Australia is an enormously wasteful society: on average, every Australian throws away the equivalent of five bags of groceries each year. That’s $8 billion worth of food, rotting in landfill. Almost half of what goes to Australian landfill is food and green waste. We have a widespread problem of nutrient depleted soils on our farming land, yet huge amounts of useful organic matter are thrown into landfill, contributing to greenhouse gases and climate change.
In permaculture we pay a lot of attention to waste, or rather to the avoidance of waste. You’re probably familiar with the Rs of waste minimisation: reduce, reuse, recycle, and the more recent inclusions refuse and repair.
When we refuse to participate in wasteful practices we make a difference on an individual level. But it’s not always easy, particularly when you run a business like a café, when servicing hungry customers means going through thousands of kilograms of fresh food, milk, bread and wine every year. It’s impossible to avoid large amounts of waste in the form of discarded food, cardboard and packaging when you operate a hospitality business. Or is it?
Entrepreneur Joost Bakker has always challenged conventional thinking, from his early days as a floral artist, weaving rusted found objects into his designs, to his most recent venture, a zero waste café called Silo in Melbourne’s Hardware Lane. According to Joost, he designed Silo by considering up front how to avoid generating waste in the first place.
Joost Bakker is no ordinary restaurateur. A fifth generation tulip farmer, Joost’s work now centres around sustainable building design and creating built lifestyles that support and regenerate natural ecosystems. His own home and the structures he designs for clients are made from waste materials, featuring rooftop gardens and garden walls made from terracotta pots.
When designing Silo, Joost approached the problem from the mantra ‘first, produce no waste’ and is proud to have created a zero waste café. At Silo, milk, wine and water are delivered in stainless steel kegs and returned to the supplier empty. Fresh produce arrives in reusable crates, as does the beer, whisky and gin. Dried goods like oats and flour are delivered in large reusable paper bags, and milled on demand. The food scraps that would otherwise be Silo’s waste output are converted on site to rich organic fertiliser and returned to farms in the Yarra Valley to nourish and regenerate the soil.
The on-site dehydrator at Silo is a feature of the café, and it used to sit in the doorway so that customers wouldn’t miss it. This amazing composting machine dehydrates all the food waste from Silo and reduces it to ten per cent of its original volume overnight. The output is sterile, rich in nutrients and immediately safe to grow food in. Aware of the thousands of tonnes of food discarded by city businesses every year, Joost became very passionate about composting. He jokes that he used to be so angry about compost that he couldn’t bear to hide Silo’s composter out the back.
HOW TO REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPAIR AND RECYCLE, AND NOT JUST FOOD RELATED THINGS
Refuse: say no to plastic bags and over-packaged goods and seek out alternative ways to buy (perhaps in bulk) the products you need.
Reduce: plan meals and buy less food; swap kids clothes; share tools with neighbours; and consider any new purchases carefully.
Reuse: find other purposes for empty jars, old furniture and used clothing.
Repair: sew buttons back on, re-sole shoes and creatively patch holes in jeans; learn some simple DIY skills and repair damaged furniture and household items.
Recycle: use council recycling services; drop old electrical equipment, TVs and mobile phones at pick up points.
Clockwise from left: Karen Brown with cafe scraps for the composting at the Collingwood Children’s Farm. Composting cargo bike. Antonio Capizzi and Pu Yi Liang enjoying lunch at Ozanam Community Centre in Melbourne, made with fooprovided by SecondBite. Photos by Erika Hildegard Photography
Hopefully Joost is less angry these days. Composting machines like Silo’s are popping up all over Australia. At last count there were eightyeight of them in Melbourne alone, many tucked down the city’s alleys and laneways. When food waste and rubbish attracted criticism (and rodents) in Degraves Street in the CBD, the city council set up a pilot with a large composting machine similar to the one outside Silo. The cafés and restaurants in the area deposit their food waste there and contribute to the delightful, nutrient rich fertiliser it produces for local farms. A waste audit at Degraves Street found that ninety per cent of waste generated in the precinct could be diverted from landfill. A waste separation facility was set up in a nearby basement, where glass, plastic, aluminium, steel and cardboard are now separated and diverted for recycling, and all the food waste is converted to compost.
In Australian cafés and restaurants, sixty-five percent of food waste comes from food preparation and another five per cent from spoilage. Without composting, this is the stuff that goes to landfill. But what about the other thirty per cent? Unsold and uneaten food represents devalued assets to a food business. It’s a lost opportunity, and no longer has commercial value. But it’s still food, and has value as a source of energy and nutrients. According to food waste consultant Dianne McGrath, businesses hate food waste as it represents lost income, and also because of the costs of disposing of it. Cafés and restaurants are responsible for contracting their own waste removal, and services are expensive.
