The idea of a zero-waste restaurant sounds impossible at first. Many of us can't live a zero-waste lifestyle in our own homes, let alone a commercial kitchen that pumps out hundreds of meals and beverages a day. And it's not just the food waste; think about how many containers and packages arrive weekly through distributors, what it takes to clean a high-traffic restroom every day, and even the simple act of keeping food fresh without plastic wrap.

If it sounds like a daunting challenge, that's because it is. But a few enterprising restaurants around the world are trying to tackle an industry that is infamous for producing so much waste. ReFED, a nonprofit focused on food waste reduction, recently reported that U.S. restaurants generate 11.4 million tons of food waste annually — the full cost of which is about $25 billion. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported similar shocking numbers: Food waste and packaging account for nearly 45% of the materials sent to landfills in the U.S.

When you consider that food costs can represent 28-35% of a restaurant's sales, reducing waste isn't just good for the environment, it's good for business, too. One natural wine bar and restaurant in Brooklyn, Rhodora, has attempted to go completely zero-waste.

The costs of zero-waste

man deposits food scraps into an outside composter The EPA reports that food waste costs the commercial food service industry around $100 billion annually. (Photo: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

“We’re in the business of serving people,” Henry Rich, a co-owner of Rhodora, told The New York Times. “And it feels incongruent to take care of somebody for an evening and try to show them a great time, and then externalize the waste and carbon footprint of that evening onto people.”

The decision to operate without trash pickup was an essential part of the restaurant's opening; the team spent almost 10 months and $50,000 planning and renovating their space to operate differently than a mainstream restaurant. "It's not arcane secret knowledge," Rich explained. "It’s just a couple things that are very specific, and you need to kind of re-engineer how you think about" operating a restaurant.

Their waste-reduction efforts run the gamut from miniscule to all-encompassing: they use beeswax wrap instead of plastic, ask distributors to deliver in reusable plastic bins (by bicycle!), donate wine corks, and, of course, use a commercial composter for any leftover food.

To be sure, this is a painstaking process, and one that seems out of reach for corporate chains and franchise owners. But reducing waste is a win-win for everyone. ReFED announced that the "benefit-to-cost ratio of food waste reduction efforts in the restaurant industry is compelling: for every dollar invested in food waste reduction, restaurants can realize approximately $8 of cost savings." The EPA reports that wasted food costs the commercial food service industry around $100 billion annually.

Reap the benefits

a variety of plant-based bowls and sandwiches In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, local and national restaurants are offering less meat and more plant-based items. (Photo: Ella Olsson [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Additionally, as society grows ever more aware of our changing climate, both customers and employees are taking note of what businesses are putting sustainability first. The National Restaurant Association reported that around half of diners say they are now considering a restaurant's recycling and food waste program when choosing where to eat. ReFED believes this "reputational value" can also encourage employee involvement, retention and job satisfaction.

Of course, when looking at the entire carbon footprint of a restaurant, you should probably start with the menu. It should come as no surprise that Rhodora and west~bourne, another zero-waste restaurant in NYC, do not serve meat (and Rhodora serves tinned fish only). As meat's environmental footprint continues to grow, many restaurants are seeking to reduce their meat offerings. National chain Panera Bread recently announced that in the next few years, they plan to have their menu be 50% plant-based.

"It's more about better for you, and better for the world, and better for the environment, and better for animals," CEO Niren Chaudhary told Business Insider. "I think consumers are recognizing that — mostly the younger consumers, they feel more accountable for that."

Though zero-waste restaurants may seem anything but mainstream right now, it wasn't that long ago that the concept of a vegan burger at a fast-food chain was met with plenty of skepticism. And yet, Vox reports that the number of fast-food chains jumping on the plant-based wagon continues its national rollout: Burger King, McDonald's, KFC and Denny's (just to name a few) have all begun offering plant-based meat burgers the past year.

So while it's still to be determined if the zero-waste concept will be embraced by bigger brands nationally, being an early adopter of some of these practices could give some restaurants a head start. More than 400 cities and states have enacted plastic bag bans or taxes since 2007, and hopefully more environmental protection laws will follow in the future. For now, these few restaurants serve as outliers, innovators — and, hopefully — inspiration.

"We're at one pivot point," Rhodora's Rich says. "The hope is that maybe we can influence and inspire some people above and below to learn what zero waste is, because it's so beautifully simple not having a trash and not sending it to the landfill."

Lindsey Reynolds ( @ ) takes an epicurean and academic approach to foodways, but she also writes about so many other things, including art, psychology and how to live an environmentally responsible life.

Are zero-waste restaurants possible?
The industry itself is set up for massive waste. But a few early adopters are taking on the challenge.