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Jan 292010

By Ashley Phillips
Green Right Now

Consumers are being more conscious now than ever before of their own sustainable practices. They are buying from local farmers markets, recycling, and switching to LED lights.

But when a person leaves home, say to go out to eat, they could pack on the carbon calories without realizing it — especially if the restaurant they visit isn’t treading lightly on the environment.

According to the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), the certification body aiming to create an environmentally sustainable restaurant industry, an average restaurant uses 300,000 gallons of water and produces 150,000 pounds of garbage a year. Even worse, the restaurant industry as a whole, which includes approximately 900,000 restaurants in the United States, is the largest consumer of electricity in the commercial sector.

The GRA has certified 265 restaurants in the U.S. Those green restaurants have taken multiple steps to use less energy, save on food and packaging and improve their carbon and food footprints.

Austin's Barr Mansion is certified green (Photo: Suzy Q.)

Austin's Barr Mansion is certified green (Photo: Suzy Q.)

Some of the changes are virtually invisible. At Barr Mansion, an Austin events restaurant that the GRA cites as a star performer, 97 percent of the waste is diverted from the landfill by recycling or composting.

Other green actions are more noticable, such as Barr Mansion’s hemp tablecloths, organic food and a roof made from recycled concrete.

Many restaurants, yet to be certified, are taking initial green steps in the normal course of business. They are using motion sensors on bathroom faucets to save water, programmable thermostats to temper energy use, bulk packaging to cut down on individual wrapping, and serving water upon request to preserve that resource, and save the water it would take to wash the glass.

If every restaurant put these basic changes into place, the energy and water savings would add up. According to GRA, if just one quarter of restaurants in the United States only served water upon request, the country could save 26 million gallons of water each year.

Restaurants can take other inexpensive steps toward sustainability: In the office, staff can switch to 100% post-consumer recycled paper in the office and recycle office ink cartridges.  In the kitchen, changing to a readily available $30 low-flow spray valve can save hundreds of dollars on the water bill. Adding and maintaining Energy Star appliances also helps.

Saving food can be among the most gratifying ways to change. Kitchens usually prepare more food for the day than is eaten, but they can plan for leftovers by segregating organic waste, which can be composted. Partnering with a local food bank or Salvation Army also can put quality leftovers to good use.

GRA is currently working with 600 restaurants, including the 265 that are already certified. Restaurants need 100 points on a scale developed by the GRA to become certified.

Most restaurants fall between 40-60 points in their first assessment, according to Colleen Oteri, GRA’s Communications Manager.

There are five requirements that restaurants must meet to be GRA certified:

  1. Accumulate a total of 100 points
  2. Meet minimum points in each category
    1. Energy
    2. Water
    3. Waste
    4. Disposables
    5. Chemical & Pollution Reduction
    6. Sustainable Food
    7. Sustainable Furnishings & Building Materials
    8. Full-scale recycling program
    9. Free of polystyrene foam (no Styrofoam allowed)
    10. Annual education program

GRA has a detailed explanation of its 4.0 Standards on their website.

Barr Mansion is GRA’s highest scoring restaurant with 284.76 points. Hosting and catering to over 1,600 guests each month, Barr Mansion is a picturesque site for weddings, luncheons, parties, and various events.  As the nation’s first and only Certified Organic events facility, Barr Mansion prides itself on being green. From simple things like using non-toxic cleaning chemicals, paints, and candles to the more complex such as diverting 97 percent of its waste, Barr Mansion is leading the way. Other unique eco-aspects include:

  • Hemp and organic table linens
  • Chairs made from eucalyptus
  • Roof made from recycled concrete
  • Geothermal heat
  • Organic food grown on the property
  • Serving grass fed beef
  • Composting all food waste
GustOrganics, eco-friendly world foods at 519 Avenue of the Americas, NYC

GustOrganics, eco-friendly world foods at 519 Avenue of the Americas, NYC

Many of the GRA-certified restaurants attest to the money savings that accompanied their green transformation. At GustOrganics Restaurant & Bar in New York City, owner Alberto Gonzales, notes that he has saved $1,300 a year by foregoing paper towels in favor of an energy efficient hand dryer in the restroom. GustOrganics, which serves everything from granola and fruit to organic bar drinks and Buenos Aires steak,  also has received much media attention as the first certified organic food restaurant in NYC.

GRA understands that with each new year better environmental solutions become available and more plentiful. Because of this, certified restaurants must continually improve their sustainable practices.

“They [consumers] expect more and they want to know that the restaurant can truly back up their green claims. Being certified through a 20-year-old national non-profit with transparent standards is the way to do that,” said Oteri.

So while a restaurant does not need to have the GRA seal to be taking some green actions, the certification is verification that the facility is among the vanguard of eco-friendly eating establishments. Use the Dine Green online tool to find a GRA-certified restaurant near you.

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