Marea, a sizable restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, did not reduce its food waste with “5 easy hacks” or some miracle composting machine. Instead, the restaurant addressed the issue practically and methodically—and it’s exactly how you could reduce waste in your own kitchen.
Since 2022, Marea has operated as a “zero waste” restaurant, meaning that at least 90 percent of its produced waste is diverted from landfills. Instead of hauling its garbage to a New York City dumpster—which could end up rotting in Ohio—nearly all of this restaurant’s waste is sent to a commercial composting plant, where it’s processed and transformed into organic fertilizer.
Beyond composting, Marea has built waste reduction into all facets of its operation—including product sourcing, cooking techniques, and employee onboarding. For head chef Lauren DeSteno, the need to reduce the restaurant’s waste stems from her own desire to become a more thoughtful consumer. “We’re a big restaurant, we’re busy, we go through a lot of product,” she says. “I started feeling like we have a responsibility to figure out a more responsible way of disposing of it.”
From an environmental perspective, waste reduction is certainly more responsible. When food waste is sent to rot in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas four times more harmful than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, households and restaurants in the United States produce 40 million tons of food waste annually. Globally, food waste accounts for 7 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, Marea is not the first restaurant to monitor its environmental footprint. In recent years, many restaurants have adopted similar zero-waste identities. A 2020 Smithsonian Magazine article titled the “The Rise of Zero-Waste Restaurants” covers this trend in great detail, highlighting waste-conscious restaurants with plates made of recycled bags and owners who say things like, “the survival of the human race is not based on animal products.” Sustainably minded restaurants included in the Michelin Guide are now awarded “green stars” for outstanding environmental performance. According to its website, Michelin’s criteria for this award considers things like the provenance of ingredients, food waste systems, resource management, and the restaurant’s environmental footprint. There are nearly 300 Green Star restaurants throughout the world.
However, unlike most of the places covered in the Smithsonian article, Marea is a large, high-volume restaurant (they regularly sell 120 pounds of shrimp per week). Its brand is built on expense accounts, not costly ingredients. Marea’s approach to waste reduction is rooted in practicality, meaning it’s actually replicable in a home kitchen. Here’s how:
Start With Technique
The first step to reducing waste is to stop unnecessarily creating it. “You don’t always have to peel onions if you’re making a stock, the outer part is just a dried inner layer of the onion,” Lauren says. “Carrots don’t need to be peeled as long as they’re cleaned and scrubbed.” According to Lauren, simple technical changes are as much about reducing waste as they are building informative habits, “all of these little things definitely changed the mindset for our team as to how they approach dishes.”
The same concept applies to throwing out odds and ends that still have value. At Marea, tin foil is kept clean so it can later be recycled, animal bones and vegetable trimmings are transformed into stocks and sauces, and bread no longer fresh enough to be sold to a customer becomes staff meal. This sort of upcycling can easily be implemented at home, only maybe you turn that stale bread into bread pudding or savory strata to feed a few instead of many.
Consult Expert Resources
Years before Marea achieved zero-waste status, Lauren believed she could transform the restaurant’s composting process entirely on her own. “At first I was like, we’ll just do it ourselves. We’ll just compost. And then getting into that, particularly in New York, I could not even wrap my head around how to figure that out.” These frustrations led her to Foodprint Group, a Brooklyn-based consultancy specializing in waste reduction. “We could not have done it without them,” says Lauren.
Composting, waste reduction, and environmentally conscious cooking techniques are not always intuitive or easy to put into practice. Collaborating and partnering with resources outside of your own knowledge—whether it’s a friend, sustainability professional, or website—will make the effort much more manageable.
Make Your System Convenient
To facilitate composting, every cook at Marea keeps a small, green bin near their work station to collect vegetable trim and other organic food waste. While these bins work well for her team of cooks, Lauren employs an even more convenient solution at home. “We have a bag in the freezer [filled with] vegetable trim—tops of onions, bottoms of onions, carrot [peels]—all of that stuff goes into this bag,” she explains.
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Communicate Why You’re Doing It
One of the most successful components of Marea’s sustainability efforts is a 14-minute onboarding video produced by Foodprint that explains why reducing food waste is important to the restaurant. The video is available in English, Spanish, and French, and from Lauren’s perspective has made it much easier to train her employees on food waste reduction, regardless of native language. “Instead of us miming it out, if we don’t speak French or whatever it might be, there’s a real dedicated push to speak to those people and make sure that they understand it on their terms.”
According to Lauren, the collective buy-in has led to employees enforcing the zero waste initiative, “Last night someone put a plastic bag in the compost bin and one of the dishwashers came over and said, ‘Hey this isn’t compost. That goes here.’” While you might not need a multi-language video to get your point across, a little communication can go a long way, whether it’s your kids, your spouse, your in-laws, or your college roommates who need a little extra motivation to lend a hand.