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Today, green isn’t just the color of the produce in restaurants. It’s rapidly becoming a philosophy as the industry embraces sustainability.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2009 forecast, approximately four in 10 full-service restaurant operators and almost three in 10 quick-service operators plan to devote more of their budgets to green initiatives. And they now have new guidelines for doing so through the Green Restaurant Association, which last month published Certified Green Restaurants 4.0 standards.

“[The interest] is completely tied to the end user,” the diners who increasingly are environment-savvy, says Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Assoc., Boston–which has been promoting sustainable restaurants since 1990. “That has spiked in the last year to 18 months, and businesses are responding.” Calls asking for the GRA’s consulting services have tripled in the last two years, he noted.

The new standards allot a certain number of points for various categories, including energy use, water, waste, disposables, chemical and pollution reduction, sustainable food and sustainable furnishings and building materials. Two-star Certified Green Restaurants must accumulate a minimum of 100 points, with three-stars requiring a minimum of 175 points. Four-star restaurants must tally 470 points.

“There’s a buzz and an excitement that a real change is happening,” Oshman says. “Our job is to take that and filter it into real action.”

Newly built restaurants must accumulate 205 points via a specific matrix to achieve a Certified Green Restaurant Sustainabuild designation, as well as conduct a full-scale recycling program–including construction materials–and be free of Styrofoam and other polystyrene foams.

Other restaurant chains, including Subway, McDonalds, Chipotle and Dunkin Donuts have pursued LEED certification for individual units, through the Core-and-Shell or retail designations. A member of the US Green Building Council since 2007–and a member of the LEED for Retail pilot program–McDonalds opened its first LEED-certified unit in 2005 at Abercorn Commons–the US’ first LEED-certified shopping center–in Savannah, GA, after opening a ‘green’ restaurant in Sweden in 2000. A Chicago unit that is targeted for LEED certification opened in August 2008.

According to the McDonalds’ website, sustainable elements include high-efficiency rooftop mechanical equipment and boilers, efficient interior lighting with skylights and daylight controls, water-saving plumbing fixtures, green roof, stormwater management with permeable parking lot pavement and rain gardens, LED exterior signage and a parking lot and green power purchased through renewable energy credits.

But restaurants have their own specific challenges for sustainability, similar in some respects to those faced by supermarkets–food must be preserved at both facilities, limiting the ability to reduce refrigeration, for example. But restaurants must take energy a step further.

“The whole purpose of a restaurant is to transform raw foods into cooked foods,” a process that requires huge amounts of energy and generates significant waste, Oshman notes. The GRA’s certification is specific to the restaurant business.

The use of efficient equipment and on-site renewable energy can result in the savings of up to 15% of the total bill, he noted. Health codes do prevent the installation of compact fluorescent bulbs above food preparation areas, but can make a significant difference elsewhere.

“Lighting accounts for 13% of a restaurant’s electricity. A shift to energy efficient lighting can save 70% to 75% of that cost, reducing the total bill by 8%,” he notes.

More sophisticated technology can allow a restaurant to convert its waste oil into biofuels to generate power. Water-saving measures such as waterless urinals also can help in another major expenditure–the average restaurant can use 300,000 gallons of water per year.

The standard will continually be assessed to make sure that it includes the latest technology. And certification has become increasingly important, as the public becomes more aware of the possibility of green restaurants, Oshman says.

“Consumers know certification is out there,” Oshman says. “This is good for restaurant and businesses.”

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