Save money and boost your business while helping the environment

Operating your restaurant with an eye to sustainability can result in measurable bottom line benefits–and have a major environmental impact. Restaurants are heavy energy users and generate a lot of waste. The good news is, many green business practices can be easily implemented. And, local and national green restaurant associations can provide a lot of resources and support to help you on your journey.

Energy and water use

According to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, one third of retail electricity is consumed by restaurants. Cooking equipment, heating and cooling systems, lighting, dishwashers and refrigeration all draw the juice. But buying new energy efficient equipment isn’t the only way to save. Keeping equipment–especially stoves and fryers–clean and maintained can reduce energy use. Reducing idle time and running fans at lower speeds can also save money.

Lighting is an area that can be easily improved. Dimmers and occupancy sensors help prevent waste, and LED exit signs use a fraction of the power needed for standard signs. Compact fluorescent bulbs and T-8 fixtures use far less energy and last longer than incandescent, but they do cost more initially. And compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, which means they can’t be tossed in the trash.

Restaurants use a lot of water, too. Prepping food. Washing dishes. Active restrooms. Low flow is the way to go, whether faucets, rinsers, or toilets.  Common sense practices like washing produce in buckets rather than under flowing water and running full dishwasher loads can help you reduce water use. Large companies are embracing this concept–McDonald’s set a goal of 50% water use reduction through low flow fixtures.

Is your space drafty, hot in some rooms, cold in others? It may not be your windows. The biggest reduction in energy use is often found in improving the cooling and heating system, according to auditors. Often they are not adjusted properly or have the wrong configuration of air returns. If you own the building, an audit may be worthwhile to assess your system.  But even if you rent, you can make small changes to save. System tune-ups, storm doors, reflective window coatings and programmable thermostats can all help you improve comfort while reducing energy consumption.


Restaurants have a big opportunity to improve the environment through use of locally grown and organic food. Organic foods are produced without pesticides, herbicides or genetic modifications. Locally grown food reduces fossil fuel use through shorter transportation distances. Both are said to be more flavorful and nutritious. The organic industry is growing at close to 20% per year and almost a third of consumers increased their organic buying in 2008 over 2007. Even the recession is highlighting the cost benefits of buying close to home, and farmer’s markets are booming. Offering even a few organic or local items on your menu will please your customers. And in Georgia, there is something fresh every month of the year.

Paper goods and carry out containers

The simplest rule for carry out packaging is to minimize the use of plastic containers and use paper and cardboard containers and paper or foil wraps whenever possible. If you need to use plastic containers, choose recyclable ones. Buying paper and plastic with recycled content is another way to be eco-friendly. Biodegradable cups, utensils and containers made of cornstarch, sugar cane and wheat straw are another alternative. Presently more expensive than plastic or paper, they should come down in price as production rises.

Waste disposal

Another area of big potential impact for restaurants is waste disposal. About a quarter of  the waste generated is food, and while some can be donated, most must be thrown away for health reasons. In Georgia, 800,000 tons of food waste is landfilled each year. The Georgia Restaurant Association is taking a leadership role in addressing this waste issue through the Zero Waste Zone (ZWZ) project. ZWZ is a voluntary pledge restaurants take to reduce waste through recycling of grease, using food composting services where available, and recycling other disposals such as paper, glass and cardboard. More information, including a list of composting services, can be found on their website.


A clean restaurant is vital to food safety and customer health, so choosing green cleaning products that are also EPA certified as disinfectants is important. In general, green cleaning products are relatively free of toxic and irritating chemicals–however, few at this point are certified disinfectants. Presently, the EPA is addressing this issue through a pilot program, Design for the Environment. Products approved under the pilot can be found at www.epa.gov/dfe.

Assistance from Georgia Green Loans

Georgia Green Loans provides loans of up to $50,000 to help your business with energy efficiency improvements and loans of up to $35,000 for other green-ovating improvements. Subsidized energy audits are also available for those who are high electricity users, through an application process.


www.georgiagreenloans.org – Georgia Green Loans

www.greenfoodservicealliane.org – Georgia zero waste organization

www,greenrestaurants.org – Guide to greening your restaurant

www.epa.gov/dfe – EPA Design for the Environment program

www.dinegreen.com – Restaurant certification program and guide

http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=small_business.sb_restaurants – Energy Star for Restaurants

Elizabeth Penney