A lot of green people can be annoying," says Margot McNeeley. "I don't want to be that person," she laughs. "I'm here to help the people who already want to make changes."
McNeeley is the founder of Project Green Fork, a nonprofit, collaborative community initiative created to assist Memphis restaurant owners in reducing waste, lowering overhead, and decreasing their environmental impact.
McNeeley came to Memphis in 1990 to open the Bookstar in Poplar Plaza and fell in love with the city. "I really appreciated the personal touch that goes along with everything here," she says. That personal touch is what McNeeley, now a yoga instructor, plans to bring to the area restaurant industry through Project Green Fork.
McNeeley's interest in a more environmentally sustainable restaurant industry stems from a single fact: Approximately one-and-a-half pounds of trash are produced for each restaurant meal served. As someone who likes to eat out, McNeeley found this statistic to be a little disturbing. "Styrofoam to-go containers, no recycling options ... all of the unnecessary waste started to make me a little nuts," she says. After discovering that 95 percent of restaurant waste can be recycled or composted, McNeeley decided to stop complaining and do something about it. She laughs as she says, "I thought, How hard can this be?"
Project Green Fork will employ a four-pronged approach to greening local restaurants: recycling, composting, energy-efficiency, and sustainable products. For each area of participation, restaurants will receive a certificate with up to four green forks to display in their window. McNeeley will personally visit restaurants and assess their needs. "It's not a one-size-fits-all deal," she says. "Not every restaurant has the same capabilities."
As McNeeley finalizes the details of Project Green Fork, she has signed on Tsunami in Cooper-Young as a "test" restaurant.
Colleen Couch-Smith, part owner of Tsunami, says she and her husband chef Ben Smith really wanted to green their business but didn't have the time or resources to do it alone. They turned to the Green Restaurant Association but found it to be impersonal. "They give you five steps to complete and then give you a sheet of paper. While it's a great start, we needed more guidance," Couch-Smith says.
Together, the Smiths and McNeeley identified several areas in which to reduce Tsunami's environmental impact. They set up a composting system in the kitchen, mapped out an area for a container garden, and started searching for cost-effective to-go containers that are either biodegradable or made from recycled products.
McNeeley is also utilizing the free energy audits offered by Memphis, Light, Gas & Water. (Full disclosure: I am employed by MLGW.) Restaurants use the most electricity in the retail sector and consume 300,000 gallons of water (per location) per year. MLGW's Commercial Energy Advisors make site visits and can offer restaurants detailed information on their consumption and advice on low- and no-cost steps to make facilities operate more efficiently and reliably.
McNeeley hopes to reduce restaurants' financial burden in tackling larger issues, such as upgrading HVAC systems, by securing funding from environmental agencies. "We have such an old building, and greening it will cost a lot of money — money that we don't have to spend on a building that is not ours," Couch-Smith says.
Right now, the main stumbling block for Project Green Fork is finding a way for restaurants like Tsunami to recycle their glass, plastic, aluminum, paper, and cardboard. While the city offers these services to residents, it does not offer it to restaurants. In fact, McNeeley is finding it difficult to even get a few extra recycling bins so that Tsunami can collect their own recyclables and take them to the nearby drop-off center at First Congregational Church. "What I need is someone to make the recycling piece work," she says. "Please, call me and tell me you can hook me up!"
Getting a buy-in from a number of restaurants could make the recycling end more profitable for an entrepreneur or the city. The Smiths agree.
"I met with a very sweet man who is willing to pick up our cardboard. It would be a much more lucrative stop for him if all of the nearby restaurants had their cardboard ready for him to pick up instead of just our minuscule stack," Couch-Smith explains.
McNeeley recently made a presentation on Project Green Fork to the Memphis Restaurant Association, which garnered a lot of interest. "I had so many questions and did so much talking that I was hoarse by the end of the meeting," she says.
However, a truly sustainable restaurant industry will require the efforts of both restaurant owners and diners. McNeeley, who takes her own reusable to-go container to restaurants, says, "We all really need to stop thinking of everything as so convenient and start doing our part."
For more information on Project Green Fork, contact Margot McNeeley at 292-1700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.