DENVER — In some cities, trash from restaurants makes up 25% of the garbage going into landfills every single day. Restaurants are only second in producing food waste to families in their own homes.
Food waste is an environmental problem. In some cases, perfectly good food that could be donated is being thrown away.
But in Denver, efforts are being made to help stop food waste.
At Hoja, meals are made with intention.
“We make everything from scratch. We're health-conscious,” owner and chef Ben Susnick said.
With all the effort and care going into Susnick’s restaurant, he’s just as careful with what comes out of it. That’s why he now has four compost bins outside of his restaurant.
“This isn’t the most romantic tour,” said Susnick while walking out to his trash bins. “But it is pretty cool that twice a week, these get picked up.”
Throwing out their compostable plates and cups, paper and food scraps into the compost bins allows this restaurant to cut the trash they send to the landfill down by half or more.
“I'd say we probably compost almost twice as much as we throw away,” Susnick said.
Susnick has always composted, but he became even more focused in his efforts as part of a city-wide program to stop food waste.
“I think there's just a responsibility as a restaurant. It's not hard,” he said. “Even though people think this is biodegradable, it is biodegradable, but when it hits the landfill, it's not necessarily degrading in the way you expect.”
“It takes 25 years for a head of lettuce to decompose in the landfill. People have no idea,” said Lesly Baesens, who runs Denver’s food waste reduction effort.
Baesens is focused on finding ways to help the city become more conscious of food waste and developing solutions to help reduce it. She reached out to Susnick's restaurant to be part of that effort in Denver.
“Food waste is responsible for anywhere from 6 to 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions. It has been said that it's a has a bigger impact than flying planes,” Baesens said.
Denver was one of two cities nationwide to get a grant from the Natural Resources Defense Council for a pilot program to stop this problem by taking a few simple steps, and the solutions are helping make an impact.
She explained the pilot program had multiple parts to it.
“Reduce waste in the kitchen and in the front of the house but also provide these restaurants with composting to give them an opportunity to, you know, divert more of their waste," Baesens said. "Then, set them up with a food rescue organization to donate surplus wholesome food."
Baesens said with training restaurants received during the pilot program, she saw great results.
“Almost 80% of anything that produced was going in the trash, a little bit was getting recycled,” Baesens said. “We set them up with composting services, and we did a post project audit, and we noticed that they diverted 70% of their waste, which is a huge increase. We also noticed with additional training and, you know, teaching them a little bit more, there was the potential to divert close to 90% of their waste, which really means that 90% of what they throw away could either be composted or recycled, which was huge.”
The program was started before the pandemic, and while it is not officially continuing now, Baesens said the lessons her city and the restaurants that participated in the program learned became even more important with the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic is giving us an opportunity. As these businesses are starting to reopen, the potential for saving money is front of mind. You can save a lot of money. Whether it's as a household, you can save up to $1,800 a year by reducing the amount of food that you waste. And for restaurants, the return on investment has been shown to be, on average, for every dollar invested in reducing food waste, you get $7 back,” Baesens said.
Susnick agrees the pandemic and the incredible challenges it brought highlighted the importance of reducing food waste.
“When that hit, it was just so important to have a tight ship, have a well-run business. And I think that controlling our waste as part of that,” Susnick said.
The second part of the program helped restaurants partner with food rescue organizations like We Don’t Waste.
“We work with them in order to gather that food, and then we distribute it throughout the community,” said Arlen Preblud, the founder and executive director of We Don't Waste.
This nonprofit accepts unused, extra food from restaurants and other partners, like sports venues, that would otherwise go bad and end up in the trash. The food is then loaded up and delivered to families in need.
“Food insecurity is a step towards poverty, and poverty is destructive to the entire society. So, we as folks that have the ability have a real obligation to address this problem and reduce the amount of food waste that is occurring,” Preblud said.
The pandemic made this mission even more important.
“It's just unnecessary to be throwing good food away when there's people who will eat it, and it's a phone call away. It's just so easy,” Susnick said.
With these partnerships, helping the environment and the community is possible. Together, restaurants, community members, city leaders and nonprofits are working to make a big stink about putting in a little extra effort today, hoping it will help for generations to come.
“It's a preventable problem. If you want to tackle climate change effectively and holistically, food waste must be part of that discussion,” Baesens said.
“Anybody can do it. You don't need to be a food waste nerd or political or a scientist," Susnick said. "If we've managed to do this with this tiny restaurant that opened right before the pandemic against all odds, people can do this. It just feels good."