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National Restaurant Association - Operators address composting, recycling challenges

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Operators address composting, recycling challenges

Restaurateurs who incorporate recycling and composting into their operations say that while it is rewarding, there are several challenges involved that make it somewhat difficult to do.

According to operators at the National Restaurant Association's recent Foodservice Packaging Summit, held in partnership with the Foodservice Packaging Institute, some of the biggest challenges include providing more effective employee training and better education for consumers; finding waste haulers who will accept materials for composting and recycling; a lack of infrastructure; and navigating hyper-local legislation in states, cities and municipalities.

"The biggest challenge is waste management," said Janice Duis, senior director of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility for the Jamba Juice Co. "We may run stores in 10 different regions and they will be serviced by 10 different haulers, all of whom have different practices and policies about what they will and won't take. We literally have to have a policy for each store. That's really hard to navigate because it requires one staff member to help figure out what we can and can't do and make sure we stay consistent to our policy practices. It's confusing and it's difficult."

Tina Horsley, director of wellness and sustainability for the Canadian arm of Philadelphia-based contract foodservice concern Aramark Corp., said one of the biggest issues her company faces is misinformation about recycling and composting practices in general.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there, and, I think, a lot of lack of data," she said. "There also are a lot of inconsistencies [regarding] bins and signage and how we engage our customers. I always see people standing there with their packaging and they're looking at the signs, confused. We haven't figured it all out yet, that's for sure.

Jamba's Duis agreed, saying, "We have signs with instructions [telling customers to] separate lids and straws from cups because they're made from different materials, and the customers totally ignore it and put everything in the trash bin. Our team members have to go in and separate the stuff so they can recycle it."

Lack of infrastructure, such as composting and recycling facilities as well as back-of-house areas in which to perform the tasks is a problem as well, said Edward Norton, co-owner of the County Line Inc., a restaurant company in Austin.

"There are a number of cities and governments that haven't, at this point, put in the investment for infrastructure," he noted. "Austin is starting to make some strides, but it's still very challenging. We're fighting that battle all of the time and keep looking for innovative alternatives. We try to find solutions wherever we can."

Norton further noted that training staff can be troublesome, too.
"Training and education is a battle," he said. "When you have some turnover, you're constantly training."

Conversely, he added, tenured employees may be reticent in adopting new practices.

"We've been around for 37 years and have employees who have been with us for over 30 years," he said. "Some of our servers have been with us for over 20 years and kitchen staff for 15 years. That's where we bump into the problem where they say they've done things the same way for years and don't want to do them differently. It's a blessing and a curse."

Nevertheless, the operators say they are committed to implementing more sustainable practices into everyday operations and that there are rewards for doing so.

"We've become more focused on the tools and resources we can offer our operators so they can implement the most relevant solutions," Aramark's Horsley said. "Now we're trying to figure out how to move into more enterprise-wide solutions. As a company, there's a push toward good corporate citizenship, to be as sustainable as possible and integrate it into the culture."

Added Duis: "Composting and recycling are just good business practices. We're working with our waste management partners and they've got some really interesting pilot programs that we're going to get involved in. Once we look at those alternatives, it will influence and make our jobs simpler in both the back- and front-of-the-house."

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