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How 9 Phoenix restaurants kept 31,000 pounds of food waste out of landfills in 10 weeks

A 2023 Gallup survey found that the average Arizona household throws out over 4 pounds of food each month.

Restaurants are also a major contributor of food waste. So the city of Phoenix, Arizona nonprofit Waste Not, the National Resource Defense Council and local chef Chris Lenza have teamed up on a project to reduce how much they contribute to landfills.

“We were challenged to compost and really look at our food waste in a different kind of way,” said Fair Trade Café owner Stephanie Vasquez.

The café and eight other restaurants on Historic Lower Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row participated in a 10-week pilot program with a focus on sustainable food sourcing, composting scraps, and overall waste reduction.

Being part of Project REDUCE, said Vasquez, just made sense.

“We’ve been around 16 years and we’ve been composting for at least 13 of them,” she said.

Amada Lopez manages Irma’s Kitchen, where she cooks alongside her mother, Irma, on 16th Avenue and Roosevelt Street. Since they began composting, she said it’s helped them flourish.

“We didn’t know we can save this much food and use it to grow trees, plants and everything, and feed animals like the chickens we have,” said Lopez.

Other leftovers from Irma’s Kitchen go to local firefighters and police.

“We give [to] them because they’re also the ones that help us be successful,” Lopez explained.

Abner Hernandez, co-owner of Earth Plant Based Cuisine and Goji Berry Café, said repurposing those leftovers and reducing waste has been part of their ethos from the start.

Maria Aguilar is his business partner and mother-in-law, as well as Earth’s chef. She's behind many of the ingredient-recycling recipes. One of the first dishes she created was a version of flautas de papa, where potato peels that otherwise would’ve been tossed aside are the star ingredient.

“It’s just being able to find ways to use spices, use condiments, use all the other things that you already know to bring out the flavor from the vegetables that are already given to us from the earth,” said Hernandez. “But it’s been really fun. It’s been really nice to educate our team a little bit more on what our recycling is, what our composting is.”

Miriam Elgawhry is the general manager at Snooze A.M. Eatery, where in addition to composting, they’ve also begun cooking up ways to reuse ingredients from existing dishes.

“A couple dishes use our brioche bread,” said Elgawhry. “And we have lots of bread scraps. So our wonderful chef Eddie [Orozco] here decided to reuse our bread scraps and make our brioche bread pudding French toast.”

Orozco said while he’s made the dish before, he was proud to see his kitchen reusing things like the bread scraps instead of tossing them.

Snooze regional manager Zach Woods added that whatever scraps don’t make it onto the plate, go to the compost bin. With recycling added into the mix, Woods said only about 15 to 20% of the restaurant’s waste ends up in landfills.

Orozco isn’t the only one experimenting with new recipes. Out of Testal Mexican Kitchen came a spin on tinga, a dish usually made with chicken, using hibiscus flowers left over from the restaurant’s fresh jamaica drink.

“You’d be surprised at the changes you can implement to be able to reduce waste,” said owner Fernando Hernandez.

For restaurants, margins act as an important window into the health of a business by influencing price-setting, or measuring things like production and efficiency.

“It kind of goes hand in hand at the moment,” Hernandez said of participating in the program. “Not only our own personal interest in being more friendly to the environment, but it also happens that when it comes to business it actually has helped us reduce our costs.”

According to Hernandez, switching to a self-serve salsa setup reduced their production of the product by about 60%.

Seth Marion with Arizona Wilderness said one of the biggest changes for them was switching to using Sinagua Malt, a benefit corporation in Camp Verde. Sinagua Malt purchases and processes barley from Arizona farmers to turn into malt, which it sells to local brewers.

“Twenty-eight million gallons of water saved switching to Sinagua Malt,” said Marion. “It’s probably my biggest one that I’m happy about.”

Despite the front-end cost of working to find companies willing to recycle things like disposable latex-based gloves, Marion said he’d like to see more companies doing their part.

“I would like to see it be a universal thing, every restaurant,” he said. “I don’t want it to be the few shining, I want it to be everyone shining. To me, that’s the way we’re gonna move the change.”

At Testal, Fernando Hernandez said awareness of where and how to achieve sustainability goals was a key component.

“Just being more aware of our impact on the environment,” said Hernandez. “So with this program, it was really good for all of us to take a look into the process, look into our ingredients and figure out a way we can be better, more efficient.”

He said he hopes the program drives awareness that will lead to more restaurants following suit.

But things like the time it takes to find the right recycling company or costs associated with composting can also keep restaurants from making changes.

Vasquez said that even though composting can be costly, the price of not doing so is greater.

“It’s not as expensive as the detriment of the contribution we’re making by not composting,” she said. “So if you look at it that way, it’s something that to me, of course we’re going to do.”

Elgawhry noted that at Snooze and other places, implementing small changes is all it takes to get started.

Vasquez echoed that sentiment: “If we were just a little bit more thoughtful in the way that we consumed, the ripple effects that we could create in the world are so powerful, through something you’re doing anyways.”

Altogether, the pilot program kept roughly 31,000 pounds of food waste out of landfills.

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.