Project Green Fork (PGF) is a nonprofit in Memphis, Tennessee, that helps local restaurants lower overhead, reduce waste and decrease environmental impact.
PGF was founded by Margot McNeeley, a yoga teacher who was moved to take action by the needless pollution and waste she observed. After realizing that the average restaurant meal produced 1.5 lbs of waste, and that 95% of restaurant waste could be diverted from the landfill with proper systems in place, she set out to find a way to inspire a change in the local dining culture.
To date Margot estimates her program has helped local restaurants recycle 920,000 gallons of plastic, glass, and aluminum, and 430 metric tons of cardboard and paper. Participating restaurants have also returned roughly 132,000 gallons of food waste to community gardens and local farmers–to be composted and turned into nutrient rich soil.
Project Green Fork awards participating restaurants rated certifications, based on their ability to meet certain standards in areas such as recycling, energy efficiency and sustainable packaging. Margot spoke with EthicalFoods.com about working around obstacles to sustainability and her hope for the future.
When you started Project Green Fork it seems there was not much infrastructure in place to support restaurants in the move to sustainability. For instance, I understand Memphis does not offer recycling or composting services to businesses. How are you getting around these problems?
When I started Project Green Fork in 2008 I knew that the composting and recycling piece of the puzzle was going to be a challenge. Fortunately for us, Memphian Madeleine Edwards contacted me after seeing a locally written article on PGF to say she wanted to explore the possibility of tackling the recycling issue. Almost 4 years later, her business, Get Green Recycleworks services over 50 citywide clients, the majority of those clients being Project Green Fork restaurants.
Get Green Recycleworks takes recyclables to a local independent recycling sorting facility and the compostable food scraps are dropped off to our community gardens for them to turn into compost. Additionally, some PGF certified restaurants DIY with the recycling and composting. When they sign on with us, we provide them with a booklet that walks them through all of the PGF steps including how to DIY or who to contact for recycling pickups.
Have you noticed any changes in the attitudes of diners since you started this project?
YES! The support has been tremendous. A large number of Memphians actually decide where to dine based on the sustainability of the restaurant and they use the PGF list to help them make those choices. Diners have become much more aware of where their food is coming from and we are fortunate that we have about 12 farmers markets in the area and many community gardens that are growing specifically for restaurants.
How far do restaurants tend to go in educating their patrons about their sustainability practices? Does it stop at a certification sign, or do they provide more information?
Some do and some don’t. We ask participating establishments to put the PGF logo on their menu, website, print ads etc. The more we can educate the public about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it, the more successful the organization is and it helps build customer loyalty with the restaurant.
We work very hard at tooting the horn of our participating restaurants. We advertise for them, use social media and much more.
How about the costs, Margot? People are increasingly trying to do more with less. Do restaurants that switch to sourcing quality, sustainable foods generally need to increase their prices, and if so, by how much?
On the front end, the cost is a little more but overall, if the required steps are done the way we have set them up to be done, savings can occur. We advise our PGF restaurant owners to contact their trash disposal company and get a smaller dumpster and/or less pickups once they start their recycling program to save money on the pickups, which saves them a little. On an average, thereduction of trash should be around 50-75%.
Another thing we suggest is that once they get rid of the polystyrene to-go containers and replace them with a sustainable container, that they charge a small to-go fee to cover the cost of the sustainable container. We also have participating restaurants conduct an online water and energy audit which, once completed, gives them suggestions/ideas of how to reduce their water and energy consumption, which should reduce their overall utility bill.
And yes, the price of locally grown and/or sustainably raised food is more and the restaurants need to charge enough to cover their costs. But there is a demand for sustainable food so we hope diners appreciate that and are willing to pay a little more for it.
If you had to choose one area that represents the greatest challenge to moving restaurants toward sustainable sourcing and practices, what would that be?
The price of sustainable (non polystyrene aka Styrofoam) to-go containers has got to come down. I would also like to see a citywide mandate for composting and recycling for all businesses and homes.
In order for that to happen, a large investment would need to take place, a new fleet of trucks that are equipped to handle large amounts of recycling and composting and facilities set up locally that can sustainably handle the pickups.
To learn more, visit the Project Green Fork website.