What Is the Carbon Footprint of the Restaurant Industry and How Can You Measure Yours?

The restaurant industry is guilty of producing large amounts of carbon emissions in its quest to deliver delicious food and memorable culinary experiences for customers. From emissions released during the production of the ingredients, to the water used to grow fruit and vegetables, to the transportation emissions involved in the supply of ingredients – the carbon footprint associated with the resulting meal can be as much as eight kg of carbon dioxide (CO2).

In fact, the food and drinks industry (of which the restaurant industry forms a part) is responsible for around one third of all greenhouse gas emissions annually. This means that businesses across the board will need to get better at operating in a more sustainable fashion.

What is the carbon footprint of the restaurant industry?

When it comes to the restaurant industry, the biggest issue tends to come from its supply chain. Meat production, in particular, is known for being bad for the environment, accounting for as much as 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But not all livestock has the same impact, some are worse than others. For example, lamb and beef are responsible for the largest amount of emissions since they require more land, more water, and produce more CO2 than any other livestock. It’s a major environmental concern and the restaurant industry is one of the largest consumers of meat, serving it up to consumers every day all over the world. 

Carbon emissions from transportation is another issue as the restaurant industry is heavily reliant on supplies transported from across the world. On the one hand, this is one of the best things about living in an increasingly global economy since ingredients are now available year round, no matter what part of the world you live in. For the restaurant industry, this globalized economy has led to a creative boon as they no longer have to restrict their menus to seasonal produce. However, such a globalized transportation network has been bad news for the environment. Transporting produce uses a lot of fuel and generates harmful CO2 emissions. Just to give you an idea, as much as 11 percent of food production emissions comes from their transportation.

Even without accounting for the emissions impact of a restaurant's supply chain, the amount of environmental damage from materials consumed and wasted in the food preparation process can be staggering. The use of single-use coffee cups, plastic straws and plastic take-out containers is resulting in huge amounts of waste in our landfills and oceans. 

How can I measure my business’s carbon footprint?

A business's carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gasses that they produce, measured in tons of emitted CO2. The restaurant industry, in particular, is responsible for producing a significant carbon footprint, which means that they also need to take responsibility for addressing their emissions and making an effort to reduce these. So how exactly can a restaurant calculate their carbon footprint? 

For restaurants, it’s a difficult task to accurately analyze just how much carbon emissions their business is producing. This is because emissions don’t just come from the restaurant's food production and service activities, they also incorporate the ingredient supply chain – something that is often complex and varied as ingredients may come from numerous producers all across the world. To make the process a little easier we’ve outlined a step by step guide below. 

Step 1: Collect Data

Restaurants who want to calculate their carbon footprint should start by collecting data on each of their emissions-releasing activities. This should be done over a twelve month period and will usually include the following: electricity use (total kilowatt-hours), natural gas use (total kilowatt-hours), water supply (cubic meters), fuel used in any company used vehicles (liters of fuel), employee commuting travel (distance and method of transport), waste disposal and recycling (tonnes). This information can usually be found on utility bills and receipts. 

The more accurate the data, the more accurate the emissions measurements will be. Where accurate data can’t be obtained, reasonable estimates should be made instead. 

Step 2: Convert the data 

Once a restaurant has worked out their data for each activity over a 12-month period, this data will need to be multiplied by its relevant emission conversion factor to give an estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions for that particular activity. Emissions factors are updated annually and can be easily found online. 

Or, to make things easier, another option is to use an online calculator. There are several free options available online that businesses can use to calculate the CO2 emissions for each of their activities.

Step 3: Ask suppliers

Step 1 and 2 above will help a restaurant calculate their carbon emissions from direct activities, but they don’t take into account the emissions that are produced by suppliers. So if a restaurant wants to get an accurate idea of their total CO2 emissions they’re going to have to ask suppliers to participate in the process. With a bit of luck, this information may be readily available and the supplier may be able to easily provide details on their CO2 emissions. But this won’t always be the case, so restaurants may need to educate their suppliers on the benefits of calculating their own carbon emissions. 

Alternatively a business can simplify the whole process by employing a carbon accounting company to do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to calculating emissions. These companies will usually follow a methodical process by first choosing data from a single year to calculate this data – preferably to the most recent calendar year for the most accurate and up-to-date information. A lot of carbon accounting companies may also offer services to help implement carbon cutting measures. 

How can I reduce my carbon footprint?

So what actions can a restaurant take to reduce their carbon footprint? 

Reduce material consumption and waste

This is probably the easiest way for restaurants to reduce their carbon footprint. All it involves is a simple audit of the products and materials being used and then their replacement (where possible) with environmentally friendly alternatives. For example, plastic straws can be replaced with reusable metal ones, plastic cutlery can be swapped out for metal alternatives, mustard and ketchup packets can be switched with permanent refillable bottles etc. 

Buy local produce 

Sure, it's great to have access to produce all year round, but it’s not great for the environment. Emissions from transportation and intensive farming practices that produce non-seasonal ingredients are responsible for large amounts of CO2 emissions. Restaurants should look to reduce this where possible by buying locally and seasonally. This can actually be a selling point when trying to attract customers. For instance, consumers these days are a lot more passionate about the environment and farm to mouth restaurants are becoming a trend.

Reduce energy consumption

The process of food preparation and the running of a restaurant results in CO2 emissions. Appliances like the fridge, the freezer and the cooker all run on electricity. Not only this but keeping the restaurant lit and well heated for customers also consumes power. While it might not be possible to eliminate all energy consumption, it is definitely possible to reduce it. 

Simple actions such as switching to LED bulbs and purchasing energy-efficient appliances can make a world of difference. And not only to a restaurant's carbon footprint – these simple actions also help businesses to save money by cutting down on the cost of their utility bills.