When it comes to sustainable foodservice equipment, there's been plenty of discussion about energy- and water-saving items. But what happens to foodservice equipment at the beginning and end of its service life and how the manufacturer creates, ships and, in some cases, renews or recycles is just as important in the sustainability discussion. Those points in between — and we don't just mean cooking and operating — count.
Starting Off Sustainable
Regardless of whether they are pursuing LEED certification, many of today's architects look to source furnishings, furniture and other building and interior materials locally for their new build-out projects. Founding Farmers, a Washington, D.C.-based restaurant, is a good example of that. CORE, the project's architecture and design firm, looked to many renewable materials for the LEED-certified building/restaurant, even if not all of the efforts were recognized in the final point tally, says Allison Cooke, IIDA, LEED AP, the lead designer.
At the front of Founding Farmers, the host stand and bar are made from reclaimed shoe shipping boxes, while the stone top at the pastry station was created using soapstone salvaged from an old building on the University of Maryland campus, according to Cooke. In the restrooms, wallpaper was printed on a substrate made of recycled material and countertops were made from 100 percent recycled paper. In the dining room, the chairs and communal tables were custom made by small furnishing shops using locally sourced wood. The kitchen flooring is made out of 100 percent recycled material.
While consumers and foodservice professionals continue to show an interest in food items produced in a greener manner than before, it is time to start looking at the environmental impact of sourcing foodservice equipment.
Many factories continue to look at ways to reduce their carbon footprint by examining everything that relates to their businesses, including the way they source office furniture and other business-related items, and by employing more energy-efficient lighting. But many manufacturers operate from decades' old facilities so the impact of these efforts, while important, will only go so far. So the next logical step is to look at the manufacturing and distribution process.
Greening the Manufacturing Process
After equipment leaves the manufacturing plant, what happens to it? What are the materials used in the distribution process? Those are important considerations as well if we're talking about complete sustainability, says Rob Geile, CFSP, LEED AP ID+C, a consultant with Hobart Corp.
Those who worked to develop the NAFEM Sustainability Calculator realize that too. The calculator awards points for greener equipment construction, packaging and end of life disposal. A total 35 points can be awarded for more sustainable manufacturing processes, while packaging can earn up to 10 points and end of life disposal, 15 points.
In the manufacturing category, some considerations are whether the equipment's manufacturing process meets U.S. and state EPA requirements for emissions; the percentage of the product's weight that is recycled or reused materials, and the global warming potential of refrigerants and/or foam insulation (if any) in the product, according to Mark Gilpatric, manager of engineering products for Hatco Corp., chairman of NAFEM's Environmental Factors Committee and member of the association's Technology Liaison Committee.
For packaging, the calculator looks at the percent of total package materials (by weight) that is recycled material. The recycled material may be both pre and post consumer content. The calculator also examines the percent of total package materials (by weight) that is recyclable after reaching the product's destination. For this standard, recyclable materials include paper, cardboard, solid wood, plywood and plastics labeled with recycling codes 1 to 6. The calculator also takes into consideration whether the equipment uses rapidly renewable packaging content, meaning resources that can be harvested less than 10 years after planting. This includes bamboo and eucalyptus.
Finally, the calculator takes into consideration whether or not the equipment can easily be refurbished with new parts for resale and reuse. Can the product materials be recycled or easily taken apart? What kinds of hazardous materials are in the product that would raise concerns in its destruction? The latter consideration is of particular concern if the equipment is to be resold in Europe, which requires special approval for products entering the market to ensure no hazardous materials were used to make it, according to Gilpatric.
"The value behind the tool is not necessarily the score at the end, but that it creates a nice, organized way to report this information so operators working on LEED submittals or wanting to reduce their carbon footprints have a place to start," he says.
Dealing with Distribution
During the distribution process, skids can pose an issue when it comes to "greening." Ideally, blanket wrapping an entire load poses the most sustainable method for delivering product because blankets can easily be reused. Skids, however, are typically not reused, which means excess waste and a natural resource drain. "We've been trying to reuse the same skids over and over because another skid is another tree," Geile says. Once the skid gets to a job site, if it's not needed there it gets put back on a truck and sent back to the factory for reuse.
But that's not as easy as it sounds — it costs money to truck things back to the factory, and one or two small bunches of skid transporting is certainly not efficient, plus its wasteful on gas. Ideally, Geile says, you would have strategic locations throughout the trucking routes for holding skids and the next time the trailer plans to go through the manufacturing plant's city, it could pick up the skids in a larger group.
Again, it's tricky: storage and warehousing facilities just for skids could also pose a costly situation. The most ideal situation, Geile says, is if all manufacturers used the same exact or very similar skid and shared in the cost to collect, store and redistribute used skids for reuse. It's a logistics challenge, for sure, but the result could save hundreds of thousands of trees not to mention landfill waste, he says.
End of Life: The Disposal
The United Kingdom requires companies to responsibly recycle, reuse or refurbish equipment at the end of their life cycle as a way to cut down on landfill space. Unfortunately, the United States is still far behind in that process, Geile says.
For example, Foster Refrigerator, a manufacturer in the United Kingdom, will take an old two-door refrigerator and break down the piece to send to different companies that will recycle different parts, from the stainless steel and metal to even the compressor and refrigerant, a type of recycling less common in the United States.
"It's like disassembling the carcass of an animal and using the bones for soup," Geile says. "Overseas, something like 95 percent or more of the old equipment is recycled. The U.S. is way behind the UK and Europe when it comes to this stuff because they have limited resources, while we have always known this abundance. It's a really interesting concept that we've looked at here in the U.S., but right now we don't have the infrastructure for it. The old equipment parts that can't be recycled just end up in a dump somewhere. It's absolutely terrible."
On a positive note, stainless steel, which comprises around 70 percent of most equipment, can easily be recycled and reused to make new equipment, Geile says. And there are a handful of refurbishing companies around the country that do a great job with equipment that has some potential to be reused, Geile says. But, when it comes to dealing with doors that have insulation in them, for example, and figuring out how to get the insulation off to recycle the rest the incentive to do it is lacking. For a recycling company to open up and specialize in dealing with refrigerants and other nonmetal parts, the profit margins might be too low to justify the work.
Thinking outside the box, such as looking for subsidies and a steel company expanding their recycling services might eventually solve this problem. Even the idea of swapping pieces and parts among manufacturers or brands within the same company poses a solution.
"This problem is sort of on everyone's mind right now, but we're just not there yet," Geile says.