Sandra Noonan of Just Salad: pioneering zero waste in restaurants

Sandra Noonan of Just Salad: pioneering zero waste in restaurants

Understory Team
Understory Team

Consumer preferences for fast and easy restaurant options have fueled the growth of single use waste. Just Salad, a fast casual restaurant, is a leader in reducing waste in this sector by offering creative solutions such as its reusable bowl program. In this episode, we chat with Sandra Noonan, Chief Sustainability Officer of Just Salad. Sandra shares her personal and inspiring story of how an alarming article in The New Yorker changed her way of life, leading her to eventually head sustainability at Just Salad.

From reusable bowls to carbon labels and a climate-conscious menu, Just Salad gives consumers the tools to eat with purpose. The company has pioneered the world's largest restaurant reusable program, saving 75,000+ pounds of plastic every year. Sandra explains the importance of the food waste hierarchy and provides personal insight for a zero-waste lifestyle.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (the host of the Understory Podcast): Hello everybody. Welcome to The Understory Podcast. Understory is a global community that works with innovators and leaders who are trying to make our world more sustainable. Today, we're really excited to have Sandra Noonan, who is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Just Salad.

Sandra, thank you so much for making the time to be here and to talk to us about Just Salad’s initiative around sustainability. Before we get started talking about Just Salad, tell us a bit more about yourself -- your background, and how you came about this interest in sustainability, and are now the head of sustainability for this iconic brand.

Sandra Noonan: Thank you for having me. At Just Salad, I direct our sustainability programs, including our reusable bowl program and various other waste reduction initiatives. I became a fan of Just Salad a few years ago, which ultimately led to my joining the company. The reason I became a fan was because I was reading up on the problem of ocean plastic and read a really, really alarming article in The New Yorker about the Great Pacific garbage patch, which led me down a path of thinking about my own plastic use and my own use of single use items in my life. How much was I throwing away on a daily basis? Was there a way to lower my waste generation as an individual? When I thought about how I ate on-the-go such as eating at a fast, casual restaurant, there is single use packaging involved.

I realized that Just Salad was the only restaurant I could find in all of New York City that offered a solution to single use waste, and that was the reusable bowl program. I became a religious user of the bowl, took it everywhere with me, and ate at Just Salad all the time. It felt so good that I wasn't generating packaging waste with every purchase that I had contacted the company and struck up a relationship, which ultimately led to my working there.

My background is pretty diverse. I started as a journalist in my career and moved on to corporate positions where I worked on corporate sustainability and the financial services sector. But, food has always been a passion of mine, so it was a great place to end up at Just Salad and that's where I am today.

JJ: Thank you so much for that background, Sandra. Tell us a bit more about the reusable bowl program and also, other sustainability initiatives that you're heading.

Sandra: The reusable bowl program was founded in 2006. The first store we opened had the reusable bowl. It's core to who we are as a company. When you come to Just Salad, if you're interested in participating, you will pay $1.00 for a reusable bowl, and it's yours. Every time you come back with that bowl, you'll get a free topping. Whether it's avocado or grape tomatoes, whatever you like. We're incentivizing you to join us in this waste reduction journey by offering free food and the program is really successful. We estimate about 20% of our customers have historically been members of the program, and as the problem of single use, plastic waste escalates and becomes subject to more public awareness, the program is thriving so I encourage anyone listening to this podcast to give it a try if they're in our area.

JJ: Thanks for describing that. Thinking about nudging consumers to change their behavior on a daily basis, you talk about giving free toppings if people bring the bowl back and I think that's really effective. What are some other things that the company is doing or that you're thinking about that could further and nudge people’s behavior so that they can continue to reduce their daily waste?

Sandra: One thing we do to nudge our customers toward the most sustainable possible eating habits is part in labeling. In September of 2020, we launched what we call a Climatarian menu. The Climatarian menu consists of items on our menu with the lowest estimated carbon footprint.

The path to that was looking at our entire menu, every ingredient on our menu, and calculating the estimated carbon footprint of growing and transporting that food, and that led to a carbon label similar to a nutrition label for every salad.

We then said ‘OK, how can we make this easy for our customers to digest?’ (no pun intended), and created the Climatarian menu where you can just click and order something that you know is going to be lower emissions than anything else on the menu.

JJ: I love that because when people go to your website, they can see the picture of the salad, they can see the calories, but right next to the calories is the carbon emission number and it's all in the same metrics so that it's easy for people to compare. I think that's just so cool and really gives people perspective of what they are contributing in terms of carbon emissions and so forth.