This is where food rescue comes in. Food rescue is done by not-for-profit groups who collect excess or waste food from businesses and redistribute it to charities. Charity groups then work within their local area to provide food and cooked meals to people in need.
By helping businesses deal with the costs and logistics of food waste, organisations like OzHarvest and SecondBite are turning a problem into not one, but two solutions: they make it possible for Australian charities to serve up nearly a million meals every month to people in need; and they are addressing climate change by saving almost two kilograms of greenhouse emissions for every kilogram rescued from landfill. SecondBite’s food rescue activities in 2012 alone avoided 4450 tonnes of CO2 emissions from landfill or the equivalent of taking 1000 cars off the road.
As part of her PhD research, Dianne McGrath has worked closely with food rescue service OzHarvest, which has been redistributing food waste from restaurants, cafés and supermarkets for fifteen years. Although cost and convenience are definitely factors, cafés and restaurants feel a connection to their local area and genuinely want to help.
Based on her research, Dianne has created a model for carrying out restaurant audits to measure waste against a benchmark: less than one kilogram per diner. Business owners provide information about waste to calculate a score based on the number of kilograms of waste per diner. Dianne believes that by setting benchmarks for food waste, cafés and restaurants will be encouraged to audit waste and modify practices. High profile restaurants could lead the way by making audit results public and calling for others to follow.
In one of those ironies that challenge permaculturists, it is new technology that makes composting viable in an urban, commercial setting. Composting used to be a small and slow solution that didn’t make economic sense to most businesses. Certainly some have always made the effort, but it’s been a labour of love. These days innovative technologies, like invessel composting machines, make it economically viable for cafés and restaurants to process food waste. According to Closed Loop, which make the composting machine used at Silo, restaurants can save as much as sixty-five per cent in waste bills, and reduce the amount of food waste they have to deal with by ninety per cent in twenty-four hours. Cecconi’s Cantina, which uses a Closed Loop composter, has reduced its weekly waste collections from twelve to only three each week. Those kinds of results are difficult to achieve in small and slow ways.
Produce at Silo. Photos by Erika Hildegard Photography
The City of Yarra is taking a different approach to waste reduction with a program it’s calling Food Know How: cafés and restaurants have signed up to have their waste collected by volunteers riding cargo trikes. A local non-profit group, Cultivating Community, and the Metropolitan Waste Management Group developed the program in an effort to reduce the city’s food waste. According to the City of Yarra, almost half of all waste going into bins in the city was food waste. Food Know How is helping local residents avoid and recycle food waste through meal planning, tips about leftovers, smart shopping and food storage, as well as composting and worm farming solutions.
Once a week Karen Brown spends two hours riding a cargo trike loaded with sixty litre bins. She picks up food scraps from businesses like Proud Mary, Lentil as Anything and The Commoner in the City of Yarra. Along with other volunteers across the city, Karen delivers her cargo to composting hubs like the one at Collingwood Children’s Farm where compost is created over six to eight weeks. The compost is used on the fruit trees at the farm, and in Cultivating Community gardens.
Whether it’s small and slow, or fast and machine driven, it’s nice to see a return to values that support and recreate the cycle of life that converts food waste into rich, organic, reusable matter. There is integrity in returning nutrients to the land from which it was taken, rather than casting it aside as waste. Having set the standard for café waste, and demonstrating how to prevent waste and rebuild our depleted soils, Joost Bakker need not be so angry about compost anymore.
FOOD WASTE FACTS
There’s a great infographic on the Food Know How website that illustrates some horrifying facts about how much food we waste in Australia, see www.foodknowhow.org.au/getinvolved/food-waste-fast-facts/
FOOD WASTE GENERATES METHANE
Food waste in Australian landfills is our second-largest source of methane, a gas which is much more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping radiation in the atmosphere, and contributing to global warming.
MELBOURNE RESTAURANTS with a focus on waste reduction and growing their own food
- Silo (zero waste, composting machine, bulk suppliers, no packaging waste)
- Mesa Verde (rooftop garden for herbs and vegies, worm farm, compost)
- Cecconi’s Cantina (composting machine, compost returned to vegies on a farm in the Otway Ranges which supplies the restaurant)
- Ingrid & Sean (composting machine, exact food preparation, grows micro-herbs on site)
- Grainstore (grows food on roof, focus on organic and seasonal food)
- Press Club (uses a box in Federation Square to grow herbs)