Can a Restaurant Truly Be Zero Waste?
When New York's Zero Waste Bistro shut up shop, it didn’t leave a trace. There were no overflowing food skips in sights. All food scraps the bistro produced had already been composted and turned into organic mulch for local farmers.
The Finnish Cultural Institute in New York (FCINY) produced and commissioned the Zero Waste Bistro as part of the NYCxDESIGN festival in May, a four-day-long food and design project co-curated by designers Harri Koskinen and Linda Bergroth. Helsinki’s zero waste eatery, Restaurant Nolla, was in charge of the five-course meal menu focused on local and organic produce.
With walls crafted from Tetra Pak carton packaging and a communal dining table and table set made with recycled and fully recyclable plastic, the bistro could simply be disassembled and tossed into recycling (though it wasn’t, as that would be wasteful). The construction materials were donated to Materials for the Arts and BIG Reuse. The Durat communal table found it’s new home in the garden of New York's The Cooper Hewitt Museum. Even the Iittala tableware and Artek furniture are being re-used in several locations and projects.
FCINY’s Executive Director Kaarina Gould points out that “Each sitting was sold-out and the feedback we got from the design community, food enthusiasts and environmentalists alike was so rewarding.”
Food waste was composted through a unit by Oklin, a Korean company which supplies restaurants with industrial sized composters. “Restaurant Nolla had already been working with them in their Helsinki restaurant, so they came along too so we could compost the little organic waste that the pop-up produced,” says Gould.
With facilities in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, as well as New Zealand and the UK, Closed Loop, a local environmental solutions company, sells Oklin’s composters. One of their customers is Brisbane’s three-hatted restaurant, Urbane. “The amount of food waste that goes into landfill these days is ridiculous,” says Urbane’s co-founder Andy Buchanan, referring to the 2.2 billion tonnes of food waste that goes into landfill from the commercial sector annually in Australia. “It's not a hard thing to try and start changing as a venue.”
Urbane’s partnership with Closed Loop began almost four years ago when they installed an Oklin composter at the back of their kitchen. The CLO50 Organics unit, which can process 100 kilos of food waste a day, has reduced Urbane’s food waste by approximately 80%. The two 1100 litre skips Urbane were previously throwing food into are no longer needed, with only two 240 litre wheelie bins now used for general waste.
“You can put all sorts of food products in the unit, including meat, whole fish, prawn heads, even small bones, onion and citrus; all the things you can't put into a traditional compost heap,” explains Brendan Lee, Closed Loop’s Strategy Manager. “It makes it pretty attractive for restaurants because you don't have to separate the food.”
The scraps are speedily turned into compost overnight due to a combination of heat (crucial to destroying bacteria such as E. coli), microbes, air flow and agitation within the unit’s airtight chamber. Within 24 hours, the food waste is reduced by 80-90% and the compost is ready to be put to use. “Then our local producers based in Maleny come down and collect the compost to take it back to their farms,” says Buchanan. “It gets completely recycled and when it goes back into the soil it’s as supercharged organic mulch.”
There’s barely a whiff of rotting eggs or decomposing trout either, making these units even more appealing as they won’t put diners off their Wagyu. But they don’t come cheap, which Lee says is the biggest barrier to their uptake. “If the cheap and simple solution is to chuck waste in the bin and the alternative requires effort and a little bit of cost, then it's not attractive,” he says.
Urbane’s commitment to more sustainable ways of running their restaurant extend beyond the herb garden out back, composter outside their kitchen and rooftop beehive to educating their diners on the issue of food waste. “But they don’t beat their chests about it,” says Lee. “The responsibility starts with us at the restaurant, as we are making and creating the waste,” says Buchanan. “But that's not to say it just falls on our shoulders.”
Urbane’s way of shouldering the cost of running their composter is to request that patrons contribute to a levy. “We just ask people if we can add a dollar as a green charge per table,” explains Buchanan. “It doesn't matter if it's a table of ten people or two – it’s just one dollar. I can't think of one person who hasn't been happy to pay it.”
While there are government incentives for businesses to reduce food waste, such as NSW’s Bin Trim business recycling program (which gives free assessments as to how to workplaces can reduce their waste), they can be costly and create operational headaches for restaurants.
“The responsibility starts with us at the restaurant, as we are making and creating the waste. But that's not to say it just falls on our shoulders.”
“While they give with one hand, they take away with two,” says Lee. “Sometimes the incentives pay off here and there, but if you look at it at on a large scale, these [composters] are pretty expensive pieces of equipment, so you have to be looking at it as a long-term solution. Restaurants are small businesses – if solutions that have an element of sustainability aren't commercially sustainable, they’re just not going to last.”
The Australian government has pledged to work towards halving food waste by 2030, which Lee says he is “highly supportive of, but the federal government needs to do more than just set targets”. He says it's important to recognise that while the national government has done some work in addressing the country’s food waste, regulation falls to the state government. “That makes it a bit more difficult to coordinate, because governments operate with different agendas,” he says.
Meanwhile Finland is in no danger of losing their title of world’s most socially progressive country, at least not to us. “Finland has a very good infrastructure in our cities for recycling all kinds of waste, so it’s very much part of our daily routines to recycle and compost,” says Gould.
“Finland is one of the few countries in the world that has a circular economy strategy that the government is committed to,” she says. “The aim is to be a forerunner in the circular economy and set an example of how the transition can be made through education, redesigning infrastructure and rethinking models across industries.”
Lee points out that while many European countries have access to industrial scale anaerobic digesters “that technology isn’t widespread in Australia at the moment because our population is smaller and more widely spread." Will they be more prevalent in twelve years’ time, when the government’s bold target date comes around? With food waste estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion annually, the cost of industrial composters doesn’t seem that high in comparison.