As sustainable practices and environmental awareness continue to spread throughout our homes, schools and offices, there remains one frequented place in our daily routines that still has some greening up to do.
And that culprit is none other than the local restaurant, diner or fast-food joint where breakfast, lunch and dinner come neatly packaged in disposable to-go boxes.
For most restaurants and even more fast-food places, the move toward sustainability is only just beginning.
And with the food service industry having grown by roughly 15 billion commercially prepared meals since 1981, according to the National Restaurant Association, harmful environmental effects are regular repercussions that disturb much more than food treatment and quality.
More notably, the restaurant industry poses other serious environmental threats, including higher energy and water consumption and greater waste production.
The Green Restaurants Association reports that the restaurant industry consumes one-third of all U.S. energy used by the retail sector, and is five times more energy intensive than other retail, office and lodging industries.
Similarly, the average food service facility uses 300,000 gallons of water per year. That is more than twice as much as the average four-person family uses in one year according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
National studies also indicate that about one and a half pounds of trash are produced for each restaurant meal that is served.
At fast-food restaurants, approximately 200 pounds of waste are generated for every $1,000 in sales, and about 95 percent of this waste could be recycled or composted.
Food waste is especially harmful to the environment because its decomposition in landfills releases methane, a greenhouse gas that the EPA says is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Food service and food retail operations are also the largest commercial users of refrigerators, many of which contain chlorofluorocarbons, another known substance that depletes the ozone layer.
In response to the restaurant industry’s many environmentally unsound practices, the National Restaurant Association launched “Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability,” an initiative designed to support the nation’s one million restaurant and food service locations as they become more sustainable, in May 2008.
Unfortunately, the restaurant industry still has few incentives to change, which makes dining out at even some of the more environmentally friendly options still less beneficial than staying home to eat, where local foods can always be selected and energy, water use, waste and gas can be minimized further.
And while restaurants that make sustainability a major focus in their menus and their services are the better options, the best choice for the environmentally and health conscious eater is a home-cooked meal prepared exactly the same way that grandmother made it.
And while cooking at home is the real sustainable option, over-worked and short-on-time students are still bound to venture beyond their own kitchens for grub.
Fortunately for these students, several restaurants honor sustainability with green practices. And many environmentally preferable food options have popped up right around Emory, making both the meals and the drive over a few shades greener.
One of the forerunners in the greening of the food industry is Sprouts Green Café in Emory Village. Taking sustainable food to a whole new level, Sprouts offers the environmentalist more than just meals made from organic or locally grown produce and free-range and hormone-free meats.
This new green space also minimizes waste with its own compost pile and biodegradable or easily recycled plastics, and maximizes resources with building materials made from non-virgin resources and paper made from 100 percent post-consumer recycling. In addition, Sprouts also features a greenhouse where it grows its own herbs and a soon-to-come solar awning and rain catcher.
Just a few shops down, coffee connoisseurs can drink to well-treated and tastier brews at Octane Coffee. Octane features fair-trade, Counter Culture coffees that focus on improving the relationship between the coffee farmer and roaster, making their cup of joe one of the more sustainable options available.
Even closer to campus, the Green Bean Coffee Cart also sells fair-trade coffees and teas behind the Cannon Chapel from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays, with extended hours lasting until 2 p.m. on Wonderful Wednesday.
About eight minutes away from Emory in the heart of downtown Decatur, Cakes and Ale allows guests to sustain their cake and eat it too with a fresh and season-driven menu, comprised of local produce, artisan-produced grains, humanely raised meats and a selection of non-endangered fish.
Cakes and Ale even houses its own backyard garden, where it grows everything from blueberries to okra to add to its highly sustainable produce.
Located a few blocks up from Cakes and Ale, Watershed is also dedicated to responsible eating through reduced waste, increased recycling and support of local organic farming. But remember to ask the server which foods are locally purchased because the options vary.
Finally, Chipotle in Toco Hills is one of America’s few fast food chains that is working to impress its eco-loving customers with 95 percent organic beans and free-range meats.
Chipotle also promoted “Food, Inc.,” a documentary that surfaced during the summer about America’s food industry, by sponsoring free screenings and putting promotional materials in all their restaurants.
And no matter where your search for sustainable food finds you, remember that the freshest and tastiest sources of food are almost always local and humanely cultivated ones.
— Contact Tammie Smith