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Retail Food Service & Prepared Foods
Air Emissions Refrigeration Waste Food Wastewater
This area covers environmental issues related to retail food service and prepared foods. The primary compliance areas are proper management and disposal of grease, waste food, wastewater, and food packaging. (This page is only focused on environmental issues and does not cover the many federal, state, and local requirements concerning food safety, handling, labeling, and transportation.)

Compliance Considerations

​Air Emissions

Cooking can cause emissions, including odors and smoke, which are generally regulated at state and local levels. Most states have regulations on the opacity or the transparency of the smoke from roof exhaust stacks (for example, opacity cannot exceed 20%). If smoke or odors are a potential nuisance to neighbors, catalytic converters or other scrubbing technology can reduce emissions. Charbroilers may be covered by additional requirements in certain jurisdictions, such as California. In addition, commercial bakery ovens may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and could require a state and/or local permit. 

Refrigeration and air conditioning systems are regulated based on the type and amount of refrigerants used, including requirements for monitoring leakage rate, maintenance, recordkeeping, and chemical accident prevention. The CRC Air page has more details. 

Waste Food and Food Packaging Requirements

Fast Food Packaging

A major environmental impact from food service is waste food and food packaging, which are considered municipal solid wastes. Food waste is generally regulated at state and local levels.

Some states and municipalities prohibit landfilling and require composting of organic food waste from large business and institutional generators (the Food Waste Reduction Alliance provides a toolkit outlining leading practices in reducing food waste). Some jurisdictions promote a food recovery hierarchy designed to reduce or divert waste for other uses such as animal food. Jurisdictions with organic food waste regulations include: 

CaliforniaMassachusetts, New York CityConnecticutVermontSeattleSan Francisco, and PortlandFind a Composter is a resource for locating composting facilities.

[In this context, the term "organic" refers to waste from plants and animals that is biodegradable such as fruits and vegetables, meat, cheese, eggshells, bones, some paper, and flowers, and is not related to "organic food" that is produced without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.]

A number of local jurisdictions ban or limit the use of polystyrene food packaging (usually for expanded polystyrene (EPS) or Styrofoam) because this material does not break down in nature, is not economical to recycle, and is expensive to clean up from water and land. Some regulations also require takeout food packaging to be compostable or recyclable. The Surfrider Foundation has a list of such ordinances

A common state and local waste management requirement is the weekly or twice-weekly emptying of compactors and dumpsters to control the spread of disease-carrying pests (vector control).  Dumpsters with food waste, as at grocery stores and food service establishments, are often required to be emptied more frequently.

Wastewater Management

DrainMost retail food service facilities send their wastewater to municipal sewers that carry it to wastewater treatment plants, referred to as publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). The disposal of chemicals, grease, and other contaminants through the sewer is regulated under the Clean Water Act, which is usually implemented at the state and local level, often by a POTW pretreatment program. Discharges to the sewer may require registration with the local POTW, a pretreatment permit, and/or monitoring and reporting.

Discharges from food service facilities may pose special issues, including clogging sewers with fats, oils, and grease (FOG) and/or disrupting the biological degradation of waste at POTWs. FOG in wastewater negatively impacts wastewater collection and treatment systems and can cause sewer blockages, sewage spills, and backups.  Any food service facility that introduces grease or oil discharges from kitchens, dishwashing, and any wastewater that is associated with food preparation should have grease traps or larger grease interceptors, a type of wastewater pre-treatment device that captures the grease and solids from cooking and food preparation. Most state plumbing codes require grease traps and/or grease interceptors for the food preparation areas, rotisserie cookers, and meat cutting departments. Many local municipal or sewer utility ordinances require pre-treatment permits or registration of grease traps and interceptors, as well as regular monitoring, cleanout, and often annual or quarterly reporting. Grease traps need to be maintained and cleaned periodically in order to operate efficiently. Generally when FOG buildup in the grease trap is 25% or more of the capacity of the holding tank it should be cleaned out.

The New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission has more information on FOG and state and municipal programs. 


Reducing food waste can reduce costs, environmental impacts and make compliance with laws easier. Reducing food waste and reducing waste in landfills has several benefits, including:

  • Reduce Methane From Landfills – The breakdown of organic waste such as food in a landfill releases methane, which is a greenhouse gas.
  • Reduce Environmental Impacts from Food Production – Reducing food waste reduces resource use and therefore the environmental impacts of food production, including water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy, and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Create Value - Compost created from food waste is no longer a waste but a valuable product with many environmental benefits, such as improving soil health and structure; increasing drought resistance; and reducing the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Food waste can also be turned into renewable energy when processed through an anaerobic digester.
  • Save Money – Waste food began as a product that your store purchased, so reducing waste can save money.

EPA's voluntary Food Recovery Challenge works with facilities to reduce the environmental impacts of waste food and includes resources on how to reduce food waste and Sustainable Food Management. The Food Waste Reduction Alliance offers retail specific guidance on leading practices and strategies to combat food waste. The Foodservice Packaging Recovery Toolkit created by the Foodservice Packaging Institute provides guidance on how to reduce waste and generate revenue through packaging recovery.

Many retailers are setting zero waste goals and find that food and food packaging waste is the last obstacle. Diverting food waste from landfills has practicable and financial challenges, such as storage of putrescible waste until there is enough to make a pick up financially practical. Odor and vector control laws can make this challenging. Retailers must balance issues such as the geographic distribution of stores and the volume of food waste generated at a single location with the scale needed for cost-effective treatment like anaerobic digesters. Given these competing pressures, it may be challenging for a single retail chain to significantly reduce or eliminate food waste streams.

Energy use in lighting and equipment can be a major expense for retail food service. EPA Energy Star also has a fact sheet for restaurants. 

Last Update: 2/8/2017 8:00:00 AM