A Chicago Restaurants Shows That Going Zero Waste Is Definitely Possible

Ever tried to go zero waste? Stories of people cutting their waste are inspiring, proving to us that with a bit of effort, we really can reduce our impact. But often people assume that those efforts are reserved to the individual sphere, and that waste in the business sector is simply a given that is too difficult to change.

Not so.

One restaurant in Chicago, Illinois is showing that with the right practices, reducing waste to a bare minimum is certainly achievable.

Justin Vrany of Sandwich Me In has built composting and recycling right into his restaurant from the get go, and since launching in 2012 he has managed to accumulate only about 8 gallons of trash. That is nothing compared to the waste of most restaurants, especially quick service ones like his.

So how does he do it?

“We stand by the five R’s instead of the 3 R’s,” says Vrany, “reject, refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle.” That means do everything possible to eliminate waste before even getting to the recycling option. ”To me, recycling should be our garbage,” says Vrany.

Vrany’s zero-waste policy first started at home about three years ago, when he said to himself, ”let’s see if we can do this in our household, before I open up a restaurant.” He and his family managed to do just that, inspiring Vrany to decide to make zero-waste a core part of his restaurant business plan.

Since then he has found ways to not only limit waste, but to be smart about how it’s getting reused. In 2012, the city of Chicago made it legal for companies to pick up compost, which has made it easy for Vrany to make sure that food scraps are being put to good use. Sandwich Me In works with Collective Resource, which comes and collects the restaurant’s compost, but it also composts through farmers.

Compost from Sandwich Me In goes to the urban farm Urban Canopy, where the raised beds are producing about 80 percent of the food that Vrany is using in his restaurant, making sure that the restaurant’s food waste is, in a sense, coming right back to where it came from. ”Every single day stuff goes into a landfill… why fill it with stuff that can be reused?” says Vrany.

For Vrany, it’s a question of thinking about not only his short term profits, but the long term costs to society. “Large corporations want to set price for something,” says Vrany, “they just don’t understand that it’s not just a monetary value anymore. We have to look at our future.”

As part of Vrany’s commitment to the five R’s, he has worked hard to ensure that he not only deals with the restaurant’s waste in a responsible manner, but that he also limits the amount of waste that he produces in the first place. That means making almost everything in house, which reduces packaging, as well as being smart about reusing things. For example, food containers, which don’t have to be tossed, ”we’re bringing in this food in all these containers, why not give the containers back and reuse them all?” For the trash that Sandwich Me In does produce, the restaurant has been working with local artists to make zero waste art for the restaurant.

Vrany pays about $88 per month for compost pick up and estimates that the average price of a restaurant doing garbage pick up comes out to around $200 per month. By eliminating waste, he’s saving money, which can then be used to invest in items that cost a little extra, like compostable packaging. In Vrany’s mind, the accessibility of these types of products nowadays, and programs that help with reducing waste like compost pick up, make it so that any restaurant that wants to work towards being zero-waste has the tools to do so. “I see a very easy changeover,” says Vrany.

If the tools are there, what will it take to get more restaurant owners acting like Vrany? Legislation. ”The government has to step in and say… ‘this is what we have to do,’” says Vrany, adding that we need to push towards a ”whole new way of thinking.” Vrany and tasty restaurants like Sandwich Me In are certainly part of pushing us in that direction, and hopefully getting us away from our disposable nation.

Photo Credit: epsos.de


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

If I ever get to Chicago, I want to eat at Sandwich Me and learn from their practices.

Ann Razumovskaya
Ann Razumovskaya3 years ago

Obviously we need more restaurants like this ! Idea is great and simple, but some people are so lazy to reduce their waste :(

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Five R’s should be everywhere.

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Winn Adams
Winn A3 years ago


Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert3 years ago

Think I goofed

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa3 years ago

Thank you

Sue H.
Sue H3 years ago

Congratulations- we all need to do our best and set examples of how it can be DONE!