Working Toward Zero Waste

Two years' worth of waste at Sandwich Me In in Chicago.
The Huffington Post last month reported on a restaurant that hasn't produced more than a bag of trash in more than two years because of its commitment to reusing, composting, and buying fresh with little to no packaging. The story is one we should all pay attention to; one that can inspire each of us to figure out ways to produce less garbage.

Justin Vrany, owner of Chicago-based restaurant Sandwich Me In, had the goal of being a "zero waste" restaurant in mind from Day One. His efforts to achieve that goal are showcased in a new short film produced by NationSwell.

Sandwich Me In runs on sustainable energy and sources its food from local farms, which means there's no packaging on the food. Food scraps to spent frying oil are all repurposed. Vrany even went extra lengths to ensure junk mail doesn't get sent to the restaurant.

So how'd he pull it off?

He plans menu items to intersect so no food is wasted. Every part of the chicken is used (bones into broth, breast into sandwich meat, smoked skins onto Cobb salad, etc.), and leftover vegetables are turned into veggie burgers the following day. He even gives his food scraps to farmers who in turn feed them to the chickens who in turn produce eggs for Sandwich Me In.

To keep costs down while he bought fresh, local foods, Vrany spent the first six months of restaurant ownership running the entire business, top-to-bottom, by himself. Making everything—even his own broth from the bones of chickens he buys—saved him even more money. That, paired with composting, produced practically no garbage. And now that the restaurant is starting to turn a profit, he's able to bring in people to help the business run even more smoothly.

So what's he doing with the trash he did produce? An artist who makes sculptures out of refuse recently came in to take the trash, which will soon become a new piece of art.

While at Better Farm we've certainly produced more than two bags of garbage in the last several years, we take a lot of steps to work toward zero (or at least, less) waste. The tricks we use are strategies any household could employ easily. Here's a short list:
  • Buy bulk. The bulk section of markets, where you scoop how much granola or rice you want into a bag, uses a cajillion times less packaging than when you buy a box of cereal or bag of rice. You can bring your own bags to the store, and buy exactly how much you need.
  • Clean with homemade rags. Old T-shirts, jeans, blankets, and even socks make perfect rags to clean with. You can wash them when you're done—and compost them when they wear out.
  • Clean with vinegar, baking soda, and other household items. You'll save a ton, have very little waste, and be utilizing eco-friendly products that won't poison any pets or people.
  • Cook from scratch. Buying fresh ingredients means we're not buying a whole bunch of packaging. It also means we're able to pronounce all the ingredients, and know what we're putting into those temples of bodies we have.
  • Compost. If it's a food scrap, paper scrap, cardboard scrap, or something swept or vacuumed, it's going to the compost pile.
  • Ditch the Styrofoam. You can bring your own doggy bag to a restaurant. And encourage your local businesses to ditch Styrofoam in favor of eco-friendly, compostable takeout boxes and bags.
  • No paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates, or paper sticky notes needed! We wash windows with newspaper. If something gets deep-fried (squash blossoms, anyone?!), we let it sit on newspaper or junk mail to let some of the grease escape. When we host dinner parties, we use real plates and wash them together after meals. At gallery openings, we drink out of real glasses. For napkins, we sew our own or use store-bought cloth ones. For scribbling notes or making to-do lists, we use the backs of used paper. Then we compost it.
  • Recycle. This one seems like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how much can actually be recycled that isn't.
  • Reuse. Freezer bags, bread bags, sandwich bags, egg cartons, and even the errant supermarket bag can all be cleaned and reused.
  •  Switch to Frozen juice. Every grocery store sells 100-percent (sometimes organic) juice in the frozen foods section. The concentrate comes in a little, recycleable plastic container that is infinitely smaller than a huge juice jug.  
  • Upcycle. Upgrade your lamps by changing the shade. Transform cabinets with a coat of paint. There's not always a need to toss something and buy new—learning to repair things, upgrade them, or give them a new use extends the life of an item, saves you money, and turns the tide on our culture's planned obsolescence for stuff. Also, it's a skillset that will come in handy throughout your whole life.
  • Use reusable shopping bags. There isn't any reason to use plastic or paper shopping bags. Ever. If you're forgetful, keep reusable bags in varying sizes in your car.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.