Before COVID-19 struck, West-bourne, a vegetarian café in SoHo, was focused on two things: serving its roughly 250 guests per day and making sure that 14 hours of service generated, on average, only a single landfill-bound bag of trash.
Because of limited street frontage, West-bourne is not attempting to resume service with outdoor seating. Since March the deluge of dine-in guests has been replaced by a trickle of customers picking up pantry goods and bottles of natural wine.
Founder Camilla Marcus remains as committed as ever, however, to the restaurant’s zero-waste goal.
“For us, zero waste is in our DNA, so we’ll figure out how to do it whatever we’re doing,” said Marcus, who opened the café in January 2018. Just before the shutdown, it became New York’s first zero-waste restaurant, as affirmed by Green Business Certification, an organization that awards LEED green-building certifications. The process involved meticulously documenting that the restaurant diverted at least 90 percent of its waste from landfills.
West-bourne is one of a number of New York restaurants and bars that have, in the past few years, worked to radically reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills. Tactics include careful, creative menu planning to use up excess ingredients, composting, arranging to have deliveries from distributors made via cargo bike and opting not to offer takeout, which typically involves single-use containers that restaurants can only hope are being composted or recycled.
Estimates vary, but according to nonprofit ReFED, the U.S. restaurant industry generates 11.4 million tons of food waste annually. And then there’s all the other trash: plastic wrap, paper napkins, stained menus, disposable packaging, takeout containers and items that are recyclable in theory but not really in practice, such as berry containers and waxed cardboard.
COVID-19, which has dealt a blow to the city’s restaurants, made adhering to sustainable practices more difficult in many respects. But restaurateurs say they’re finding ways to continue their environmental mission, even as they’ve changed their entire business model in the past few months.