Our waste is coming back to us, environmentally-speaking, but there’s technology to help you deal with it. By Alexander Gilly
For a 13th-Century English-speaker, the verb ‘to waste’ meant ‘to devastate, ravage or ruin’. It was a wicked word. Nowadays, we use the noun ‘waste’ to denote anything leftover that we breezily dispose of.
Happily for the restaurant business, there is not just social but financial incentive to reduce waste. Restaurants must pay for their own waste collection, so the less waste, the less there is to pay. Furthermore, restaurants pay for everything they throw out. If you buy fish at $30 a kilo, for example, you’re paying for all the fish, including the skin and bones and the polystyrene box it comes in. Throw those out and you’re throwing away money.
“Don’t treat garbage as garbage, but simply as part of the business process,” says Eugene Geisinger, a Sydney-based chef.
Judy Hanson, the national compliance and training manager for the Compass Group, agrees. “We regularly audit our operations to see where we can cut waste,” says Hensen. “You need a benchmark before you can achieve success in waste reduction.”
Compass is one of many companies that have committed themselves to the R&CA’s Green Table initiative. Phase I of the scheme asks restaurants and caterers to use natural gas or a minimum of 20 per cent green electricity to power their stoves; send their organic waste to compost; recycle paper, plastic, glass, metal as much as possible; use energy-efficient equipment and lighting; water-saving equipment and fixtures; and recycled, biodegradable and non-toxic supplies.
Achieving these goals will yield clear environmental benefits. There’s also marketing advantages to greening your table before your competitor does.
“A few years ago, the focus was on OH&S and quality,” says Hanson, “but there’s been a big shift in awareness, and environmental responsibility is now an established part of our tender process.”
The first step to dealing with food waste is simply to produce less of it. One way to do that is to order small amounts more often, rather than large amounts infrequently. Kylie Kwong, owner of Billy Kwong restaurant in Sydney, and ambassador for FoodWise, a campaign that aims to end food waste, explains, “If we buy more food than we need, then we lose money. So we purchase small amounts of food produce every day, rather than large amounts every few days.”
Another solution is creative cooking. That’s what happens at Billy Kwong. “We use every inch of the ingredients in our cooking,” says Kwong, “For instance, we put scraps of ginger and chicken bones in our stocks.” Still, even if you get the ordering exactly right and use as much as you can in your service, there’s going to be some waste. Rather than throw it into landfill, compost it.
Composting no longer means steaming, smelly piles of manure. New technologies make the process of organic decomposition quicker, odourless and straightforward.
A Bokashi bin is an airtight container with a drain at the bottom. You put in your scrapings (anything goes), then sprinkle a mix of micro-organisms over the top. After two weeks (or when the bin is full) you empty it in a hole in a kitchen garden. The decomposition process that began in the bin continues in the ground. The Bokashi system is small and odourless, so you can keep it near the kitchen.
A South Australian company has developed a large-scale composting system called the BiobiN. A BiobiN is essentially a large, steel, composting container with a blower attached. You dump the organic waste in the top, seal the air-tight container, then switch on the blower, which pumps air through the bin and accelerates the composting process while blowing away odours and bacteria. When the bin is full, the company picks it up and replaces it with an empty one. The contents of the full bin become soil fertiliser.
The size of the BiobiN means that it’s more suited to large-scale operations, but that could change. Andrew Grant, BiobiN’s marketing manager, said the company
is studying the feasibility of setting up a communal system for dense urban areas. The idea is that each restaurant would put its food waste in a biodegradable bag (made from starch), which would then be picked up regularly and taken to a centrally located BiobiN.
Fats, oils and grease
Used cooking oil is a commodity, and there are companies that will collect the oil from your cookers free-of-charge and convert it into a range of products such as biodiesel, soap and stockfeed.
The question is how you’re going to collect the oil in the kitchen. “The cheapest method is to pour it into a drum,” says Pieter van Meel, business development manager for Auscol, a company that specialises in collecting and recycling cooking fats, “but as anyone who’s tried it knows, it isn’t easy pouring warm oil. There are OH&S issues and environmental concerns.” To address this, Auscol has developed a system called Direct-Connect that pipes oil from your fryers directly to the collection drum.
Hitting the bottle
The recycling of solid wastes is now an established industry, and sorting recyclables is second nature to most of us. Yet a surprising quantity of recyclable material still ends up in landfill. One reason for this is that even though recycling technologies have come a long way over the past two decades, it takes surprisingly little contaminant to make a batch of material un-recyclable. Glass, for instance, can be recycled indefinitely—unless it is contaminated with a ceramic plate or glass from a light bulb. The most important thing a restaurant can do to help reduce solid waste is train its staff to sort the recyclables correctly. Don’t put waxed cardboard in the paper box, for instance, or china in the glass box.
The Green Table program shows how our collective attitude towards waste has changed. Comedy sketch program Saturday Night Live once broadcast a skit that captured this shift in attitude. It starred Miss Piggy dancing with a big pig in overalls.
Miss Piggy: “What do you do?”
Big pig: “I’m in garbage.”
Miss Piggy: “Oh great! Do you deliver?”
Our waste is coming back to us in all sorts of ways.