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Q&A with Michael Oshman: Green Restaurant Guru

Michael Oshman, founder of the Green Restaurant Association, says simple acts such as serving water only on request can make a big difference during the drought. But as large resource users, restaurants can do a lot more to save water and reduce their environmental footprint in other areas.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes

Restaurants are the largest energy user in the retail sector, says Michael Oshman, founder and CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. They also consume lots of water in the course of serving customers, preparing food and cleaning up afterward.

Oshman founded the organization 25 years ago in San Diego after seeing that small actions can make a big difference to the environment. Now based in Boston, it has hundreds of member restaurants all over America, which have adopted Earth-friendly practices in seven categories: water, energy, waste, disposables, chemicals, food and building. For each practice they adopt, restaurants earn points toward a green rating of two, three or four stars.

The rating, Oshman said, becomes an important promotional tool that can help restaurants stand out in a crowded field, and help customers make wise choices with their dining dollars.

Serving water only on request is one step that can earn points toward a green rating. It’s an effective way to save water, energy and money – the fewer glasses a restaurant uses, the more it can save on staff time, as well as hot water and energy to clean the glasses. Many of the conservation measures at restaurants work like that, and there’s a lot more restaurants can do.

Water Deeply: Where did the idea for the Green Restaurant Association come from?

Michael Oshman: I founded it in San Diego back in 1990. It really came as a result of seeing consumer waste. I was just another consumer who was educated on issues of waste and its impact, pollution from certain products, beach pollution, etc. I was very struck at the time by issues like ozone depletion and how these simple choices of convenience are undermining the viability of life on our planet. I saw politics and business and the environmental movement at the time all kind of not working well together.

We wanted to create a common-sense approach that would make it easy for restaurants to do the right thing, and to provide them with an objective source of information about what makes the most sense environmentally, and produce benchmarks not of the solar-powered, vegan-restaurant-growing-food-on-their-roof type, but things they could really do in that year.

Water Deeply: How is water conservation a measure of a green rating?

Michael Oshman: Water is a huge piece of what restaurants do. Restaurants use hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. A restaurant can save a tremendous amount of water without affecting how it operates.

There are very simple things restaurants can do, like changing out spray valves in the dishwashing operation. The norm not so long ago was 5 or 6 gallons per minute (gpm). Federal regulations brought it down to 1.6. Then some companies tried to exceed that and become even better, offering 1.4 gpm, then 1.28, then 1, which was incredible. And then now you have some spray valves that are 0.6 gallons. So if 100 gallons were going to wash dishes at one time, now its 10.

That means 90 gallons of clean, drinkable water are not running down the drain. That means 90 percent of the water is saved, 90 percent energy saved, sometimes 90 percent less impact on sewers and sometimes 90 percent less cost to restaurants. Restaurants can save a few thousand dollars a year just by that step alone, depending on how big the restaurant is.

Water Deeply: For some time now, California restaurants have been required to serve water only on request. Does this make any difference, or is it mostly symbolic?

Michael Oshman: If one out of four customers declined water service, you could save huge amounts of water, millions and millions of gallons of water that serve no purpose. Often you have restaurants serving water to the whole table when maybe only a couple of people at the table want it. So then all the water that went into those cups is wasted. The labor, the human capital to bring it there and back, is wasted. The water and energy to clean those cups is wasted. It’s just wasted. Nobody is getting a value out of it. Every single restaurant in the country, starting today, should have this as a policy. There’s no downside to it. There’s only an environmental upside to it. From a customer service perspective, it’s also a benefit. If the waiter or waitress comes to the table and asks if you want water, it’s going to make for a positive experience.

Water Deeply: What is the attitude of restaurant owners, generally, toward water use? Does water rank as a concern?

Michael Oshman: The restaurants we work with are interested in water because they are the leaders that are engaging with us to help them make change. But having done this for 25 years and being the world leader, I can tell you that the steps that save the most money are the ones that motivate the most restaurants. Energy has tended to be the place where restaurants are motivated the most, because that is where there’s the most financial opportunity. Restaurants are the largest consumers of energy in the retail sector.We’ve also gotten lots more education about the negative consequences of using energy. I don’t think we’ve gotten the same education about water.

Where I was raised in L.A., I remember as a kid that was part of your education whether you liked it or not. It was something you needed to be mindful of: how you were watering the lawn, etc. I think if you are in California, there is a much higher awareness. Whereas at our headquarters here in Boston, the idea of there being a drought is much harder to imagine. I think the real issue is cost. As the cost of water goes higher, I think there will be more restaurants paying attention to water.

