A Waste-Free Restaurant—Is It Possible?

by Mitchell Clute

If you walk through the doors of Sandwich Me In, in the Lakeside East neighborhood of Chicago, you’ll see brightly painted murals, counters made of recycled materials, and succulent pulled pork and BBQ chicken piled high on homemade buns. One thing you won’t see? A trash can.

“We opened in May of 2012, striving to be a zero-waste restaurant,” chef and owner Justin Vrany tells Organic Connections. “After six months, we only had about five gallons of loose plastic waste—mostly things that customers left behind. It was a challenge at first getting people to understand that it was even possible in this day and age to be waste-free.”

It All Begins at Home

Vrany learned to bake from his grandmother, and the dream of being a cook took hold early. A decade ago, he decided to make that dream a reality and went to culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago. “They had a focus on sustainability, and one class in particular—a class on food politics taught by a French woman—really opened my eyes to how much waste we were creating. After a few days, I came home and told my wife, ‘We’re changing everything!’”

First, they cut back on certain expenses so they could afford to buy only high-quality food. Next, he committed to running a household that produced no trash. None, as in zero. Zilch. Nada. And they just about pulled it off. “At the end of a full year, we had one small plastic grocery bag full of waste,” says Vrany. “It was pretty cool.”

A Different Kind of Restaurant

When he decided to open his barbecue place, Vrany brought that same trash- free outlook to his business. “Normally, a renovation of a space this size will create two dumpster loads,” Vrany explains. “We only used an eighth of a dumpster.” Vrany bought all used equipment, and then proceeded to build his counters from the skids the equipment came loaded on. “There’s no advantage in it monetarily, because the labor cost is so high; but if you’re motivated to do it, it’s awesome,” he enthuses.

The hardest part of going trash-free was getting the word out—both to customers and to suppliers. “In the beginning it was very hard to get farmers and local distributors to envision what we were doing,” Vrany relates. He finally found a good composting company, a renewable energy provider, and suppliers who were willing to bring all his orders in either reusable tubs or compostable bags. Now, chickens arrive in five-gallon buckets, while produce simply gets put up and the boxes returned to the farmers.

In Chicago, Vrany points out, data shows that only 26 percent of recycling actually gets recycled; so he brings all his metal, plastic and cardboard to the facility himself, to ensure it gets in the right bins. “It hasn’t been easy,” Vrany muses, “but it’s been a great learning experience.”

Creative Solutions

After putting in countless hours on research and networking to make his waste-free business a reality, Vrany decided it was important to share his expertise. He worked with the nonprofit Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition to provide tips and insights for other restaurateurs. He’s also been involved with the Delta Institute, a Chicago-based group supporting environmental stewardship and sustainability issues.

“We’ve gotten crazy press, especially in the last six months,” Vrany reports. The publicity has led to other restaurant owners seeking him out for advice, as well as new customers who seek out his sandwiches for both environmental and culinary reasons.

But despite his heroic efforts, a few items that can be neither recycled nor composted manage to sneak through. “We use a lot of spices,” says Vrany, “and the plastic lids can’t be recycled. Plus we have the oddball items that customers leave behind, like juice boxes and coffee cups.”

But rather than throw it all away, Vrany got creative. “I have two artists using this stuff to make sustainable art,” he exclaims. “People really dig it, and some of what they come up with is awesome. I tell the artists, whatever they can’t use, please bring it back.” After all, he’s not going to start throwing things away at this point in the game.

“After two and a half years,” Vrany concludes proudly, “no garbage has gone to the landfill.” And that five-gallon bucket of plastic waste in the back of the shop? It’s still there—just one more challenge waiting for a creative solution.

Find out more about Justin Vrany and his trash-free ways.

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  • Pretty damn amazing.

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