Food & DrinkGrub Notes

Athens Restaurants’ Sustainable Practices

Maepole’s containers and utensils are compostable and/or recyclable. Credit: Whitley Carpenter

You try to recycle in your daily life. Maybe you’ve even considered buying carbon-offset credits or installing solar panels on your house. But how much do you think about green habits in restaurant dining? If the answer is, “not much,” you’ll be glad to know that there are restaurants out there doing it for you.

Peter Dale’s Maepole is perhaps the most visible example of a restaurant built around green practices, from its compostable containers and tableware to its hormone- and antibiotic-free meats to its plethora of vegan options. Dale says there’s plenty behind the scenes, too, that customers might not necessarily notice. He says composting happens in the kitchen with pretty much everything, including meat scraps and bones, which your average home composter can’t break down, but a commercial composter can. 

He’s also made an effort to shift Maepole and his other restaurants away from glass containers. Glass is endlessly recyclable, but it doesn’t fetch much money on the recycling market, and it’s also heavy and fragile. Athens-Clarke County has programs that incentivize restaurants and bars to use less of it. Canned beers are a better option than bottled ones, in other words.

Chuck Ramsey of Pulaski Heights BBQ says that, rather than reheat meats that were smoked the day before and compromise quality, he reuses leftovers in stews and chilis, plus distributes them to unhoused people who need meals. “We try to make sure every bit of product is being utilized instead of going in the landfill,” he says. “For instance, barbecue creates a lot of rendered fat, so we save that and use it to cook with in dishes that aren’t vegetarian.”

Having those vegetarian dishes is also important, given the amount of resources meat uses, and Rashe Malcolm is trying to provide people a healthier, greener option through vegan dishes at her Jamaican restaurant, Rashe’s Cuisine. She says that it’s easy for people to think that kind of lifestyle is too expensive or intimidating to pursue, but that it can be easier for people to embrace it when they see someone who looks like them and cooks the kind of traditional foods she does. She’s working on adding even more vegan options to her menu. As far as compost goes, she laughs and says that when her restaurant was inspected, she told the inspector, “Compost? This is a Jamaican restaurant! We cook it all!”

Dale says that, before he opened Maepole, he consulted with ACC Solid Waste on what disposable containers would work best with their processes and equipment. He knew he couldn’t avoid containers entirely, due to the restaurant being focused on convenience, but he wanted to make sure materials he picked would work with local waste processing, composting and recycling. Is it more expensive for restaurants to do this? Yes. Foam plastic is incredibly cheap, and there’s no question that the pandemic has led to a giant upswing in takeout and its accompanying waste. Dale says he thinks that restaurants are starting to come out of panic mode and that he hopes there will be a return to greener practices soon.

A focus on local produce, which all three restaurateurs quoted here share, is also good for the environment. Not only do local fruits and veggies taste better and put money back into the local economy, helping friends and neighbors, but they often use fewer pesticides, which affect pollinators, and they cut down on carbon by traveling fewer miles.

Ramsey points out that, although greener packaging is expensive, many other things restaurants do to promote sustainability are also good for their bottom line, like water-limiting devices on faucets to cut down on excess water usage, making sure equipment is in good working order so that it’s not using more energy than it should, or reducing waste.

What can customers do? Ramsey says advance orders have helped him cut back on waste, but that using less (napkins, sauce, to-go cups in dine-in times) is something you can do to help. “All that affects our bottom line, for sure, but I really just hate putting things in the trash that didn’t need to go there,” he says. 

Dale adds, “Support businesses [that] share your values. If a restaurant uses Styrofoam and you don’t think that is OK, send them an email. Customer feedback is going to create change faster than any other method.”