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Money Down the Drain

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By Barney Wolf September 2013 Sustainability

When diners consider water at a restaurant, they’re thinking about the liquid in the drinking glasses at their table. But that’s a small fraction of the water restaurants use—and they use a lot.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates foodservice and hospitality businesses account for 15 percent of the water in America’s commercial facilities.

Most of the agua employed by restaurants—52 percent, the EPA reports—is associated with equipment and processes in the kitchen, while restrooms follow at 31 percent. Drinking water is less than 1 percent.

Operators have many options to reduce water usage: Serving water only if diners request it, fitting aerators on faucets, making sure dishwashers are full, installing efficient toilets and sensor-activated faucets, and using water-catching landscaping devices.

“The technology has increased greatly,” says Michael Oshman, founder and chief executive of the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association (GRA), which helps eateries become more sustainable. “You can get incredible efficiencies.”

For instance, most full-service restaurants have pre-rinse units with high-pressure spray valves to cut the time workers spend scraping dishes before loading them into dishwashers. A low-flow spray provides a quick, environmentally friendly return.

“Considering what you’re paying for heating water and what goes down the drain, you can save thousands of dollars per year on a $60 investment,” Oshman notes.

Major equipment purchases like energy-efficient dishwashers, ice machines, and steam cookers can add up to big savings, although these investments take more time to recoup, he says. “Each has a payback; the question is how much and how quickly.”

Water thrift can be found throughout a restaurant, says Marcus Guiliano, a food activist, lecturer, and chef and owner of Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, New York.

“First off, we installed low-cost, low-flow aerators in all the sinks,” he says. “Where it really helps is in the kitchen. Chefs love to turn on the water and let it go, for cooling, defrosting, and so on. It’s a drastic difference in terms of water usage.”

The restrooms have low-flow toilets, although those “can sometimes be more of a pain, because you may have to flush two times,” Guiliano says.

Aroma Thyme also features an ionized water device that separates water into more alkaline or acidic liquids. The higher alkaline version is served to guests requesting water, while the acidic water is used for plants and cleaning.

Water efficiency is one reason The Grey Plume, in Omaha, Nebraska, is among the GRA’s greenest restaurants.

The kitchen features aerators on hand washing and prep sinks, and a high-efficiency pre-rinse spray valve. The dishwasher and ice machine are Energy Star qualified.

The Grey Plume goes farther, says chef/owner Clayton Chapman. Instead of using a garbage disposal, which may flow 15 gallons of water per minute, the restaurant composts food waste.

“We have a little, on-site production with microgreens, so we have planters out front with herbs in soil on top of mesh wire racks,” he says. “The rain soaks the plants and collects in the bottom. We use that to water at other times.”

A less direct method of conserving water, Chapman says, involves the restaurant’s best-selling entrée: Donaldson steelhead trout ($30, with crème fraiche spaetzle and seasonal vegetables) from Blue Valley Aquaculture in Sutton, Nebraska.

The trout is raised in water from the Ogallala Aquifer, which passes through a series of raceways and then flows outside where Blue Valley has pond cultures to raise other fish varieties. Excess water irrigates crops in nearby farms.

Restaurants can also save water by developing menu with less meat and more seafood and vegetables, Guiliano says, like his sesame-crusted Albacore tuna with spicy sriracha, peanut sauce, and pickled ginger ($32).

“It takes 19 gallons of water to raise a head of lettuce, but 2,100 to 5,000 gallons for what ends up as one pound of beef,” he explains. “You get major water conservation–maybe not in your community, but in some community.”