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Excessive energy waste and solid waste are typical of the old-style company cafeteria Many business owners don't realize their kitchen operations use five times more energy than the rest of the building. Meanwhile, all of the disposable cups, utensils, food packaging and food leftovers generate millions of pounds of kitchen-related waste that goes out the door every year.

Taken together, the typical cafeteria represents a huge opportunity for companies to target in their next big green initiative.

Microsoft has been leading a charge to reduce kitchen waste in its cafeterias and catering services since 2006. The software giant's dining services at its main campus in Redmond, Wash., achieved Certified Green Restaurant status through the Green Restaurant Association in August.

The move toward making its dining facilities greener originated in a 2006 conversation thread on the company's 'MS Green' employee distribution list, which is where workers share their feelings and make suggestions on how the company can improve its environmental profile. "We stay tuned to the conversations going on that list, and we saw a lot of discussion about the polystyrene cups in the café program," says Mark Freeman, the senior manager for employee services in Microsoft's global dining facilities who leads the green dining initiatives.

At the time, the company used and threw away 24 million polystyrene cups every year. "They were a staple for our campus," Freeman admits.

Spurred by employee concerns, his group set out to find a replacement product, spawning a corporate-wide effort to dramatically reduce dining-related waste.

The company now uses only plant starch-based compostable paper cups, and has since replaced all plates, bowls and even utensils with compostable products. That prevents 20.3 million pieces of cutlery, 18.5 million bowls and plates, and 22.1 million cups from going into landfills each year, or the equivalent of 109 tons of plastic.

The accomplishment thrilled Microsoft executives and employees. "When we changed over we received huge support from the employees," Freeman says.

The Numbers Add Up
  • The 50,000 super-efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) installed across Xanterra's National Park operations save approximately 4,420,000 kWh per year, not to mention approximately $400,000 in labor, lamp replacement and energy costs. This keeps 3,900 tons of CO2, 12 tons of sulfur dioxide and 6 tons of nitrogen oxide out of the air annually.
  • Its recycling and dematerialization programs allowed Xanterra to divert 6 million pounds of solid waste from landfills in 2006.
  • Rather than throwing away its used fryer oil, Microsoft ships 10,000 gallons of it to biodiesel refineries every year to be converted into biodiesel fuel.
  • Microsoft's increased composting and recycling efforts will prevent 20.3 million pieces of cutlery and more than 40.6 million plates, cups and bowls from entering landfills every year.
  • Changes in bulk packaging choices will prevent 4.7 million milk cartons from entering landfills.

The transition, he admits, had its obstacles. The challenge for a company like Microsoft is finding both quality and quantity in a green replacement. "Few products meet our demand for volume as well as functionality," he says, noting that many of the corn-based compostable products tested by his group either wilted or melted under the extreme heat of soups and hot coffee.

With help from the Green Restaurant Association and the company's paper supply vendor, however, Freeman's team identified and tested multiple products, and ultimately found suppliers who were willing and delighted to meet the company's needs.

"When we switched to a compostable tableware, we doubled that vendor's volume in a day," says Freeman, who takes pleasure in the knowledge that Microsoft's huge size has the potential to create a ripple effect across the industry for green products.

"We hope when others see our volume needs, it will inspire them to enter the marketplace with new products," he says. The company is still searching for compostable straws, cup lids, and single use condiment packets that meet its quality and volume criteria.

Choosing compostable products marked the beginning of Microsoft's green dining initiatives. Freeman's group is in various stages of  implementing other innovations across the company, including upgrading appliances and kitchen equipment with more energy-efficient models, adding low-flow aerators to faucets in its 35 cafeteria kitchens, and weighing and composting all food waste.

"We've seen a lot of change in behavior among the kitchen staff since we've started weighing food waste before we compost it," he says. "They've become more intimate with the food we throw away, and it's causing them to use less and create less waste."

The company also implemented green packaging options for all of its catered events. Employees can choose organic menu options and opt for lower lighting and temperature in the event hall to reduce energy use. When groups choose one of the green catering packages, sign boards are placed in the halls outside of the room to promote the event's green attributes.

"That has created some peer pressure among employees," Freeman says. "When they see those signs, they say, 'We should have made our meeting green,' which is driving momentum for the program."

Smaller Portions

Freeman is quick to point out that making dining operations greener can be easy to do, especially for smaller companies which may not face the same volume concerns facing his group. "There is a lot of misconception that green is difficult and costs a lot more money, but it doesn't," he says. "It's just a matter of changing the way you think."

A good place to begin is with a self-analysis, says Ray Soucie, president of RSA Food Service Consulting, a sustainable food service design firm in Portland, Ore. He notes that most utility companies and energy trusts will offer free audits and can connect companies with resources to help them define a baseline for their energy use and waste production. That gives businesses a measure from which to start, and an idea of where their biggest waste problems lie.

"Then take baby steps," he says. "Simple changes give the quickest return."

Food for Thought: Making Your Dining Operations Greener

1. Create a plan and define a baseline for energy usage and waste production. Then start with small steps that will deliver quick results.

2. Replace all lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs. "From an energy savings standpoint, lighting is a slam dunk," says Chris Lane, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, adding that wall sconces and high quality fixtures can create the same warm setting that incandescent bulbs are known for.

3. Invest in energy efficient technology. Soucie points out that innovations in the past three to five years have made kitchen appliances far more energy- and water-efficient than their predecessors, making the capital investment in appliance upgrades a feasible cost and energy saving measure.

