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A zero-waste restaurant? How to go a step beyond the 100-mile diet

Sandwich Me In, a Chicago restaurant, sources all its meat and produce locally, uses every part of the ingredients that it can, composts the rest and recycles everything else.

Sandwich Me In

This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.

If you stop for a bite at Sandwich Me In, a casual Chicago restaurant that is possibly the world's most sustainable, be sure not to leave anything behind.

It's not that it will go missing, it's just that the things diners leave behind constitutes the majority of the garbage the restaurant has ever produced – a mere 30 litres in two years.

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"About half of that garbage was just outside waste," explains Justin Vrany, the restaurant's chef and owner.

"People bringing in the disposable coffee cups which have the plastic lining inside of them, odds and ends that people drop in the restaurant."

Now, Vrany is working with a local artist to turn that small amount of garbage into a sculpture so he can truly claim that his is officially a zero-waste restaurant.

Sandwich Me In sources all its meat and produce locally, uses every part of the ingredients that it can, composts the rest and recycles everything else. Even the energy the restaurant uses is sourced from a provider that generates 100 per cent of its power from biodiesel, solar or wind.

Vrany is at the cutting edge of sustainability in the food world. For a few years it was all about the 100-mile diet, finding ingredients locally to cut down on the carbon footprint. Today it isn't about the proximity of where a restaurant gets its food, at least not entirely, but rather about taking social responsibility one step further by creating a holistic dining experience that takes sustainability to the next level.

Randall Cook, operations director for the Vancouver-based Green Table Network, consults with restaurants and food service providers on how they can improve their environmental performance.

"One of the most innovative and exciting trends right now is the fact that a lot of extremely high efficiency technologies have come down significantly in price," he says. "LED lighting, for example, to retrofit a good-sized restaurant in 2011 without benefits of rebates you were looking at a minimum $5,000, now those lights and fixtures are available in any home improvement store and the price is going to come in around half that."

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Vancouver's Forage restaurant underwent a massive redesign in 2012 and challenged itself to decrease its consumption levels by 30 per cent.

Chef Chris Whittaker says the majority of the savings came in the kitchen – where most of the energy is consumed.

"We had an exhaust system that basically would come on at four in the morning and shut off at 2 a.m. and it was just running that whole time.

"Now we've got a mass control ventilation system that detects when we're cooking really heavily and that brings the exhaust hoods on, so when we finish a service you can hear these huge fans shut right off. That was a significant savings right there and they say that it will pay itself off in two or three years, you're probably talking about 10 to 15k a year in savings," Whittaker says.

In Vancouver, restaurants like Forage take support of local farmers and fishers as a given. Their goal is to show that same level of environmental awareness in all aspects of their operation.

"All of the wood in the restaurant was certified," the chef explains. "We work with local metalworkers to make our signs. All the materials are natural fabrics and the lighting is LED."

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It's not just restaurants that are pushing the boundaries of corporate responsibility. Sybil Taylor, communications director for Steam Whistle Brewing, has helped guide the company's green initiatives project that now makes it one of Canada's greenest employers.

It uses 100 per cent renewable energy, powers its delivery trucks with bio diesel and, as the name suggests, controls the climate of its brewery with steam.

"We try to impact every aspect of the operation and production from ingredients and packaging to distribution and even the way we're selling and marketing," Taylor says.

When it started 20 years ago, Tinhorn Creek operated like almost every other winery: irrigating its vineyards, spraying vines as a first defence against rot and fertilizing heavily.

Over the years, however, the winery has grown into one of the country's most sustainable, often surpassing traditional organic standards in the vineyard and exceeding safety standards for its workers.

For owner Sandra Oldfield such practices are not only ethically and environmentally responsible, they are also good business.

"In general businesses tend not to be very sustainable because they tend to think it's a big capital investment," she says.

"My approach is how about you try and do it a little bit differently so your inputs are lower and that means that your expenses are lower. And at the end of it all you actually are quite a bit more sustainable. Even though you have to pay more attention, you probably end up spending less money."

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