“An empty dumpster is a happy restaurant:” How a man has created a “zero waste” sandwich shop

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CHICAGO (WITI) -- The food industry is one of the country's leading producers of trash -- nearly 40 million tons a year! Consider that the next time you sit down to eat. There's a restaurant owner 90 miles from Milwaukee who is turning the table on this issue.

If you think discarded scraps of food are just for the birds, Justin Vrany wants you to think again.

The 36-year-old chef is igniting a movement.

"To heart, I'm a chef," Vrany said.

The shop Vrany opened two years ago, "Sandwich Me In" may look like any other restaurant.

"The signature dish at Sandwich Me In is the pulled pork," Vrany said.

What Vrany is really making has never been served before in any restaurant -- anywhere.

"What I'm doing needs to be done on a mass scale. Especially in the restaurant industry," Vrany said.

Before we tell you what Vrany's doing, you have to know this: The food industry generated 35 million tons of waste last year alone.

Almost all of it went to landfills.

"Waste is going out the front door and the back door," Vrany said.

It struck Vrany as somewhat hypocritical that an industry that seeks to nourish the world is actually polluting it.

So, Vrany opened a shop with a mission.

After two years in business, this restaurant has created zero waste.

"It's incredible!" Anthony Maicki said.

The restaurant generates absolutely no trash.

"I think it's very commendable that they're doing that.  It's not an easy thing to do," Yetta Starr said.

So how does Vrany do it?

It's a chef's solution: Extending the idea of "leftovers" to every aspect of the restaurant business.

"For example, when we bring in a chicken, we have the skin.  We cook the skin off, make it nice and crispy, put that on our Cobb salad.  Take the breast off, slice it, bread it and put it on our chicken breast sandwich. Take everything else and smoke it, and put that on our barbeque chicken sandwich. Take the bones and make a stock out of it and make chicken rice soup, so we're utilizing every bit of that chicken," Vrany said.

That includes fruits and vegetables too. Scraps of arugula or celery make their way into soups, and fruit rinds flavor drinks.

"We do that with every single product that we bring into the house," Vrany said.

The cooking oil is recycled.

"We give it back to a company called Talo that recycles oil for bio diesel engines, and they pay us for the oil," Vrany said.

Vrany limits the water used for dishes -- and even the furniture in the restaurant is refurbished.

"The chairs we're sitting in are from a KFC from about 20 years ago," Vrany said.

The sandwiches are served on parchment paper that can be composted.

All of the electricity is green energy.

"I use all bio or wind or solar power that comes right into the restaurant," Vrany said.

Of course, sometimes customers carry in a plastic cup or a bag, and some ingredients come in jars -- but even those things are kept and turned into art.

The city of Chicago requires all restaurants to have a dumpster out back, but Vraney has never opened his.

"The infamous empty garbage can that has never been filled. There's nothing in it. That's why I have a chain on it," Vrany said.

Just down the block is another sandwich shop.

"There are two dumpsters and their dumpsters are full and we're hoping we can teach them this is the way to go. An empty dumpster is a happy restaurant," Vrany said.

At Vrany's sandwich shop, all of the food waste is composted. Vegetable and fruit compost from "Sandwich Me In" is sent to a Wisconsin farm to feed the chickens that lay eggs for the restaurant.

"The circle of life, and that's a lot of what the restaurant is based on. Giving back to the farmers who are giving to me," Vrany said.

Vrany's mantra is reduce, reuse, recycle -- a simple recipe for pecking away at pollution, one meal at a time.

"To me, sustainability is nurturing what nurtures us. That's the easiest, simplest way to put it. If we help the planet, the planet will help us," Vrany said.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Vrany's restaurant, Sandwich Me In.