industrial agriculture). Either way - from what I can see and have learnt to date, a plant based restaurant will by default naturally have lower emissions than a restaurant serving animal products - even before taking into account any other factors. It's something I think they should shout about a bit more to be honest, as consumers become more aware of their climate impact.

Ok, we get it - weren't you talking about your meal out?

Give me a chance! So not only was it a plant based menu (so it had much lower emissions because of that alone), but the fact they offered a set menu for the evening and had pre-booked tables only meant that they supplied exactly the right amount of food. The chef prepared and cooked each course based on the number of people in the restaurant because everyone was having the same and each course was cooked in bulk at the same time. This meant that in terms of energy consumption - it was as efficient as it could be vs cooking each course separately through the evening depending on when each table was ready. There was also no gas usage with the kitchen being fully electric. So in summary, not only was it a very efficient use of energy but there was zero waste and zero emissions (although of course there could have still been emissions from the electricity used). But for anyone who has worked in a restaurant - you'll know how significant that is.

What can we learn from this then?

The restaurant I went to isn't the norm. For one thing because it's a plant based restaurant - although they are definitely rapidly increasing in number, but secondly for the way they manage themselves to actively try and reduce their emissions as much as possible. I would love to see more restaurants thinking more about their climate impact by doing the following:

  • Minimising waste (both in terms of their menu, but also how they manage their food)

  • Offering more plant based options - this will also help with the above naturally

  • Advertising the emissions of their menu allowing customers to make informed choices

None of the above has to negatively impact the customer experience - but all of it will have a really positive impact on climate. Serving plant based options in restaurants gives people a really easy way to reduce their meat consumption without having to learn to cook new recipes - and it will also potentially allow them to try some new foods they haven't had before. It also caters for the rapidly growing number of people following a plant based diet and/or trying to reduce their emissions from food. For now, I'll be actively supporting restaurants like the one I visited and talked about in this post, and choosing this type of restaurant wherever possible over other places who I think have a high carbon footprint.

If you have any thoughts, feedback or ideas you wish to contribute on this or any other topic covered by The Climate Coach - please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

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