Water Deeply: How about restaurant patrons?

Michael Oshman: I think the average restaurant consumer, when they go out to eat, they have a very general sense of wanting to do the right thing. When we’ve worked with people who do professional polling, we’ve found 79 percent of people want to dine at a certified green restaurant. Do they think about that when they walk into a restaurant? I don’t know. Do you like chocolate? If you see two different chocolates and they both look good and one has a Rainforest Alliance certification, you think, “Good for the forests, I like chocolate, I’ll take that one.” They’re going with their quick assessment of what feels like the right thing. When they go into a certified green restaurant, they might not be thinking about the complexity that goes into that. But they want to do the right thing. And I think that’s true of most green consumption.

Water Deeply: Have recent droughts made water a bigger concern for restaurants?

Michael Oshman: It’s not like I could say there’s been a noticeable uptick in one particular area or another. But I think what a drought like this does is push innovation. What we do is help distributors and restaurateurs take advantage of that innovation. Like with the advances in spray valves: Our goal is to get that front and center and have every restaurateur know about it so it becomes the norm in two years rather than 15 years. In a time like a drought, it becomes much easier for the restaurateur to say, “Oh, I better get better spray valves.” It will push people over to that.

The real change doesn’t come with what one or two people are doing. The big change comes from the large group of people getting that mainstream product that is the most efficient.

Water Deeply: Is there one thing, in your mind, that restaurants could do to save water that they aren’t doing?

Michael Oshman: I would recommend every restaurant look at our list of water-saving appliances and cost out what are the things they can do right away. The spray valves and aerators – everybody should get yesterday. Period. That would be my recommendation, because it’s cheap and you’re going to have a great possibility of saving either hundreds or thousands of gallons, depending on how large the restaurant is.

For those restaurants that are building new, or renovating, take a look at our list of water-saving appliances and get only this kind of equipment. It should be the minimum. There are some fantastic things, like gray-water use for irrigation, plumbing, mechanical operations.

Water Deeply: Recently, a restaurant in Palm Springs was heckled by passersby for using misters to keep its patrons cool. Should restaurants be more sensitive about that kind of water use?

Michael Oshman: It’s a great question for a college philosophy course or a late-night conversation in a world where we don’t live right now. It’s a great question for future development as various countries look at where to put additional population. But you already have families in L.A. or Palm Springs or Phoenix that are not going anywhere. So in my opinion, that kind of question is a waste of resources. Because the real question needs to become: How do we operate most efficiently within that habitat?

When you put a financial price on a resource that reflects its true environmental cost, then what happens is businesses start regulating themselves. When it’s priced high enough, then a restaurateur can make the statement, “Wow, this mister is costing me a lot of money.”

Water Deeply: At what point do restaurants start to run afoul of health codes as they work to conserve water?

Michael Oshman: None of the things that we’ve talked about reduces the efficacy or the function of whatever it is, whether it’s a urinal or toilet or spray valve or regular water faucet. Efficiency is only doing the same job but better. Could somebody do something silly and get in trouble? Yeah. But that could happen in a restaurant that is a water hog, also. None of these things is pushing the envelope on health codes.

Water Deeply: Why is it important to be a ‘green’ restaurant?

Michael Oshman: It’s important to be a certified green restaurant because, if the restaurant industry in the United States was its own country, it would be the 14th largest country out of 200 on this planet (in terms of economic output). And anytime a human being talks about the environmental issues on this planet, you’ve got to talk about the 14th largest country. The everyday consumer might not have the power to change the 13 countries above it. But it does have a vote every day in the 14th largest economy, and it has its vote in whether it goes to the certified green restaurant or not.

Going to a certified green restaurant is not only having that single positive impact of having a lower energy and water footprint, but equally, if not more important, it sends ripples. That restaurant becomes more successful. The next one they open will be a certified green restaurant. Their competitor across the street sees the buzz and they are likely to follow suit. More important, it ripples up the distribution chain, and the manufacturers are producing more of the good stuff. Consumers have a real strong vote in this economy, more so than probably the other 13 top economies.

Top image: Serving water only on request is a small thing restaurants can do that makes a big difference in terms of water consumption. And there are many more conservation steps they can take. (City of Sacramento)

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