Archive for January, 2010

Sustainable Seafood

Author: Paul

We are honored to have Rich Boot, founder and CEO of FishChoice.com as a guest blogger this week. Fishchoice.com connects commercial seafood buyers with sustainable seafood suppliers. Rich offers some insight into serving sustainable seafood.

Is it the seller’s or the buyer’s responsibility? Actually both. Consumers need to ask where the fish they are buying comes from and how it is caught and restaurants need to make more sustainable choices available to consumers.

There are two reasons this doesn’t happen as often as it should:

1.       Chefs and consumers alike stick with the options that are most familiar to them. And often, neither one is willing to leave his or her comfort zone without a nudge. This is understandable. It’s risky for a chef to put an unfamiliar item on the menu and perhaps not sell it, and it’s risky for the diner to order something they aren’t sure they are going to enjoy eating.

2.       Sellers succeed by satisfying their customer base. If customers don’t ask questions about seafood, sellers assume that it’s not important. Yet, many customers don’t ask because they don’t know enough and don’t feel comfortable asking. Some feel that they shouldn’t be faced with unsustainable choices on menus in the first place. But will they buy an unfamiliar choice?

What’s the solution? Restaurateurs have to make the first move. Start by replacing one seafood menu item with a more sustainable one. Explain to the consumer why you think it’s important to offer more sustainable choices and what makes the new choice more sustainable.

Choose just one option at time to switch out, prepare it well, and be prepared to sell it.

Need ideas for preparing different types of seafood? Sustainable seafood chef/activist, Barton Seaver, has worked with The Blue Ocean Institute http://www.blueocean.org/food/ocean-friendly-substitutes to get the share recipes and substitution ideas with chefs all over the country.

Start by switching out overfished grouper with environmentally friendly, farmed striped bass. Here’s a recipe from Barton to get you started: http://www.blueocean.org/food/barton-seaver/recipes/striped-bass-catalan-broccoli-pine-nut-sauce. Sustainable seafood restaurant, Yankee Pier offers a Striped Bass Carpaccio with Citrus and Olives http://www.yankeepier.com/santana_row/santanarow_menus.html

Register http://www.fishchoice.com/ for FishChoice.com to find a supplier for striped bass today.

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I recently posted a couple articles about food waste in the news section of sustainablefoodservice.com. One was on the regulation of food waste, and the other about a restaurant group that has installed an on-site composting machine called the eCorect. I don’t normally post articles about specific restaurants going green, but this one brought up some specific thoughts for me.

What does sustainability mean when it comes to composting?

In the big picture, there are a lot of interworking systems that go into composting, and therefore carbon footprints. Large-scale industrial facilities have enormous infrastructure including aerators, heavy machinery and some sort of distribution system while small-scale systems like the eCorect have a large initial carbon footprint in the manufacturing of the machinery, and continue to consume energy throughout the machines life.

Restaurant Worm Bin

Large-scale worm bin that processes 120 gallons of restaurant food waste a week.

Smaller, traditional composting bins don’t use any power or need a huge infrastructure, but can’t process large amounts of material or any meats or dairy. They are usually just not practical for most restaurants. Other systems like large vermiculture systems are simple to build and can process large amounts of material, but you still need the space on-site to process the food waste. There are also anaerobic digesters and several types of on-site composting machines.

Despite the carbon footprint from the infrastructure of large-scale composting facilities that most restaurants will use, composting is the most sustainable option – there have been studies done… Ideally we would all have a compost bin out back, but that is obviously not practical nor is a composting machine in every restaurant.

I do think there is a place for every system depending on the foodservice operation. Small, rural restaurants may have enough room to have their own compost pile, an on-site composter or send their food scraps to a farmer, while urban restaurants are generally going to use composing machines or a commercial composting facility with regular food waste collection.

Whichever service is available or system used, restaurant owners need to start thinking about food waste if they are not already. As noted in the article from the UK, regulations on organic waste are on their way. San Francisco recently enacted mandatory composting, and many areas will soon follow as they build composting infrastructures.

This should be viewed as a good thing for restaurant operators. Composting whether with a hauler or on-site is cheaper than waste hauling and will only get more economical as landfills run out of space and gasoline prices continue to rise.

