Debunking Five Green Foodservice Myths

It’s human nature to want to compartmentalize into clear categories: black and white, yes and no, energy efficient or energy draining. Unfortunately, kitchens and restaurant operations are more complex than that, and while it’s easy to want to simply follow labels or certain messaging, finding the most truly efficient, waste-saving or sustainable path requires some extra research and due diligence to determine what’s truly green, not just on the surface.

Here’s a look at some of the most common green “myths” or misconceptions when it comes to the non-food and food-related aspects of a foodservice operation.

Myth #1: Specifying All Energy Star Equipment Is the Most Efficient Path

It’s easy to believe that if you simply specify all Energy Star-rated equipment, you will have done your part to be more energy efficient. But that’s not always the case. For example, if you specify an Energy Star-rated steamer but you need two to keep up with demand is that really energy efficient? Probably not.

“It’s more a matter of cost and volume,” says David Zabrowski, director of engineering at the PG&E Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. “Sometimes more efficient equipment might be more appropriate for smaller operations. For high-volume operations, if the equipment takes longer to produce the volume needed it ends up using more energy in the long run.”

Energy Star-rated combi ovens, fryers and griddles are efficient and high performing, but some energy-efficient steamers and convection ovens can lose throughput, according to Zabrowski.

The key is to gather as much performance data beyond Energy Star and spec sheets as possible. “If manufacturers are claiming high efficiency or production, the numbers have to be there to back it up,” he says. “Anyone who’s serious about performance should be looking at ASTM data on their equipment. One of the resources for that is on our site,, on the Energy Star website and on some individual manufacturer websites.”

Myth #2: Electric Is Greener Than Gas

Some believe electric foodservice equipment to be more efficient than gas in most cases, but that’s not always true. In some parts of the country, electricity costs much more than gas because it’s in high demand as a precious resource.

“Even if gas is more expensive and electricity is cheaper, should you always go with the electric version?” questions Sean King, co-owner of Culinary Consulting & Design with his wife Leigh Craig in Knoxville, Tenn., where, like in California, electricity is considered a limited resource.

Then there’s once again the issue of performance versus efficiency. “What if you’re using an energy-efficient range that runs on gas but is less efficient because it takes longer to bring water to a boil so it uses more resources?” King says.

To save electricity or gas, the key is to examine each type of equipment individually and find the source of power that leads to the fastest, most efficient way to cook, he suggests.

Myth #3 Green Is As Simple As Plug in and Play

An operator might have the moving parts to be green — efficient and/or high-performing equipment, a well designed kitchen — but then improperly use those pieces, thereby negating the energy savings.

“Often we might believe in the original intent or selling point for a piece of equipment, but then when it’s in use, we find out there are other side effects that cause problems,” King says. “Even if a piece of equipment is ‘green,’ if it’s not used in the right application, in the long run, it can cost you more money and higher maintenance costs.”

For example, say an operator installs a disposer to cut down on food waste sent to landfills. But instead of going into the main water line, the waste goes into a septic channel because the city or municipality is not set up for that. “Then you have special accommodations you have to make for those lines to run, or a remote holding station and pump and now it’s costing a lot more money and resources and has to be serviced way more,” says King. Not to mention in most cases, septic fees run much higher than even regular water use charges. In that case, composting the food waste or using a pulper and dehydrator might have been the better, “greener” route.

Here’s another example. An operator purchases all LED bulbs thinking that’s the greenest option. “But LED bulbs do not do well in hot and humid conditions, such as on a serving line or near cooking stations,” King says. “They can lose vacuum seal and burn out much quicker.”

In some cases, misuse of application can stem from a false loyalty. “There might be a belief that I’ve been using this product for years and I trust the manufacturer,” says King. “But if the consultant or operator doesn’t ask these questions about application and what’s right for them in their area, they can lose those efficiency savings.”

Myth #4: Biodegradable Is Just as Green As Compostable

Despite regulations and a general reduction in greenwashing lingo, the question about what’s biodegradable and what’s compostable still causes confusion amongst many foodservice operators, says Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability for Eat’N Park Hospitality Group, a restaurant and institutional dining operator.

“Biodegradable and compostable are not interchangeable. I might be able to put biodegradable cutlery in the trash and it should be able to degrade over time, but if it’s at the bottom of the landfill, it won’t get the oxygen it needs to decompose,” he says. “Eat’N Park uses picture-based signage, separate bins and other means to educate diners how to dispose of compostable versus recyclable and biodegradable materials properly.

Andrew Shakman, CEO of LeanPath and an industry expert on food waste, compares the biodegradable versus compostable situation to a Venn diagram. “All compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradables are compostable,” he says.

