How do you solve a problem like organic waste? It’s the biggest question facing sustainable restaurants—and there are few solutions
If all the recycling issues, ironically, it was food that seemed to be presenting the most headaches for restaurants wanting to run sustainable businesses. Or more specifically, organic waste: “We had been assessing all our environmental impacts, and changing light fittings and adjusting all our practices and so on,” says Anna Augustine of Vue de monde. “You do all this great work then look at the biggest thing, which is how you deal with organic waste, and it’s a little disheartening. It was going to landfill. But we felt we had to look at it seriously.”
Up in Newcastle, Neil Slater of Scratchleys was facing exactly the same problem:
“We’ve worked out how to recycle everything in the restaurant except organic waste—bottles, plastics, everything else we can do. If we can work out a way to recycle organic waste, we’ve beaten the waste stream. There’ll be virtually nothing there. The great problem with organic waste is you need to get rid of it every day. It makes up about 50 per cent of the waste stream we produce.”
For restaurateurs serious about reducing their environmental footprint, the issue of organic waste is perhaps the most difficult one they face. Not only because of rules and regulations that mitigate against doing anything against the status quo, but also because of various extra steps that had to be taken to ensure you get rid of it in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
Neil Slater thought he had it all worked out. “I had a solution which I tried to work out with the University of Newcastle,” he says. “Their student union obviously produced a lot of organic waste as well. We tried to create a path where a truck could pick up waste from restaurant precincts, and take it back to the university, where it could be treated. You can do environmental studies at the university, so I had all these young people who had just graduated, or who were just about to graduate, who said ‘we’ll do everything, we’ll drive the truck, we’ll work with you to make this work’.”
Unfortunately, all the good will in the world can’t beat bureaucracy. “We got it all sorted out, but the amount of waste we all produced to make the pick-up financially viable put us into a category where the EPA got involved, and they said to do what we wanted to do meant we had to spend $140,000 on an environmental impact assessment,” Slater says.
“It became clear to me that, unless you’re one of those restaurants who’s lucky enough to have a garden around them, where you can recycle or compost your own organic waste, you can’t do anything. The problem is you have to get the waste picked up every day, and as soon as you add the cost of that to the $140K for checking what you’re doing is OK with the EPA, you run the gauntlet of losing the whole thing, because people just can’t afford it. What happens with good governance is it’s not set up to encourage thinking outside the square.”
Down in Melbourne, Vue de monde’s problem was also linked to cost—specifically, it was so comparatively cheap to send organic waste to landfill that it was difficult to not do it.
“There are suppliers who collect organic waste, but all of them take waste to the same spot: the NRS in Dandenong, and it’s almost at capacity,” says Anna Augustine. “So when you look at that, and when we compared what we were paying, it was looking quite prohibitive to send organic waste to that facility. In Victoria we have a levy of $15 a tonne for sending waste to landfill. In NSW it is $50 per tonne, and will rise to over $120 per tonne by 2015—this means the gap between sending to landfill and sending to an organic waste facility is smaller. But in Victoria, because the landfill rates are so low, sending to an organic waste facility is not as viable an option when you compare it to the general waste alternative.”
Around that time, Anna and the Vue crew also met Richard Paterson, the managing director of Cool Change spring water, who had devised a model for converting organic waste to agricultural fertiliser.
“The other challenge was we couldn’t use normal garbage bags, because they’re not biodegradable. We found some suppliers of biodegradable garbage bags.” Anna Augustine, Vue de monde
“Richard’s trying to develop a product where the waste comes from a defined stream,” Augustine explains, “so if he’s sourcing waste from high-quality sources like fine dining restaurants, then you have high-quality organic waste which can be processed separately, that goes on to make high-grade fertiliser. It’s not going to retail, but to an agricultural product. So you’ve got a true closed loop. So you feel you’re giving something back. That’s what engaged us—you’ve got this bigger picture plan that can benefit our industry as a whole.”
Paterson approached SITA Environmental Services to help, knowing that SITA had purchased land with the intention of building their own organic waste processing materials. SITA operates advanced resource recovery facilities capable of accepting and processing restaurant waste in most states of Australia—except Victoria. SITA has the land, the permits and the funds to invest up to $100 million in Victoria towards similar facilities, but until the landfill levies are changed, it is not viable for them to proceed.
“So SITA came on board, and then we looked at how to facilitate this,” says Augustine. “Getting the chefs’ buy-in was really important. They did see it wasn’t just about splitting up waste, but that there was a real connection with what they care about. Then we trained the staff and put the message into the induction process for new staff. It’s really important you do that, because if the waste gets contaminated it can’t go to where it’s meant to go—it has to go to landfill.
“The other challenge was we couldn’t use normal garbage bags, because they’re not biodegradable. We found some suppliers of biodegradable garbage bags, but they cost ten times the normal cost and when we had them tested we found that they would only degrade in direct sunlight. Richard found a biodegradable bag for us that was more competitive in price, and we decided we just had to accept that extra cost. We’re hoping that as there is a greater demand for these things, the cost will come down.”
Adrian Meredith of Sea La Vie restaurant in Sydney had been staring at the information of Green Table certification for some time, and was particularly bothered by the organic waste issue. “I can remember thinking some of this is just too hard,” he says.
Like Anna Augustine, he sought outside help—but he used Google. Googling the phrase “commercial composting” led him to the Waste Management Association in Burwood, who ran through his options, none of which appealed greatly.
“But he also told me about this woman he’d met from Switzerland, who was manufacturing a food waste machine,” says Meredith. “You open the lid, throw in the waste, close it, and in under 10 hours you end up with a dry, coarse powder. In that time, the machine will turn the food waste into fertilizer.”
In November last year he went to Switzerland and acquired Australian and New Zealand distribution rights for the machine for himself. Meredith is now the sole importer and distributor for the Eco Today System, as it’s called. “It’s built so it will deal with the inevitable”, he says. When installed, he says, there’s no noise or smell. Another appeal of the machines, he says, is that in Switzerland the manufacturers are picking up the dry waste, putting it in a hopper, bagging it and selling it in supermarkets as fertiliser. He hasn’t worked out whether he wants to do something similar in Australia.
Whilst such solutions are often expensive, Anna Augustine of Vue de monde puts the costs of dealing with organic waste in perspective: “It’s a set-up cost rather than something ongoing,” she says. “So we needed to do it and hope there’ll be payback in the future.”