Until recently restaurants in the UK did not compost any food. Now the situation is slowly changing with innovative ideas, from apps to new business structures
by Audrone Fiodorenko
It’s Friday night in Central London and our stomachs are impatiently growling. “Let’s get some sushi,” says Eleanor in no louder than a whispering voice. Just so you know, we are not dining tonight in a fancy Japanese restaurant by candlelight. We are outside the sushi chain restaurant Wasabi by Holborn Station. Our dinners will be served in black bin bags.
Eleanor, in her early thirties, is a laughter yoga facilitator and a self-proclaimed professional freegan who goes scavenging for food once shops or markets close. “To be honest, staff are not always happy about it. Last time I came to Wasabi, even if they knew people were waiting outside, they took ages on purpose to put out the stuff. So, we waited like an hour in the cold.” Eleanor first started collecting food waste from small supermarkets as a student ten years ago and continued ever since. Now she is the organiser of South London Freegans which has almost 300 members signed up. “Some people think that it’s really dodgy and you might get sick but it is the same as you are getting it from a shop.”
But despite the scepticism, there is no shortage of people to eat free food that only a few hours ago had a price tag on it. At least that is what Saasha Celestial-One, the co-founder of the Olio app, believes. The new app connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses, so surplus food can be shared instead of being thrown away. Launched only a year ago, Olio has successfully expanded its community from the UK to 31 countries around the globe. With a total number of 7000 volunteers, Olio’s so-called food waste heroes go to cafes and delis by the end of the day to collect unsold items, then add it to the app or share it with their neighbours.
“The demand is really high. Forty per cent of all food listed on the app is requested in one hour. More than three-quarters of it is collected within 24 hours. Volunteers are enjoying it because they get the satisfaction of physically rescuing food that is thrown away,” says Saasha. When it comes to restaurants, it is hard to imagine sharing plate waste. But Saasha tells me that she sees a lot of people asking if they can take back a doggy bag and then share it on the app instead of leaving it in the restaurant. According to recent Department of Environment, Food Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) research, 41 per cent of consumers leave plate waste in restaurants because the portion is too big for them. Saasha points out that “we need to be more open-minded about how we throw our food and what we are ready to eat”.
In the meantime, another application has recently shaken hospitality businesses with a new approach to leftovers. Launched last summer, an environmental social enterprise links restaurants with consumers who can buy a good restaurant meal at prices from as little as £2 and a maximum of £3.80 at the end of the shift. This revolutionary concept which has expanded in such a short time to seven cities around the UK is a brainchild of Jamie Crummie and Chris Wilson. A third of the UK’s total food waste is from the food industry rather than consumers, and one tonne of this is avoidable food waste. “It is the chance for restaurants to be more sustainable and tackle the waste issue. It is also a chance for them to generate a revenue and to cover those costs by selling food waste,” says Jamie while showing how many meals have been saved from the bin so far.
But it takes more than one day to change people’s perception of leftovers. “Some people often think that food waste in our app is based on food off customers’ plates. That’s what people usually think of surplus food.” Jamie always has to emphasise that the app offers only fresh food that restaurants have failed to sell. Despite some doubt that he has received over the past few months, Jamie truly believes that technology is helping to limit food waste. “The new platform is changing attitudes and raising awareness. What we need to do is to change the way people behave. It is an essence of changing capitalism.”
Meanwhile, Douglas McMaster, the owner of the first zero-waste restaurant in the UK, is a successful warrior against capitalism. He blames food industrialisation for most of the environmental issues that we face today, including those in the hospitality sector. As Douglas points out: “They were thinking with their wallets, they were not thinking about the health and well-being of the humans on this planet itself.”
Douglas is a passionate activist but, most importantly, he is a professional chef. He has learnt his craft over the years in famous kitchens such as London’s St John restaurant with its “nose to tail” cooking and a two-Michelin-star restaurant Noma in Denmark. But it was the experience in a multi-award-winning restaurant in Sydney that has pushed him to declare a war on food waste. He claims that in the world of fine dining you have to think about perfection and this “elitism” breeds unrealistic quality control. And indeed, Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a charity helping communities to use resources sustainably, found that more than half food waste in fine dining comes from food preparation. “I have seen many wasteful kitchens but in this restaurant, we would waste so much that it brought tears to the eyes. You throw away anything that isn’t perfect. The better the restaurant, the more waste because the standards are higher. It was a despicable experience.”
His restaurant Silo, situated in the heart of Brighton’s popular North Laine district, opened two years ago with idealistic, and some could say naive, thoughts of making a restaurant which produces zero waste. “It’s an adaption. We are not like moving back into the woods, collecting rain water, all holding hands in a big circle and singing Kumbaya. We are adapting to modern society.” While the first few months were a real chaos, now Silo mills its own flour, churns its butter, brews its own drinks, serves food on plates made from recycled plastic bags and drinks from jam jars. But the queen of the restaurant is a robotic composter, named Bertha, which recycles all food waste.
According to WRAP’s research, the average cost of avoidable food waste to businesses in the UK is almost one pound per meal which means that food waste for restaurant sector alone costs £682 million each year. Douglas admits these are powerful statistics and that restaurants will have to subsequently change their food waste management. When asked why more restaurants are not following his lead, he points out that people are sceptical that a zero waste business model makes money. “They don’t know. They haven’t seen my bank balance. I would show them if they ask. I am not going to buy myself a fast car but I don’t lose money – it does work.”
Justin Horne is one of these chefs who is challenging stale perceptions by adopting a zero waste model in his pop-up restaurant Tiny Leaf at Marcato Metropolitano in South London. But unlike McMaster, Justin takes the idea of zero waste one step further by not only avoiding waste but also saving food from the landfill. About eighty per cent of produce he uses in his restaurant is waste, in other words, products that farms or wholesalers cannot sell to supermarkets.
While visiting Justin on Friday morning, his stall is filled with a tempting smell of spicy and sweet masala. He is vigorously stirring vegetables and herbs into what will eventually become a banana curry, topped with a generous amount of kimchi and coriander. While it sounds exotic and unusual, he assures me that it is a traditional recipe that highlights how we can make food that tastes delicious instead of chucking “imperfect” fruits away. “We get so many bananas, at least two boxes a day. Out of these, we are making banana croissants and banana masala.”
While talking, he is multitasking in the kitchen: frying onions, blending sauce, slicing sweet potatoes and checking the taste of bubble squeak. He has worked in fine restaurants such as Mandarin Oriental before starting his own private dining company All the Kings Men. “We used to throw away so much food that I’ve spent a long time cooking. But now there is a new breed of chefs, a new consciousness coming that can do things differently. There is a whole big movement in the East London of educated people. It is the future.”
Meanwhile, Eleanor digs out a large set of Wasabi’s Hana sushi set, filled with a selection of nigiri and rolls that were made just twelve hours ago. We settle on a bench to eat in a refined way like the Japanese – with hands and a whole piece in one bite. At first, we sink our teeth into succulent cuts of rich, buttery, almost juicy salmon layered on a rice pillow. Marinated eel, brushed with a sauce, melts in the mouth to release its oils. But here it is – a fatty, almost beefy and fragrant slice of tuna and as soon as it touches my tongue I admit that there is absolutely nothing dodgy to save some leftovers from their fate in a bin.