IN MY LAST column I discussed some eco-downfalls involved with eating fast food, recommending a simple home-cooked meal instead. However, when we do want a restaurant meal, how do we know which restaurants are environmentally "green"?
You might comb for clues such as organic produce or free range meats. But the menu, it turns out, doesn't give the larger "green" picture. For example, does the restaurant try to conserve energy? Does it reduce the garbage it produces? Does it reduce the water it consumes? These are all important but largely hidden from the customers' eyes.
In most of the country, if you want to figure out how green a restaurant is, you are on your own. But in the Bay Area, we have what may be the country's only program that certifies green restaurants. And it's been around since 2002.
Called the Bay Area Green Business program, it is coordinated by the Association of Bay Area Governments and includes all nine Bay Area counties — from Sonoma to Santa Clara, San Mateo to Contra Costa.
"We haven't found another program like this in the country," says Ceil Scandone, the Regional Coordinator for the Green Business program. The program was actually started in the 1990s, initially as a way to reduce hazardous waste, but members realized there were other opportunities to reduce environmental impact.
The program now certifies everything from auto repair shops to hotels, commercial printers to restaurants. "We now have over 1,500 certified businesses," Scandone says, "which is a great start, but only a start." She adds that the number of businesses they certify as green is increasing each year.
Of the 1,500 businesses, it should be noted, only about 100 are restaurants. "Most restaurateurs are some of the busiest people that I know," says Pam Evans. "It's difficult for them to take time out to do this."
Evans, program manager for Alameda County, adds that some compliance requirements can be a challenge for many restaurants.
There are five core elements to the program. All businesses must reduce energy use, reduce water consumption, reduce waste and prevent pollution. The fifth element is called "environmental compliance," which varies with business types.
For restaurants, the environmental compliance focuses on clean waste water disposal, clean waste storage and proper grease disposal. "This can be one of the most challenging parts for many restaurants," says Evans, who has had restaurants back out of the program.
But while the certification can be rigorous, "we don't require perfection," Scandone says. Certain aspects of the program are required, like buying at least 30 percent recycled context paper and recycling all waste paper, plastic and metal. But there is a lot of flexibility in ways to meet the necessary standards.
The Sunny Side Cafe in Albany where I chef recently became certified green, and for us it was a nearly year-long process. At Bistro Liaison in Berkeley, the process took about six months.
Chef Kenneth Todd Kniess of Bistro Liaison says since being certified, the program has helped him reduce his water and electricity bill each month. Kniess couldn't be happier: "It's worked out well for us. Now we're part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem."
Once the certification process is completed, the process is still not over. Every three years there is a recertification, and if standards have changed, the businesses need to be brought up to the current level.
There are upfront costs to these changes, but many of these are subsidized or even entirely paid for by a variety of public and private partner organizations. "They were amazing," says chef and co-owner Amy Murray of Berkeley's Venus restaurant. "All the partner groups made it so easy, and they paid for things and made these changes free."
The county coordinators in the program are eager to get more restaurants to start the process, says Evans. "Because restaurants are larger energy and water users than many other businesses, we can get a larger 'bang for the buck' when working with them."
To see where you can get the most green for your buck in your neighborhood, go to www.greenbiz.ca.gov.
Ecologist Aaron French is chef at the Sunny Side Cafe in Albany. He can be reached at email@example.com.