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Increasing  Number of US Restaurants Goes 'Green'

For a growing number of restaurants in the U.S., the certification that they are "green" does not necessarily mean a vegetarian menu. They are adopting environmentally-friendly practices. And that means more than simply using locally grown or organic foods but also an array of actions including energy efficiency, recycling and the use of biodegradeable products. As VOA's June Soh reports, the restaurant owners find the green movement not only can help the environment but also help their business. Melinda Smith narrates.

Customers in this Massachussetts restaurant might not notice that the cup they are using is made of corn and is biodegradable. But this is one of the steps the casual food restaurant chain, Boloco, has taken to be labeled "green."

Michael Harder is president and chief operating officer of the chain.

"First of all, we had to eliminate the Styrofoam as one of our options,” Harder said. “We actually replaced the Styrofoam with a corn-based polylactide PLA cup."

The small sign on the window reads, "Certified green restaurant."

It provides a hint that the owner has embraced a number of ecologically minded practices.

The certification is issued by The Green Restaurant Association or GRA, a Boston based organization founded in 1990.

Michael Oshman, the founder, says the words "green" and "business" was rarely seen on the same page back then, but the green restaurant movement is finally flourishing.

"We currently have about 260 restaurants across the country, and also a little bit in Canada, that are certified green restaurants and restaurants that are on the way to certification,” Oshman said. “We are currently growing at an incredible pace. Last year we tripled in size, the amount of restaurants on board.

And this coming year, we will likely to do the same."

To meet the GRA's environmental guidelines, Boloco's Harder says the chain has implemented a recycling program, outfitted employees with organic cotton t-shirts, and introduced naturally raised meats and chicken.

The animals are allowed to roam freely, and are free of antibiotics and additional growth hormones.

He says his restaurant is taking four additional steps this year, including replacing the plastic containers with the ones made from compostable plant fibers.

Brenden Mahoney is a regular customer. "I think it is important to support places that are environmentally friendly,” he said. “So, it will definitely reinforce my habit of coming here."

In addition to increased customer loyalty, restaurants find other benefits from environmentally conscious practices.

Jose Duarte is the chef and owner of Italian restaurant Taranta in downtown Boston.

He says he has completed GRA's 20 environmental steps.

"[For] each single item that we actually put in the restaurant and we changed, we have seen the result,” Duarte said. “The tankless water heaters were one of the nicest things that I can put in there because we are saving about $150 to $200 a month in our normal gas bill."

Duarte says switching to environmentally friendly systems, such as energy efficient lighting, water-conserving spray heads, and delivery vehicles fueled by cooking oil often costs money.

But he says that long-term savings cover those expenses and result in lower operating costs.

He says recycling and food waste composting programs help him cut the garbage bill by 40 percent and now very little trash actually goes to the landfill.

"We know that it doesn't change the world. It changes our part of the world. And it is the things that our customers are asking for, so it is relevant to our customers. It is the things that we are trying to do for ourselves as well. We live in our communities,” Harder said.

Industry and government figures show that food service buildings are the most energy intensive of all commercial buildings.

Green Restaurant Association's Oshman says, with restaurants accounting for 10 percent of the nation's economy, the push for sustainable practices in the industry has great potential to help the planet.