Back-of-the-house recycling

Features - Commercial Recycling

Restaurants need efficient recycling programs to meet progressive legislation.

February 28, 2019

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Recycling in restaurants is mandatory in some U.S. cities and states, but it can be challenging for staff working in tight spaces.

In Chicago, restaurants must source separate and recycle at least three materials (unless a single recyclable can be shown to comprise 51 percent of the waste stream by weight), meet targeted recycling rates and provide an educational program to new hires.

In San Francisco, restaurants must separate recyclables from trash and organics, and fines for noncompliance can be as high as $1,000 per day.

Fast-food chains and restaurants, which generate large streams of cardboard, plastics and metals, are trying to comply with these recycling laws while also meeting U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and managing program costs.

Two companies that are helping restaurants manage their recycling programs are Mil-tek, a global supplier of pneumatic balers with small footprints, and Columbus, Ohio-based Elytus, a managed service provider that helps commercial businesses manage their waste and recycling operations through its WInStream software.

Changing regulations

Over the years, fast-food chains have had to rethink their recycling programs and the space they dedicate to this task because of commercial recycling legislation. In some states where single-stream recycling was previously acceptable, restaurants are now required to separate several recyclables.

“Where restaurants used to be able to have a catch-all container for recyclables, they’re now being asked to look at managing several waste streams in the same building,” says Mil-tek USA Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Kim Vandbaek. “It’s very complex if you’re working out of a 3,000-square-foot restaurant that’s already stretched for space and suddenly you need to add two to three [recycling] streams to your operations.”

Kristian Skannerup founded Mil-tek in 1992 in Denmark with the goal of helping businesses optimize their waste and recycling systems and become “better environmental stewards.” Mil-tek expanded to the U.S. in 2011. Headquartered in Sterling, Virginia, Mil-tek USA focuses on helping restaurants, especially fast-food chains, meet recycling challenges with balers and compactors.

“We’re seeing more and more progressive states requiring source separation,” Vandbaek says. “Paper, plastic and metal has to be separated. Restaurants are finding themselves running out of space and racking up a very hefty bill for all these services because it’s hard for them to be efficient.”

The company says cardboard makes up 40 percent of the recycling stream in restaurants. Mil-tek offers balers for old corrugated containers (OCC), as well as for film plastics, metal cans and polystyrene. The company’s polystyrene densifier, typically used by reprocessors or recycling companies, creates compact bricks that can be sold to manufacturers.

Mil-tek says its smallest cardboard baler takes up 22 by 32 inches of floorspace and is powered by air, which means it meets health and safety codes for in-kitchen use and helps restaurants prepare small bales for haulers and recyclers.

Making connections

Mil-tek provides restaurants training and education, as well as recycling coordination. The company partners with haulers and recyclers across the U.S. to ensure materials separated at the source find proper end markets.

“Basically, when you buy one of our machines, you get a relationship with a recycling hauler,” Vandbaek explains. The network “consists of a lot of local haulers that are helping us out region by region, city by city to be able to get this kind of coverage. You can claim a baler is a baler is a baler, but the solution in its totality is what makes the difference.”

“If I asked a restaurant in California where they would need most help in their operations, half of them would mention waste and recycling programs.” – Kim Vandbaek, Mil-tek USA

In Houston, Mil-tek has established relationships with about 200 restaurants and area recyclers. “These customers had only limited recycling, and now all their materials can go straight into the recycling industry realm,” Vandbaek says. “It significantly increased the market in Houston.”

Julien Greboval, Mil-tek USA’s sales and marketing coordinator, explains that Mil-tek is at the beginning of a larger industry value chain. As more restaurants separate recyclables at the point of generation and bale materials, clean commodities are added into the recycling stream.

“Contamination is one of the largest issues today, and China has turned way more sophisticated when it comes to contaminated products, so at-source compaction and at-source baling ensure a cleaner product,” Vandbaek adds. “We find very little contamination percentages in the products that are coming out of our balers. It meets what we normally call tomorrow’s standards, but it appears to be today’s standards now.”

Ensuring ease

Another company working in the restaurant sector is Elytus. When Matthew Hollis founded the company in 2011, he says very few commercial kitchens and restaurants had recycling programs. He learned why by watching the kitchen hum during dinner rush.

“They’ve got a menu of 100 different items. They’re receiving orders every other second. They’ve got 15 people back there chopping, cutting and turning out these dishes with precision,” Hollis says. “What we realized is the biggest reason restaurants weren’t recycling is it just was not efficient or easy enough for the back-of-house staff to do.”

Elytus helps restaurants and grocery store chains implement recycling programs through technology. The company’s WInStream software helps manage complex waste and recycling systems and gives businesses data about what recycling streams are being generated.

Understanding the value of the recyclables restaurants generate not only cuts down on disposal costs, Hollis says, it also helps them become more sustainable.

Photo courtesy of Mil-tek

In San Diego, restaurants are required to divert 40 percent of recyclables, but rising landfill tipping fees also encourage restaurants to find efficient recycling programs, Hollis says.

“In California, where it’s $150 per ton to dispose of waste, compost and recycling becomes a necessity really quickly,” he adds.

Elytus also helps restaurants recycle nontraditional commodities. Through its fry oil recovery program, for instance, restaurants can arrange for collection of and receive rebates for their end-of-life oil.

Rising demand

Changes in commercial recycling regulations have presented challenges and opportunities for the recycling industry.

Mil-tek unveiled a compactor at the Chick-fil-A NEXT conference in February in Anaheim, California. The compactor was developed with feedback from Chick-fil-A operators to address the needs of the restaurant community.

“If I asked a restaurant in California where they would need most help in their operations, half of them would mention waste and recycling programs,” Vandbaek says. “Nobody is really focusing on that, and with this increased requirement for further recycling, larger chains are demanding solutions for this.”

As recycling regulations continue to evolve, Vandbaek anticipates that the need for recycling programs in the sector will only increase.

“More and more convenience stores and gas stations are opening fast-food chains and more supermarkets are opening their own cafés or restaurants to create better experiences for customers,” Vandbaek says. “That also means that our products are becoming more widely applicable.”

The author is the digital editor for the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at