4. There are dozens of ways to green a dining operations, so just pick one and get moving. Microsoft's Mark Freeman recommends working with an environmental consultant or green association to get started. "We started with cups and went from there. The key is to just do something."

Heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and water consumption are the two biggest energy users in kitchens and offer the greatest opportunity for savings. "The HVAC draws 35 percent of the energy in the building," Soucie says. "If you reduce the air volume exhausted out in your kitchen by implementing a more efficient exhaust system, you reduce the air you lose, and you reduce the amount of air you need to condition and bring back in."

He suggests doing an inventory of kitchen equipment, identify the machines that use the most energy, and define ways to improve or replace them. For example, you can retrofit spray valves for pre-rinse with low-flow heads, or for a larger capitol investment, replace older dishwashers with newer energy-efficient models that use 70 percent less hot water.

"That's 70 percent less water you have to pay to heat, and 70 percent less water going down the drain," he points out.

More substantial upgrades might include a conversion system that allows the kitchen to capture steam exhaust from dish machines to heat incoming water; infrared broilers that use less gas; and induction cooking ranges that require less heat.

"It's a matter of making a capitol investment based on the defined return on investment," he says, noting that the payback in energy savings makes the ROI of these investments fairly easy to justify.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts, a national state park hotel and dining operator based in Greenwood Village, Colo., made several of these equipment upgrades in its dining operations across the country with impressive results.

Along with offering sustainable menu items, eliminating disposable plates, cups and utensils from cafeterias, and composting waste, several of its operations feature innovative energy-saving technologies, such as variable speed hood exhaust systems over stove tops."In most restaurants, the hood exhaust runs 18 hours a day whether they are cooking or not," says Chris Lane, Xanterra's vice president of environmental affairs. "If you put a smoke stick in the dining room and follow its path, all that air goes right up the exhaust and out the roof. That's a ridiculous amount of waste."

Instead, the variable speed exhaust system uses infrared sensors and carbon dioxide detectors to automatically turn itself on and off based on the presence of smoke. "It is off half of the time," Lane says.

That translates into half as much conditioned air being unnecessarily sucked from the building. The $20,000 system implemented in its Mt. Rushmore operation – one of its largest kitchens – paid for itself in two years through energy savings. Lane estimates smaller kitchens using smaller and less expensive models would see a quicker ROI.

Xanterra also relies on more fundamental green strategies, such as rigorous recycling and composting programs for all of its restaurants, a ban on Styrofoam, efficient compact florescent lighting, and reduced product packaging.

"Reduction of packaging is really big for us," says Lane, who reaches out to all vendors informing them of the company's environmental goals, with the expectation they participate in helping reduce waste through bulk and lighter-weight packaging. "We let vendors know that we care about the environment, and if they want to work with us, they have to care about it too."

What's on the Menu?

To maintain oversight of its green initiatives and track results, all Xanterra decisions for its dining and other operations follow an environmental management system (EMS) plan. "It is a well-known environmental mantra that you cannot conserve what you cannot measure," Lane says. "The EMS is what defines every aspect of our environmental impact, including water consumption, energy use, food and toxins. When we have that list, we can break it down and see what can be done to effect change."

Then he sets goals and assigns responsibilities to key staff. Employees are trained on what needs to be done, and why.

"The heart, soul, and culture of our organization is the people," he says of the importance of training. "This is hard work, but we are continually amazed by our people. They have incredible ideas and commitment to everything we are doing, and that adds real value to the process."

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

See original news item:, Dec-8-2008  
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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-9-2009)   Web site
I have done a small experiment with compostable garbage bags that I bought at I put the bags, unused, in various combinations of air and water, and in sunlight and in darkness. After three months there was almost no decomposition to speak of for any of them. There were small particles of SOMETHING floating around, but I am not sure if it was just bacterial growth or something slight dissolving off the (unused, remember) garbage bags.

The big advantage of bioplastics at this time, in my judgment, is that no toxic chemicals are used in making these bioplastics. They do cost somewhat more, but perhaps with volume sales that would not be a problem. I learned from some environmental engineers that these items do not rapidly decompose unless placed in a specially managed, composting waste dump, with digestive bacteria and monitored temperatures. Making such a dump is not impossible, but the great majority of dumps are not of this type.

Summarizing, the advantages are that the materials are non-toxic, and that they will still degrade faster than traditional plastics, but not in the 60-day window that is required for the label "compostable" - unless they are disposed of in a managed dump. It is unclear what will happen to all those bioplastic items if dumped in the typical dump. Perhaps they can be salvaged and reused 500 years from now, when metals have become scarce...
Comment by: 1sillygreengoose (Jan-8-2009)   

I've heard that it can be hard to recycle plates and cups because of the gooey mess that is often left in them. However, I have also heard of biodegradable plastic plates made of some kind of cornstarch. So you can just throw them into the "wet" bin and they biodegrade with the rest of the food. You could probably start your own compost! I know some offices in new york city use them. I wonder if they are more expensive than regular plastic plates. If not, why isn't everyone using them?

Comment by: Inventory management (Jan-7-2009)   Web site

Hi, I agree with you that many business owners don't realize their kitchen operations use more energy than the rest of the building. However about "all of the disposable cups, utensils, food packaging and food leftovers generate millions of pounds of kitchen-related waste" also can be managed by providing a separate recycling bin. What I mean is we can provide a bin for cups, utensils etc.


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