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Eat, drink, be greener

Cafeterias and kitchens are the biggest energy consumers in most offices and yet offer some of the simplest ways of cutting utility bills. Sarah Fister Gale investigates some of the companies cooking up a greener approach to catering

Many business owners don't realise that 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, Washington, 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 allows workers to share their feelings and make suggestions on how the company can improve its environmental profile. "We stay tuned to the conversations on that list, and we saw a lot of discussion about the polystyrene cups in the café programme," 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. This has prevented 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 tonnes of plastic.

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

However, he admits that the transition 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 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 size means it 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 taps in its 35 cafeteria kitchens, and weighing and composting all food waste.

"We've seen a lot of change in behaviour 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 credentials.

"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 programme."

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 the 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, Oregon. 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. This 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."

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 per cent 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 capital investment, replace older dishwashers with newer energy-efficient models that use 70 per cent less hot water.

"That's 70 per cent less water you have to pay to heat, and 70 per cent less water going down the drain," Soucie 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 capital investment based on the defined return on investment," he says, noting that the payback in energy savings makes the return on investment (ROI) fairly easy to justify.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts, a national state park hotel and dining operator based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, 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 (£13,425) system implemented in its Mount 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 an even quicker ROI.

Xanterra also relies on more fundamental green strategies, such as rigorous recycling and composting programmes for all of its restaurants, a ban on Styrofoam, efficient compact fluorescent 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," he says.

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 organisation 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."

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