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Food Waste Calculator

Author: Paul

The EPA recently released a new food cost calculator that estimates the financial savings of source reduction, donation, and composting of food, and recycling of yellow grease. The calculator takes user input such as food costs and amounts of waste (so you will need some in-house data) and calculates savings and environmental benefits based on several scenarios. The calculator is created in a Microsoft Excel file and you will need macros enabled to run the file.

In addition to the calculator, the EPA also provides a wealth of information on food waste.

The food waste calculator is available on the EPA website.

I will also post a link to in on www.sustainablefoodservice.com under the Tools section.

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I’ve spoken with several people recently about the variety of biodegradable foodservice products on the market right now. Just a couple years ago there were just a small handful of relatively unobtainable products, but today the market is flooded with biodegradable packaging of every kind including the elusive biodegradable hot cup lid.

Choice is great, but the problem currently is the true “greenness” of these products, or at least some of these products. All the manufactures call their products biodegradable and tout them as sustainable, but what is sustainable when it comes to disposable products? The items are inherently unsustainable as they are usually single use items. This alone makes their sustainability label questionable, but disposable products are necessary in many circumstances. A recent study predicted the disposable foodservice market to reach $18 billion by 2013. So there is still a need for environmentally sustainable packaging. The big question that arises is what defines a disposable product as sustainable.

Is a corn based biodegradable cup more sustainable than a plastic one? What if the bio-cup is thrown in the landfill along with the plastic one, and degrades anaerobically releasing the greenhouse gas methane? At least the carbon is stored in the plastic cup, and pesticides, herbicides and diesel fuel were not used to grow its base material. The plastic cup could be recycled, but the vast majorities are not even accepted by recyclers. So which one is more sustainable?

Some research has been conducted on the subject and the results would probably surprise many people. A study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research compared the environmental impact of traditional polyethylene plastic bags versus biodegradable bags available in France and Germany. The study calculated the impact of the raw material production process, transportation factors and recyclability of the products. The study concluded that the polyethylene bags have less of an impact on the environment than biodegradable bags and that bags made from recycled material have the smallest environmental impact of the three choices. It should be noted that the study presumed that all the bags would be incinerated at end-of-life rather than composting the biodegradable bag. Although the waste treatment equaled a small portion of the overall impact and composting would not have affected the results.

Despite the results of the IEER study, I don’t think we can currently rule out any option entirely, but we can move towards more recycled disposable packaging, packaging that is more recyclable and actually composting biodegradable products. As I mentioned, most cups along with straws, clamshells, anything that is #6, and most other disposable plastic foodservice items are technically recyclable, but usually not wanted by the recyclers. Buying recycled content products will help create a market demand for those currently unwanted plastics, which in turn will encourage the manufactures to create products that are more recyclable.

As for the biodegradable products, I think the consumer’s demand for reliable products will weed out the greenwashed products on the market, and create a need for some sort of reliable, biodegradable standard. Certification may not be necessary, but there does need to be some sort of universal, tested standard in order to legally sell their products.

There is currently one group in the US, the Biodegradable Products Institute that is certifying biodegradable foodservice products. The institute uses ISO and ASTD standards to test and qualify products. While the BPI is using quality standards as baseline for its certification standards, the group has come under some criticism from people in the biodegradable products industry because the group is made up of several companies in the industry itself. Certifiers certifying themselves (and others).

In addition to standards, the US needs to create an infrastructure of commercial composting facilities across the country to process the nation’s organic matter, including biodegradable disposables. There is no reason our landfills should be a quarter full of food waste.

Finally, I don’t think corn, palm or even sugar cane is the answer to our biodegradable product needs. Corn is just too energy and chemically intensive, and without the current subsidies corn-based PLA products would be financially unreasonable. Palm plantations are taking over critical tropical rainforest areas and sugar cane while one of the current best options, does have issues of its own, namely labor problems. Potatoes and sugar beets are currently a good options being that they are often grown in the US, and at least to my knowledge use less chemicals than corn. The manufactures need to stop relying on subsidized commodities and develop products made from drought and pest hardy plants that can be grown sustainably. In the mean time, it is the restaurant industry’s job to be critical of disposable products, ask questions of the manufactures and be thrifty in our use of them.

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