The green movement is heating up with fast food restaurants serving up environmentally friendly helpings.

Getting caught up in the groundswell surrounding global warming, restaurateurs are embracing eco-friendly practices anticipating the payoff will deliver some green, according to the Green Restaurant Association (GRA). The Boston-based nonprofit, which provides research, consulting and marketing services on environmental sustainability, reports in just the past year, the number of restaurants in the United States employing eco-friendly practices has taken off.

GRA has certified chains including Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Le Pain Quotidien.

Starbucks, which uses cups made of recycled materials, and Domino's Pizza, which recently started testing all-electric vehicles for its pizza deliveries, are also engaging in efforts to preserve the environment. In Britain, McDonald's announced plans to start converting used cooking oil from its 270 restaurants into bio-diesel fuel to power its fleet of 155 delivery trucks. It estimates this effort will reduce carbon emissions by 1,650 tons annually. McDonald's has also launched a similar initiative in Austria.

“People used to shrug off the idea that we [restaurants] were contributing to global warming,” says Michael Oshman, executive director of the GRA. “Now they are taking it more seriously. We've been around for 17 years and this past year [the increase in the number of green restaurants] was just unprecedented.”

And the scope of the green movement is becoming wider. In June, a burger joint in the Kenmore Square section of Boston became the nation's first certified green fast food restaurant. In creating the concept, Grille Zone owners and committed environmentalists Ben Prentice and Barry Baker used recycled construction materials and energy-efficient kitchen equipment, and buy local produce, to minimize the use of fuel-dependent trucks. The restaurant also uses biodegradable utensils and food service items ranging from forks and spoons to napkins and take-out containers. The result: Grille Zone produces half a bag of trash a day, compared with a typical restaurant's 10 to 15 bags.

Prentice estimates that investing in green construction and equipment brought the cost of opening the Grille Zone about 10 percent to 15 percent higher, but he thinks it was worth it. “At the end of the day, we don't feel running a green restaurant is prohibitively expensive,” he says. “We get too much press out of it, we feel good about it, we use less energy and we don't have to pay for dumpster pickup.”

Depending upon Grille Zone's success, Prentice and Baker contemplate opening as many as 10 locations by 2012, including five in the Boston market and five in Albany, N.Y.

But while joining the green movement is currently in vogue, Richard Lackey, chairman of the Palm Beach, Fla.-based Lackey Cos. and founder of the Council of International Restaurant Real Estate Brokers, says it will be years before national fast food chains invest in biodegradable utensils.

“We are talking about a tremendous amount of money here to change even one product,” he says. “Regrettably, most everything these chains do has to do be addressed by the financial analysts.”

At the same time, restaurants can use more cost-efficient measures to help preserve the environment, Lackey says. For example, restaurant employees often get in the habit of turning on all the kitchen appliances the moment they come in to work in the morning. Owners should emphasize the importance of saving energy by turning unused appliances off. A more controversial move: building spaces with lower ceilings to eliminate the need for extra air-conditioning and heating.

Discover GGP

Discover Gift Cards are available for sale at select malls operated by General Growth Properties. This partnership marks the first time the gift cards offered by Discover Financial Services will be available in retail locations and sold to non-Discover cardmembers. The expanded relationship between Discover and General Growth is intended to drive purchasing and customer loyalty. It complements the Discover Card year-round sponsorship at some GGP malls. Initially, the gift cards will be available at 35 malls including Tucson Mall in Ariz., Galleria at Tyler in Calif., Governor's Square in Fla. and Bridgewater Commons in New Jersey.

Simon, ConEd Ink Pact

Simon Property Group has turned to ConEdison Solutions for enhanced energy-efficient programs for its malls to improve operating efficiencies as well as shoppers' comfort. The energy-efficient programs to be explored include the lighting, air-conditioning, heating and energy controls at its 380 properties in North America. Specific programs being examined include installing new lighting systems, controlled lighting in parking lots as well as new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Simon anticipates the customized initiative will accelerate its ROI, in addition to the comfort and safety it will provide for customers and tenants.

Safeway Greens

Safeway Inc., unveiled its first solar-powered grocery store as part of its “green power” initiative. The 55,000-square-foot store, located in Dublin, Calif., is powered by solar panels located atop the store. Its existing gas station is already fueled by wind energy. Solar and wind energy are integral to Safeway's companywide focus on “green power.” The Pleasanton, Calif.-based company is trying to reduce its carbon footprint by 390,000 tons from 2000 levels. Safeway's investment in carbon power reduction strategies includes new energy-efficient refrigeration and lighting. Recently, it joined the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America's only voluntary, legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction registry and trading program. The firm is one of the largest retail recyclers of paper, cardboard and plastic.

Retail Trading

S&P/GRA Commercial Real Estate Indices (SPCREX) futures and options contracts are set to begin trading later this month, reports the CME Group. CME Globex, an electronic trading platform, brings buyers and sellers together. Ten quarterly cash-settled contracts based on property type and geography will be available. The listings include indexes on property types including retail, office, apartments and warehouse properties in five regions. The regional indexes encompass Desert Mountain West, Mid-Atlantic, South, Northeast, Midwest and Pacific West. SPCREX data is based on recorded transactions and published monthly. The first five years of SPCREX futures contracts will be listed on a March quarterly cycle. The contracts give investors access to the $5.3 trillion U.S. commercial real estate market, which accounts for 35 percent of the $15 trillion global commercial real estate market.