Serving up change
Austin's ambitious new recycling plan makes local restaurants rethink food waste
Eco-education is now on the menu at Austin restaurants as they teach customers about new rules regarding how organic materials and other trash items are discarded. The change was made necessary by the City of Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, part of a multi-pronged plan to make the Capital City zero-waste by 2040.
Among other environmental initiatives, the city seeks a 90 percent reduction in landfill trash.As it stands now, 40 percent of that waste is organic material. The city is addressing it with organics diversion requirements, which covers lawn clippings, discarded flowers, paper towels, paper napkins, and food-soiled paper. Although the city started phasing in the new rules in 2016, food businesses were granted a grace period until October 1 of this year.
Under the mandate, bars, grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants must find a way to “responsibly” get rid of food leftovers and scraps. This change has prompted many of these businesses to embrace composting and other green practices behind the scenes, but it can be a different story in the front of house.
Joe Ritchie, director of hospitality at ELM Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Irene’s, and Cookbook Cafe), says that at Fareground, a food hall in downtown Austin, diners sometimes have trouble deciphering the waste-disposal “puzzle.”
“There are times that glass or aluminum gets mixed in with our compost, and we need to get the gloves on and sort them because the public is still learning,” says Ritchie.
Susanne Harm, a spokeswoman for the Austin Resource Recovery Department, says Austin restaurant-goers are being educated about the recycling ordinance through local media coverage, public events, social media posts, inserts in utility bills, and 250 neighborhood recycling evangelists called “block leaders.”
Given that a lot of restaurants and other eateries are handling organics diversion in the kitchen area, many customers won’t even know it’s happening, according to Harm.
That doesn’t mean that the eateries didn’t put in a lot of prep work to get ready for the ordinance deadline. Skeeter Miller, owner of the County Line and Flyrite Chicken restaurants, says his businesses have been collaborating with the City of Austin for about five years on its zero-waste push.
Both currently divert about 80 percent of their trash — including organic waste — from landfills. To help accomplish that, they converted to reusable to-go containers, use real silverware instead of plastic utensils, and supply cloth napkins rather than paper napkins.
“We did a pilot program for almost a year to help find better ways to divert trash from the landfill and create a zero-waste initiative that would be sustainable. I support what the city is doing,” Miller says.
Some restaurants, however, have tackled the ordinance with a more hands-on approach. At Fareground, workers try to clear every table, rather than customers doing it on their own, so diners don’t have to figure out which trash goes where, Ritchie says. For customers who want to assume that responsibility, they can throw food leftovers and scraps, as well as other compostable items, in a green-colored composting bin.
“The most impactful change we’ve made to simplify the effect on our guests is using all compostable products so there’s no sorting necessary,” he says.
For employees, the transition has been smooth, Ritchie says. In anticipation of the final phase of the city’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, Fareground implemented composting at the beginning of this year, he says, and employees have adapted “quite well.”
“Service industry professionals tend to be quite comfortable with change,” Ritchie says, “and are particularly motivated when that change has such a positive impact on the world.”
However, not everyone has been so quick to embrace the new rules. Hoover Alexander, owner of Hoover’s Cooking and president of the Texas Restaurant Association’s Austin chapter is concerned about the financial impact the city’s new waste requirements could have on local restaurants.
“We want to do the right thing, and it’s not like we’re anti-environmentalists, but … folk[s] are going to have a hard time, one, not knowing about [the ordinance] and, two, paying for it. I think that’s going to be true at least initially,” Alexander told radio station KUT.
Disobeying the city’s recycling rules can result in a $100 to $2,500 fine for a food-selling business.
Austin Resource Recovery points out that businesses with permits to prepare and sell food are able to pick organics diversion methods that work for them, such as donating leftover food to homeless shelters, sending food scraps to local animal farms, developing on-site composting methods, or hiring a private company to haul away the extra food.
The City of Austin “is committed to helping companies, large and small, find effective solutions to ensure employees have access to diversion programs that puts unused food to a higher and better use while meeting ordinance requirements,” Sam Angoori, interim director of Austin Resource Recovery, says in a statement.
Many Austin eateries have even seen the rules as an opportunity. “There are a large number of farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, and even food trucks in Austin that are actively promoting their zero-waste methods,” Harm says.
Bryce Gilmore, chef/owner of Barley Swine, Odd Duck, and Sour Duck Market, says cutting down on generation of landfill waste through composting and recycling, for instance, has been part of the mission of his three restaurants since they opened. Therefore, he says, little has changed in response to the organics diversion requirement.
“I think this is very important,” Gilmore says of organics diversion. “ I wish it was mandated a long time ago. I look forward to discovering new ways to divert organics and keep our businesses sustainable.”