Sandra: That's right, thank you. That's the idea, and the next step is to analyze and do some research on how effective this project has been in reducing our customers’ dietary carbon footprints.

JJ: Tell us a bit more, Sandra, about food waste because we know that's generally a big problem in the industry. How is Just Salad thinking about food waste?

Sandra: We think about it a lot and we put a lot of energy behind reducing food waste. The framework we follow is the EPA's food waste hierarchy. Food waste hierarchy says: here is the framework you should follow in keeping food waste to a minimum. The whole goal is to keep food out of landfills, but beyond that, it's being as efficient as possible in order to produce as little surplus food in the first place.

At the top of the hierarchy, you want to source reduce, which means cooking and preparing as efficiently as possible so that you have as little as possible leftover at the end of the day. Lower down the hierarchy is donation. Just Salad has started partnering with charities to donate any surplus food at the end of the day, and we're just getting that program running. We have two pilot stores in New York City and we're looking to add more to this donation program. Next, lower down the hierarchy is composting, which we seek to do as well, but we really want to keep surplus food out of the compost bin. One thing we started this year was selling surplus food at a steep discount at the end of the day, and we use an app called Too Good To Go to sell surplus food and keep it out of the waste stream.

JJ: That's really good to know how you're thinking about this from different kinds of segments in terms of food waste. As the Chief Sustainability Officer, Sandra, what are some of the things that you think about long term? Do you think that as a society, we're making good progress given that a lot of companies are now thinking about sustainability, even though Just Salad is one of the pioneers that started the free reusable bowl and other programs? Where do you see things going in terms of sustainability for consumer products and the food industry in general?

Sandra: I think we're moving in the right direction, but probably not fast enough. I think that one of the main issues that our industry has to address is single use waste and the idea of being served a meal in a disposable container every time you go out to eat on-the-go, it's not the only option. There are reusable systems like ours that work really well and that are scalable, and it's very encouraging to see other big, fast, casual restaurant brands planning to pilot and expand reusable systems as early as this year. There have been headlines on those and we're very encouraged by that because I think a cultural reset is needed in how we think about our single use consumption. Eating out of a reusable container on-the-go needs to be normalized. We cannot compost or recycle our way out of the waste problems we face.

JJ: Yeah, that's well said. I think people think it's hard to carry a bowl, but as you said, there are so many customers who have Just Salad in major cities and 20% more people are actually using it. I've seen people carrying it during lunch time and dinner time, it's really cool. It's just a habit that needs to get developed.

Sandra, one last question is about how you were talking about what got you inspired to join Just Salad and how you have had a very strong sustainability mindset from the get go. For a lot of consumers, when they hear about a zero waste lifestyle or to start reducing waste, it sounds scary because it requires them to change how they do things. What's your personal recommendation to others for some of the things that people can start thinking about doing in their daily life?

Sandra: It's a great question. I think that it depends on what you're trying to achieve. If you want to keep waste out of landfills, if you want to reduce carbon emissions, then look at where in your life you're generating the most waste. That's going to be different for different people. Some people cook at home a lot and compost, so maybe in that scenario, they're generating more waste in their bathroom with cosmetics and personal care items, or with their clothing. Clothing is a huge contributor to the global waste problem. Maybe you want to thrift shop more or donate your clothes instead of throwing it in the garbage. Looking at where you're consuming a lot and what your waste stream consists of is the first evaluation step.

I know that when I started along my zero waste journey by starting to compost in my household. It reduced my waste dramatically. As soon as all of my food scraps were going into a compost bin instead of the trash, the trash was really, really minimal and I noticed it was mostly paper and that gave me a sense of what the next step was. Doing a mini waste audit of your lifestyle and your home is a great place to start. There are also some really great, fun books on zero waste living like Bea Johnson, she wrote the Zero Waste Home. Trash is for Tossers is a great blog to follow. There are lots of fun books you can Google and find that can give you inspiration for living a lower waste life.

JJ: I love that advice, Sandra and I learned two new words today, and I'm sure many of our audience did as well. Waste stream and a personal waste audit -- I love it because they actually give people some tools to start thinking about and plan to get started. Well Sandra, such a pleasure to have you on our Podcast and we love to see what else Just Salad will continue to do in your sustainability agenda as a pioneer in the space. Thank you so much for your time Sandra Noonan, Chief Sustainability Officer of Just Salad.

Sandra:  Thank you so much.

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