I love eating out — there is a certain luxury in having someone prepare your food and do your dishes afterwards. But as I’ve started to incorporate more green practices at home, I’ve been struck by the waste and inefficiency that’s evident in most restaurants. Huge portions that go back to the kitchen only partially eaten, piles of used paper napkins, front doors open invitingly to the street… as the heated or air-conditioned air spills out.
And that’s the stuff that diners can see. Having worked briefly in a restaurant, I know that behind the kitchen doors, there is often even more waste of energy and disposable goods.
Still, you can find restaurants that practice environmentally-responsible habits, and visit them to show your support for their green choices. This list of clues should help you determine whether a restaurant is green:
1. Serves water only on request: I first saw this habit while visiting Santa Fe, where water is prized since the city is often in drought circumstances. Now, it’s a fairly common practice for servers to ask first before bringing out waters for the table. And it makes sense — why waste the drinking water and dishwashing energy to clean the glasses, when the customer isn’t thirsty?
How you can help: Only order a glass of water if you’re actually going to drink it, and opt for tap water instead of bottled water, which uses much more energy and many more raw materials in its bottling and transportation.
2. Lists local farms on the menu: Restaurants that work with local farmers and purveyors are typically proud to share the news on their menu or website. It’s a good sign that they stay local — the farmers are likely smaller operations that use fewer chemical fertilizers, pesticides and medications than industrial agriculture operations, and require less energy to transport the food.
How you can help: If you see an entrée on the menu that includes ingredients from a nearby farm, order it!
3. Uses recycled or recyclable to-go containers: Restaurants that eschew Styrofoam containers in favor of cardboard containers, which can be recycled or will biodegrade, are showing that they care about the environment.
How you can help: If you think you’ll have leftovers, bring your own reusable plastic or glass container from home to pack up your doggie bag.
4. Is in a LEED-certified building: As you enter a restaurant, keep your eye out for a plaque or window sticker that indicates that the restaurant is LEED-certified by the United States Green Building Council. To earn this certification, a building must be designed, built and furnished in a way that is sustainable, from using less water and energy to minimizing waste, and more.
How you can help: To minimize your own carbon footprint when you go out to eat, choose places that you can get to by walking, biking or taking public transportation.
5. Uses cloth napkins and tablecloths: Table linens not only make a restaurant seem more upscale, but they also serve another purpose: They’re less wasteful than paper napkins and paper tablecloths. There’s no way of knowing if a restaurant is using green laundry techniques (such as washing in cold water and using environmentally-friendly detergent), but the benefits of using cloth still outweigh the waste of paper.
How you can help: If the restaurant does use paper napkins, try to take and use as few as possible.
6. Has a green restroom: Hopefully a restaurant won’t stop its green practices when it comes to its restroom. Motion-activated lighting, dual-flush toilets, energy-efficient hand dryers instead of paper towels, and even hand soap from an all-natural manufacturer are signs that the management cares about the environment.
How you can help: As you’re soaping up your hands, turn off the water until you’re ready to rinse, and shake your hands dry instead of using paper towels or the hand dryer.
7. Serves sustainable seafood: Overfishing, bycatch (when fishermen hook sea creatures that aren’t their intended catch) and damage to rivers and oceans are just a few of the problems that the fishing industry is creating for the environment. A responsible chef will seek out and serve only fish that is caught or raised via sustainable, earth-friendly means, and will not serve seafood that is in danger of being overfished.
How you can help: Download the pocket guide from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and you can check the sustainability of the seafood menu of your favorite restaurants.
8. Serves organic food: By using organic ingredients in its dishes, a restaurant is helping to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are used, and, if it’s a large enough customer, is helping to encourage and grow the market for organic goods.
How you can help: Show the restaurant that you appreciate its organic offerings by ordering them.
A good way to find some of the most environmentally-responsible restaurants in your area is to search the membership of the Green Restaurant Association, which certifies restaurants for their sustainability practices.
Do you have any green restaurants in your neighborhood? Share your recommendations in the comments below!
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Every Monday, I'll be here to share one, two, three… sometimes even ten! eco-friendly ideas at a time, so we can all do a little bit to save the Earth.
When I'm not making lists, I'm taking care of my two daughters, volunteering in my community, and writing articles about food and cooking — I'm the author of three cookbooks: Ramen to the Rescue, Tortillas to the Rescue, and Quinoa Cuisine (co-written with Kelley Sparwasser), and my fourth, Homemade Condiments, will be available in Fall 2013.