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The Balancing Act of Sustainability in the Restaurant Industry

By Andrew Rigie

March 2, 2020 


“Sustainability” in the restaurant industry was once a buzzword among chefs and restaurateurs. Today, sustainable practices are in the DNA of innumerable hospitality businesses.


These sustainable business practices grew from the bottom up by chefs who sourced locally grown organic vegetables, served ethically sourced meats and prepared seafood from sustainable fisheries. These restaurants focused on using all parts of food products and used the scraps to cook other dishes, while other restaurants implemented composting programs.


Sustainable practices then grew from the kitchen into the dining room and takeout. Restaurants and bars began removing plastic straws from the business and made single-use plastic utensils available only upon request, due to their ending up in our waterways where they pollute our oceans and harm marine life.



In today’s marketplace, the “conscious consumer” is also influencing businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. Lawmakers have followed these trends too and have begun mandating plastic straw bans and requiring restaurants to compost.


Balancing Consumer Demands

However, becoming more sustainable is often a balancing act for restaurants that operate on thin margins. Purchasing organic foods and compostable single-use utensils is significantly more expensive. Composting can pose logistical problems for workers, particularly in small kitchens. This also can create confusion for patrons who aren’t used to separating their trash among garbage, recycling and compost bins.


Becoming more sustainable is often a balancing act for restaurants that operate on thin margins.


Further, there’s debate among environmentalists about the benefit of certain sustainable practices. For example, is the environmental benefit of serving an organically grown vegetable offset if it’s shipped to the restaurant from across the country in a truck that gives off emissions? What about the fact that there’s not much of a benefit to biodegradable single-use utensils if they’re not composted—and most are not? When it comes to plastic straw bans, people from the disability community raise important concerns because some may need a plastic straw to drink, and no straw—or those made from alternate materials that aren’t bendable or are solid—often don’t accommodate their disability.


Change Is on the Horizon

This is all to say that the issues of sustainability are complex, and the implementation of greener practices can come with financial and operational hurdles. But with the growing desire within the restaurant industry to reduce its environmental impact, consumer demand for businesses to be more eco-friendly, and more robust environmental laws, the restaurant industry is becoming more sustainable every day.


Andrew Rigie is the Executive Director of NYC Hospitality Alliance.