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NOVEMBER 2010: Dine out with your values intact at restaurants actively pursuing sustainability through energy and water efficiency, recycling, sustainable food and more.

Certified Green Restaurants
Beyond Local Food

I try hard to maintain a green kitchen and eat sustainably when I dine in. It's a different story when I dine out. My restaurant choices have always been based on other factors—the quality of the food, ambiance, location and price.

Then last year, my brother-in-law took me to a rather good place on New York's Upper West Side that had green restaurant certification... whatever that was. The restaurant didn't make a point of it and I never would have known if it weren't for a postcard I found at the door. Intrigued for the obvious reasons, I made a mental note to look into it later, but quickly forgot.

A few weeks ago, I encountered another certified green restaurant, Rouge Tomate in the East 60s, and here the food was more than rather good, it was wonderful. This time, I made a point of investigating.

What I found opened my eyes to a whole new way of picking restaurants. Let's put it this way: Zagat needs to introduce a "certified green" category.

The key word is "certified." Any old restaurant can call itself green (and probably many do) but what does the claim really mean? Nothing without an impartial party to back it up. Even when restaurants use the word "green" in good faith, it is still too hazy a term.

Enter the non-profit Green Restaurant Association (GRA), which 20 years ago began building a certification and support program for restaurants interested in going green. When a restaurant is certified by the GRA, you know it meets clear environmental standards with regard to energy, water, waste, disposables, pollution and—oh yeah—food.

I put food last to emphasize that, despite the fact that it comes to mind first, it is hardly the only area of restaurant operations that matters. Collectively, the other areas contribute much more to a restaurant's environmental footprint. That said, food is the one area that directly affects customers and tells them that a restaurant takes sustainability seriously.

But let's focus on those other areas for a moment—the ones that are for the most part invisible to customers. Did you know that an analysis by the Department of Energy shows that restaurants are the most energy intensive businesses in the commercial sector —meaning they use the most energy per square foot? Picture a restaurant kitchen and you can see why. There are ovens and broilers and fryers and ice machines and walk-in refrigerators and dishwashers, all requiring energy to operate. You'd be hard-pressed to find another type of business with comparable energy needs. Even health care, with all its machines, uses less per square foot.

Or consider this: According to the GRA, the average restaurant discards 50,000 pounds of garbage per year. Almost 95% of the waste could be recycled or composted. (Keep in mind—those waste figures don't include the take-out cups and containers discarded by consumers after they leave the restaurant.)

So, as you can see, restaurant practices have a very significant impact.

Now, what's different about a restaurant that is certified green by the GRA? To begin with, it uses no polystyrene (brand name: Styrofoam) and has a full-scale recycling program. In addition, it has racked up at least ten points in each of the six areas mentioned above for specific eco-friendly measures and 100 points overall, some of which may be earned in the optional "furnishings and building materials" category. Every year, a restaurant must do yet more to retain its certification.

Where does food come in?

A restaurant can earn as many as 40 points for serving 100% organic food, 40 points for local food, 45 points for vegan food etc. The actual points awarded will depend on the percentage of food that meets the criterion—so if 25% of the food is organic, the restaurant will get 40 x .25 = 10 points. And there may be nothing more sustainable about its food than that because 10 points is all it needs in any one category.

The rest of its points can be accumulated elsewhere—from such things as alternative fuel vehicles, composting, waterless urinals, linen-free tables and high-efficiency water heaters. Or the restaurant might be a showcase of local, seasonal, plant-based cooking at its finest.

Green certification does not guarantee one type of cooking or another. Nor does it guarantee quality. (Check regular restaurant reviews for that.) But if doing the sustainable thing is important to you, it may just be the special ingredient that makes for a perfect meal.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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On This Topic

Food chain
DINE OUT MORE SUSTAINABLY by following these steps (adapted from the Green Restaurant Association's list):

• Patronize certified green restaurants.

• When dining at your favorite uncertified restaurants, suggest that they take the leap.

• Eat lower on the food chain. (The top of the food chain is meat, followed by poultry, then fish and finally plants.)

• Only order sustainable seafood. (The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers pocket and mobile sustainable seafood guides.)

• Don't order more food than you can realistically eat.

• Dine nearby so you can walk to the restaurant—or go to a place accessible by public transit.



No polystyrene
TWO ABSOLUTE REQUIREMENTS of all restaurants certified green by the Green Restaurant Association are a full-scale recycling program and no polystyrene.



OTHER GREEN CERTIFIERS besides the Green Restaurant Association exist, including regional and international groups, but not all take as wide-ranging an approach to sustainable practices. For instance, Quality Assurance International only certifies compliance with organic standards. Others, such as Virginia Green Restaurants, do not appear to verify restaurant claims. Green Seal has a serious certification and verification process, but does not provide a directory of its certified restaurants, which leaves them hard to find. However, its emblem, when you come across it, is a good guarantee of sustainaiblity.




Resources


Green Restaurant Association
Find Certified Green Restaurants

The New York Times
Going Out to Eat, But Staying Green

Green Your
Choose Certified Green Restaurants

Simple Steps for Green Efficiency in the Restaurant Industry
The Green Scene

USA Today
Can Restaurants Go Green, Earn Green?

Treehugger
Five Outstanding Green Restaurants



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.