PLAs — products made from polylactic acid derived from renewable resources such as corn, tapioca and other plant starches — could be considered biodegradable with time, but not all PLA products are compostable, Shakman says. The degraded product might not be suitable as a soil amendment, and could leach toxins in the end compost product due to the small amounts of plastic resin or coating they can still contain.

The Federal Trade Commission has even stepped up to regulate the use of the term biodegradable amidst its overuse during the heavy greenwashing era when sustainability became a hot topic several years ago.

According to the FTC, only products containing materials that “break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short amount of time when they are exposed to air, moisture and bacteria or other organisms,” should be termed as such. Though the FTC does not numerically define that timeline, the American Society for Testing and Materials does with ASTM D-6400 -04 (Standard Specification for Compostable Plastics), which defines compostable product as biodegrading within 180 days. Some municipalities have stricter regulations for when a product must turn into compost, up to 60 days in Seattle, according to Shakman.

ASTM D-6868 -11 (Standard Specification for Labeling of End Items that Incorporate Plastics and Polymers as Coatings or Additives with Paper and Other Substrates Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities) sets standards around how much plastic film or coating can be attached to a product designed to be composted. According to the ASTM, in order to compost satisfactorily, the product must demonstrate (1) proper disintegration during composting; (2) adequate level of inherent biodegradation; and (3) no adverse impacts on the ability of composts to support plant growth.

However, simply throwing compostable disposables in the garbage can pose problems as well. “One of the misconceptions is foodservice operators who spend the extra money on compostable service ware only to dispose of them in plastic bags and ship to the landfill,” says John Turenne, FCSI, president of Sustainable Food Systems, a foodservice consultancy. “The plastic in the bags takes forever to decompose, so the compostable items are trapped inside and never get the chance to breakdown.”

Thinking things through and paying attention to details can help foodservice operators work with the complexities of these issues.

Myth #5: Sustainably-Produced Food Only Comes from Small and/or Local Farms

With so many restaurants and other foodservice operations concerned about sourcing sustainably and “locally,” there continues to be some confusion about what’s truly sustainable and what’s not.

“One of the more popular food-related myths about sustainability is that less intensive production systems are going to be better for the environment,” says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit educational organization representing all segments of the food chain, from the fields to processing plants and restaurants.

“The impact on the environment is not determined by size; it’s determined by the quality of the operation and commitment of the operation to minimize that impact.” In fact, some smaller farms can have significantly greater impact on the environment — using more water, fuel or land resources — because they are less efficient than some larger farms focused more on economies of scale.

Calling all small farms green is a “gross oversimplification of a complex system,” Arnot adds, recognizing that this is frustrating for most people who want a quick, easy answer.

Take, for example, egg production. “We’re looking at the impact of different housing systems — conventional housing, enriched housing with nests and perches, or cage-free aviary systems — on food safety, the environment, worker health and safety and animal well-being,” says Arnot. “There is a strong cultural belief that cage free is superior because it allows birds to move, but this process can also create more emissions and can lead to double the mortality.”

With such complex issues, what can operators do to weed through the information? “It goes back to really knowing your farmer or producer,” says Moore.

For example, “local” doesn’t always mean sustainable. “Sourcing more locally can be considered more sustainably than sourcing from California if you live miles away because the carbon footprint is less,” he says. “But sustainable also has to do with the agricultural process of how that food
is grown.”

Chemical-based pesticides and herbicides; genetically modified versus heirloom seed stock; using compost as a soil amendment versus synthetic fertilizers; crop rotation versus overplanting — these are all important considerations, Moore says.

Information — it’s a blessing and in some cases, a curse. With more access to information about our equipment, food and sustainability, we live more and more in the gray. But with some extra care, attention and “myth-busting,” operators can find the best, greenest path that works for them.

Consultant Sean King’s Top Five Picks for Super Green Products

  1. Induction burners: Primarily used in Europe where electricity is expensive, these units can use half the electricity of traditional electric equipment.
  2. Heat exchangers: Equipment pieces that repurpose heat for other system processes, such as dishwashers repurposing heat exhaust in the final rinse.
  3. Demand-controlled ventilation: Rather than running fans at high speed continuously, this system uses sensors for cooking steam to determine the necessary fan speed.
  4. LED lighting: After years of high costs and skepticism about quality, LED bulbs have come a long way with softer, innovative lighting and more energy savings at more affordable prices. Note: do not use LED lights in hot, humid conditions such as on a serving line with steam present.
  5. Automatic defrost: Manual defrost settings on walk-in coolers and freezers work off timers and will initiate multiple times in a 24-hour period, even if not necessary. Automatic defrost systems use sensors instead to determine when the process is really necessary, thereby saving energy and money.
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