Zero Waste Catering in Philadelphia


At Birchtree Catering, we define sustainability as making choices that give back more than we take away.

Because food is our industry, Birchtree has a clear view of what we consider sustainable, and we’ve been working towards this goal since inception. The full chain from sourcing to removal is well thought through and we are constantly trying to improve. We source locally from farms and small businesses, and we work with a commercial composter to collect our organic kitchen and event waste. 

We’re thrilled to see the industry trends starting to swing towards sustainability, but it’s not a complete win just yet.

The United States is unfortunately a main offender when it comes to wasting food. We leave 40% of it on the table, and most states have limited composting options, if any. 

And restaurants and caterers are some of the main culprits.

Birchtree is a small company. We cater for a few thousands guests each year, and our clients appreciate our commitment to sustainability. For us, less is more. After we’ve fed our guests, vendors and staff, we feel satisfied when there’s enough food for us to pack a few boxes up for the client to take home. The rest, if any, is composted. 

On the flip side, there are the clients and caterers that see abundance as the key to getting value for their money. They eat with their eyes first, and more is more. There’s a dazzling effect that comes with extravagance, and it can be undeniable…until you understand the aftermath of what that means for the health of our planet. Then it’s not so pleasant to see a massive appetizer tower at an event, because you realize that no one is going to eat all that shrimp. It’s a waste of resources entirely, from fishing to transporting to preparing, and it starts to look really sad. 

For Birchtree, zero waste catering is our goal, but not the reality. We use items that don’t have reasonable replacements yet, like saran wrap and plastic case wrapping. Regardless, we do our best to maintain a one-trash-bag-policy at events. 

Birchtree’s Compost Bin

We accomplish this by having specific compostable trash bags and bins in our kitchen and at events, and teaching our staff what is and isn’t compostable. We’ve been composting commercially for over 10 years, and because of staff turnover, it remains a constant reminder on site. We’ve baked in the sustainable philosophy as part of our core mission, so I’m lucky to have staff that cares enough to educate fellow employees and keep things separated at events. 

We still have so much to discover about how we handle our waste, and we’re hopeful that manufacturers can start taking more responsibility for what they’re producing. Birchtree recently participated in the City of Philadelphia’s Food Waste Business Challenge. We used the challenge to organize and research how all of our waste is handled, including our compostable disposable wares.

The Center for Ecotechnology helped us to discover that our region doesn’t have the infrastructure to dispose of compostable bioplastics, or CPLA/PLA plastics, which are items like forks and cups that look like plastic that are becoming more and more popular. So while we were purchasing and serving on “compostable” products, and sending them to a commercial composter, they were still heading to the landfill. Now we’re changing our purchasing choices, opting for reusable items whenever possible.

There are so many products out there that are eco-friendly. The best ones are made from paper, bamboo, or palm leaf, which can all be composted here on the east coast. If it looks and feels like plastic but is compostable or biodegradable, its final destination is the landfill. Is a compostable product in the landfill better for the planet? Not as much as you’d think. Composting and reusing materials are the best things we can do right now. Alternatively, when in doubt, throw it out (into the landfill trash), because otherwise you may be contaminating a clean waste stream of compostable or recyclable material.

Birchtree’s Guide to event composting. We hang this up at every event for our staff.

Birchtree is now closed to new inquiries.

Thank you for 15 amazing years!