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Lesley Lammers headshot

Survey Shows Most Restaurants Recycle & Consumers Dig It

By Lesley Lammers

A survey conducted in March and April 2011 by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) with support of Georgia-Pacific Professional was recently released, assessing restaurant recycling habits and consumer demand for and perception of restaurant recycling programs. The resulting report entitled Recycling for All the Right Returns:  Meeting Demands of Consumers, Nature – and Restaurants’ Bottom Lines surveyed 500 U.S. restaurants and 1,100 consumers, using a sample of consumers and restaurant owners and operators that was nationally representative.

Not surprisingly, 60 percent of consumers prefer to patronize restaurants that recycle, and 51 percent even said that they would pay extra – a median of ten percent more -- to eat at restaurants that recycle.  To add even more incentive for restaurants thinking of turning a darker shade of green, 85 percent of patrons stated they were willing to sort quick service recycling items into the proper bins if made available. Chris Moyer, NRA’s Director of Conserve Solutions for Sustainability, recently told GreenBiz, "Patrons want to go to these places that recycle.  I can't put a dollar sign on that goodwill, but there is a value there."

Okay, so it’s kind of a no-brainer that patrons might want to eat at restaurants that are trying to do right by the environment as opposed to those that aren't, but how many restaurants are actually meeting this demand?  It turns out 65 percent of restaurants have active recycling programs, with over three out of five recycling paper, cardboard, glass and other items.  While there is still a long way to go, composting advocates might be encouraged to find out that 13 percent of restaurants compost organic food waste.  Moyer commented on this growing trend, "What's encouraging about it is that it's something that's gaining momentum.  If you would have asked that question five years ago, they would have said, 'What is composting?'"

The survey also tracked restaurant operators’ purchasing habits of recycled and compostable products. The results reveal 72 percent of restaurants buy products made with recycled materials and only 30 percent buy compostable products.  Over 70 percent of restaurants said the cost of business stayed steady as a result of purchasing recycled material, and adversely 18 percent claimed that costs had increased.  This statistic illustrates that for the majority of restaurants, using recycled products will improve their financial bottom line (oh, and let's not forget to mention the positive impact recycling has on 3p’s two other bottom lines: people and planet).

City infrastructure is often cited as a major obstacle to restaurants adopting a recycling initiative. Recycling infrastructure isn’t quite as advanced in other cities as it is in San Francisco, for example, which has a composting law for businesses and gives restaurants a discount on garbage collection fees if they recycle. The survey shows that recycling infrastructure differs depending on region, with the Northeast reigning supreme at 80 percent, the West 70 percent, the Midwest 63 percent and the South lagging behind at 46 percent.  One can only hope that with rising consumer demand for restaurants that recycle and compost, demand for more supportive infrastructure will grow as a consequence.

Education plays a major role in making a recycling initiative successful, as many restaurants have frequent staff turnover and/or aren’t aware of incentives, resources or what they perceive as the necessary space and time to maintain a thriving recycling program.  For restaurant owners and operators wishing to educate themselves and their staff on how to have an effective restaurant recycling program, take a gander at NRA’s “how to” guide.

Lesley Lammers headshot

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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