Ask for a Doggie Bag: Restaurant Waste Implicated in Climate Change

Yes, even your food scraps have now been linked to the rise in global temperatures.

More than half of this uneaten meal is headed for the trash. (Photo: artparadigm/Getty Images)

Nov 27, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When it comes to raising our collective eco-consciousness, is it us, or is the sticky issue of food waste shaping up to be the next big thing on the horizon?

First came a startling report that showed Americans throw away a nauseating 40 percent of the food in the U.S. every year, which translates to about $165 billion in the dumpster. And it turns out that 15 percent of all the food that ends up in landfills comes from restaurants, according to NPR.

It’s true when you think about it: Even those of us who dutifully rinse out our orange juice containers and would never dream of tossing our newspapers into the garbage don’t give a second thought to scraping our old leftovers into the kitchen trash can.

And there may be no place where that’s more true than in the restaurant industry.

"It's just another thing we're used to as a restaurant professional...the amount of garbage that's thrown out on a nightly basis," one New York City chef tells NPR. "It can be a little staggering, I guess, but that's just what happens."

It’s not like all that waste is just happening back in the kitchen.

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, tells NPR: "There's about a half-pound of food waste created per meal served. That's taking into account both back- and front-of-the-house waste. So restaurants and the customers are both joining forces to waste a whole lot of food."

So are all these rotting table scraps really a problem, or is it just another thing for environmentalists to fret about? According to the EPA, food waste is now the number one material to end up in landfills. Part of that has to do with the success of other recycling programs nationwide: We now recycle upwards of 34 percent of our municipal waste in America (again, according to EPA stats), which includes newspapers (71 percent), yard waste (57 percent), aluminum cans (49 percent) and PET plastic (29 percent).

In other words, as we’ve decreased the amount of grass clipping and beers cans that go to the dump, the amount of food waste that ends up there has grown proportionally larger.

But the real issue is what happens to all that food once it’s trashed. It rots, of course—fast. Natural, right? Well, yes, but it also generates a lot of methane, which as a contributor to global warming, is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to NPR.

Betcha never thought that the old takeout container of stir-fried rice you just pitched could be linked to climate change, did ya?

Chris Moyer of the National Restaurant Association tried a neat trick when he was manager of a big chain restaurant: He took the garbage can out of the kitchen, all in an effort to demonstrate to his staff how much food they were wasting.

“You’d be surprised, once you take away the garbage cans, if people have to ask permission to throw something away how little you throw away,” he tells NPR. “It was really quite amazing.”

Hmmm…wonder if we could live without our trash cans for a day?