Don't get boxed in: How restaurants can save big with cardboard recycling
Restaurants can save big with cardboard recycling (Photo: Jeff Clark)

Many restaurant owners want to recycle, but don’t know how or where to begin.

Starting with a big, complex recycling program can be difficult for a number of reasons: Different cities and counties take different materials; training staff can be time consuming; and establishing a front-of-house recycling bin system can take up considerable space.

Instead of tackling everything at once, you can start by recycling the material that takes up about 25% of your dumpster -- cardboard.

If you haven’t already started your recycling program, focus on cardboard first. It will help you get a big bang for your buck in dumpster savings and potential revenues from recycling the material. Here are seven steps to successful cardboard recycling:

  • Find out if you can place a recycling bin on premise. If you are renting your space, check your lease before doing anything else to make sure additional bins can be placed out back. If the answer is yes, make sure there is enough room behind your building or near the loading dock to store used cardboard.
  • Cutting it up is serious business. Train your staff to safely cut up boxes and lay them flat in the cardboard bin. This will reduce empty space between loosely packed boxes so you can fit more in for each pick up. This should not only save money (more cardboard per pickup), it will look more organized and clean to your customers and employees.
  • Separation is key. Only put cardboard in the cardboard recycling bin. Do not contaminate the pile with other materials like bags, bottles or cans, and keep it as dry as possible.
  • Waxing or waning. Ask your recycler if they accept waxed cardboard from foodstuff deliveries. Waxed cardboard needs to be separated from normal cardboard, since the wax contaminates the pulp during the reprocessing of regular cardboard. Still, it could be a useful material so be sure to ask.
  • Who will pick it up? Call your local recycling centers and city officials for information on finding the right hauler. Talk with neighboring business owners to see which ones they have good relationships with. Also, check out GridWaste.com for a reverse bidding process, where haulers bid for your business.
  • Get baled out. If you have space constraints at your restaurant, ask the recycler about a cardboard baler to crush and bind the cardboard. Make sure you ask if they can use the baled material as is or if that would cause problems. If it does, ask what companies would accept it instead. Also, find out about financial assistance from the city or state environmental agencies for purchasing baling equipment.
  • Log your savings, revisit your efforts. You can’t manage what you don’t measure so track your cardboard recycling by weight, if possible, and monetary savings.

Once you have your successful program in place, consider the next step of expanding to single stream recycling. You’ll never look back.

Jeff Clark is program director of the National Restaurant Association’s Conserve sustainability program and helps administer Atlanta’s Zero Waste Zones program. Visit Conserve to learn more about reducing waste, water and energy usage.

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