As a food service professional, you’re probably used to thinking of food waste as a pre-consumer problem — that is, you focus on moving food before it expires. However, where the environment is concerned, it’s post-consumer food waste that’s the real problem. All those half-eaten sandwiches and leftover fries are filling our trash bags and stuffing our landfills with organic waste.

According to the EPA, Americans tossed about 39.7 million tons of organic food waste in 2015, equalling about 15% of the trash headed to landfills that year. Organic waste decomposes — so unlike plastic, it will break down in our lifetime. While on the other hand, the process of decomposing releases methane, which contributes to global warming.

Some cities have created organic waste requirements, such as the Universal Recycling Ordinance passed in Austin, Texas, this year. With that in mind, many restaurant owners have become passionate crusaders for food waste reduction, launching programs to convert leftovers into tasty meals and turning organic waste into compost. Here are a few ways you can get your restaurant involved.

 

Generate Less Waste

You don’t have to worry about where your waste is going if you’re not generating much in the first place. Proactively managing food orders and moving inventory before it expires will reduce your waste footprint, and reduce food costs to boot. All of this can be accomplished easily with a POS system with order management software. Using these tools, you can evaluate your food costs and quickly streamline vendor orders for less waste overall.

 

Limit Portion Sizes

Let’s face it: many restaurants have a problem with portion sizes. Nutritionists say the average restaurant meal is two to three times the recommended size, which means there’s lots of room for improvement. Limit the amount of food that goes uneaten in your restaurant by controlling portions. Evaluate what diners leave on their plate to see where you can reduce waste without impacting customer satisfaction. Or consider adding a “small plates” section to your menu, allowing customers to choose the amount of food they want.

 

Creatively Reuse Leftovers

Sometimes being left with extra food is inevitable: for example, bad weather may keep that pork loin special from flying off the menu. Talented chefs view this as an opportunity in disguise, using leftovers to concoct creative menu specials for the next day. Maybe the pork loin becomes shredded pork sandwiches or pork fried rice. If you are looking for inspiration, Julia Turshen’s book Now & Again: Go-To Recipes, Inspired Menus and Endless Ideas for Reinventing Leftovers is a veritable encyclopedia of ideas you can try and implement.

In a similar vein, many chefs have turned to a “zero waste” cooking approach, finding a way to use all the edible parts of the fruits and vegetables they buy. Many promote “head to tail” meat dishes as well, butchering and preparing their meats in-house so they can ensure that nothing usable goes in the trash.

 

Donate Edible Leftover Food

Unfounded fear of legal retaliation keeps many restaurants from donating edible food to a good cause. Fortunately, there’s no reason to be wary; the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act offers some liability protection to restaurants that give away leftover food in good faith.

A local food bank may be able to help with large, recurring donations of surplus food. For smaller contributions, a charitable organization like Food Not Bombs might help to arrange a pick up directly from your restaurant; use this food rescue locator from Sustainable America to find a nonprofit that will take the food off your hands. Knowing your excess food is going to someone who needs it is extremely rewarding.

 

Start a Composting Program

Not all food can be donated or repurposed into new meals. However, these leftovers can still be put to use in a compost bin. Food left on plates by patrons, vegetable peels and other scraps, as well as spoiled or inedible food; all make good candidates for compost, a nutrient-rich soil additive that helps to grow the next generation of fruits and vegetables.

Composting may present some logistical challenges for your restaurant: managing your compost pile takes a lot of work and constant vigilance. You’ll need to train employees what goes in and what doesn’t — and, of course, find a way to store your organic waste without attracting pests. Fortunately, there is a growing industry of businesses that will help you collect and transport organic waste for industrial composting.

Many organic waste management solutions will design custom solutions tailored to your business model and worksite. Some even offer employee training and trash can signage as well. These services typically cost more than landfilling, but they’ll net you points for corporate social responsibility, especially if you promote your composting program on social media.

All of these efforts should get you plenty of kudos from your local community while also helping the environment. That’s the kind of publicity we can all get behind!