It’s now cool (and frankly, pretty critical) to give a fuck about the planet. We all teared up at that whale on Blue Planet II and watched in admiration earlier this month as thousands of students skipped school to protest climate change. You might have bought a reusable water bottle and started going to a plastic-free grocery store … or at least stuffing your milk and bananas into a tote bag, rather than use a plastic one. Perhaps you’ve cut your meat intake and become militant with your housemates about using the food compost bin. (Yes to eggshells and tea bags; no, don't you dare to old yoghurt pots).
But what about when you eat out at a restaurant or go to the pub? Sadly, restaurants, bars, and cafes contribute to our growing climate crisis—often in more ways than we realise.
According to waste research company WRAP, the total amount of waste—including food, packaging, and other non-food waste—produced each year by the food service and hospitality sector is 2.87 million tonnes. Less than half (45 percent) of that waste is recycled, sent to anaerobic digestion, or composted. Food waste accounts for 1 million tonnes (75 percent of which is avoidable and could have been eaten) and the rest accounts for packaging (often single-use plastic) and other items, such as disposable kitchen paper.
Change does seem to be happening. The Sustainable Restaurant Association, which supports businesses in their eco efforts, has been running for nine years. Last year saw the launch of the UK’s Chef’s Manifesto, a framework for chefs to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations. A Meeting Place, which brings together women in the hospitality industry to discuss sustainability, also launched last year and has the support of respected food industry figures including writers Anna Sulan Masing and Victoria Stewart, and chef Romy Gill.
But what exactly are the biggest obstacles to a more sustainable restaurant industry? We asked some of the pioneering British chefs working to tackle waste and create eco-friendly kitchens about the challenges they face.
When I call Sam Buckley, chef-owner of Where The Light Gets In in Stockport, he’s just got off the phone with his pig farmer. Earlier that day, he received a report from fishermen in day boats about their haul and put in an order. He also works with organic farms around north west England and last year, took on an acre of farmland himself.
“We don’t use middle men,” he says of his approach to sourcing food for the restaurant. “Sustainability is about a network. We get a whole animal from our pig farmer and we’ve been tutored by a local butcher about how to efficiently break it down. We then buy his charcuterie because he does it better than us.”
Sourcing local, seasonal ingredients and supporting producers is one of the biggest positive impacts that restaurants can have on the environment. It’s not a new idea by any stretch—“seasonal” and “local” are buzzwords used to describe pretty much any restaurant that has opened in the last few years. But there are those, like Buckley, who go the extra mile. Or should that be fewer miles?
When Skye Gyngell opened Spring in London’s Somerset House, she vowed to use one farm for all the vegetables. She tells me, “For the last four and a half years, we’ve made a commitment to a farm called Fern Verrow that everything they could grow, we would take and use.”
“It’s a lot of work because a lot of restaurants will just phone in their orders at midnight to suppliers who have food from all over the world. We only have two orders a week and when we run out, we run out.”
Buckley also admits sourcing ingredients mindfully is hard work—his team are currently struggling to find a supplier they’re happy with for oil and vinegar, and to swap out white sugar: “It’s time-consuming but the reward is the flavour and the relationships we build.”
But what happens when you can’t source the ingredients you need from the UK?
“When I started, I was keenly aware that there were a lot of air miles between here and Ghana. But it’s the fundamental of our business philosophy to be as sustainable as we can,” she says. “As with the recipes in my cookbook, the same core ingredients are used in several dishes.”
Adjonyoh continues, “At a wedding tasting last night, we used 11 core fresh ingredients—tomatoes, ginger, garlic, avocado, okra, yam, garri, red onion, garden egg, spinach, and peanuts—in Ghanaian guacamole, groundnut soup, okra stew, sautéed okra with garden egg and spinach, jollof rice, waakye rice, red red, and plantain.”
Adjonyoh admits that traceability is more difficult when buying from places like East London’s Ridley Road Market but hopes that the growth of the African food industry in UK means that it will become more viable for small farms to grow here: “I’ve spoken to smaller organic farms about the potential of growing okra for us. I hope to have a Persiana effect [the popular Middle Eastern book written by Sabrina Ghayour], where people’s desire for certain ingredients shifts and we can focus on growing those things in the UK.”
Fighting single-use plastic in the kitchen
Bottled water, crates, wrappers, straws, coffee cups, cutlery, and a lot of cling film are just some of the single-use plastics you’ll find in most restaurant kitchens. And according to WRAP, 56 percent of packaging and other non-food waste that is thrown away could have been recycled. But what if there was no plastic in the kitchen in the first place?
The biggest barrier, most chefs will tell you with a resounding groan, is suppliers.
“We’ve always used biodegradable palmware or compostable plates for our street food stuff,” says Adjonyoh. “But single-use plastic is an ongoing battle with suppliers, just getting them to stop putting one avocado in a big plastic bag.”
But, with a lot of hard work, plastic-free is possible. After a year-long project, Gyngell has made Spring a single-use plastic-free restaurant—suppliers included.
“We say to our suppliers that we will not accept stuff in plastic. A lot of meat comes in sealed plastic and we just don’t accept it,” she says. “Hopefully they change because they still want to sell to you.”
Every area of the place was tackled, from the kitchen and bar to the dining room and bathroom.
Gyngell explains, “We worked out that we used over 3,600 kilometres of cling film a year. We just went cold turkey. We bought lids for everything, used beeswax and other compostable materials. We had ceramic ice cream cups made instead of using paper cups. Our soap company wouldn’t sell refillables so we got rid of them and installed ceramic bottles. We used pencils instead of pens and got rid of straws.”
Of course, this wasn’t without an initial investment: “It cost us about £3,500 to make the changes but we’ll reap the rewards. For one, catering cling film isn’t cheap so we probably save around £1,600 just on that. Businesses have to make money so changes also have to make financial sense.”
But council rules around waste disposal still act as a barrier to eliminating waste completely. Local authorities make it expensive and complicated to recycle, so many businesses just don’t. At Spring, the kitchen staff aren’t allowed to put rubbish directly into bins so have to compromise by using recyclable bags. Gyngell says, “The next big thing is pushing councils. A lot of things have to be tackled from the top down.”
Putting food waste on the menu
Adjonyoh has a clear policy on food waste.
“We never throw away food if we can help it,” she says. “We’ll repurpose ingredients, add extra dishes to supper club menus and with restaurant service, we’d rather sell out of a dish or use extra ingredients in the next day’s special. I don’t know why any restaurant wouldn’t.”
She’s right—wasting food is wasting money. And yet WRAP figures show that 45 percent of food waste arises from food preparation and just 21 percent from spoilage.
For those who are drawn to cooking for its opportunity for creativity, waste can provide unlikely inspiration. Restaurants like Silo in Brighton and Cub in London are just a couple of places redefining one chef’s rubbish into another’s treasure.
At Where The Light Gets In, Buckley and his team devote much time and energy to thinking about waste: “Having set menus helps control waste but we’re also starting to thinking about how waste doesn’t have to be centred around food.”
He continues, excitedly, “At the start of the meal, we drop photo albums onto tables with pictures of farmers and chickens, then serve a raw tartare with an egg yolk. We explain that the egg yolk comes from the chickens in the photos and the egg white is also in there. One of our front of house is an avid photographer and found a traditional technique to set photographs in the albumen—the egg white. We also burn oyster shells in our ceramicist’s kiln, hydrate the mixture, and use it for tempura batter. ”
“When you have waste products, it boosts fun and confidence in the chefs. We come out with these crazy ideas that we’re so proud of.”
Over at Spring, Gyngell’s pre-theatre, “scratch” set menu makes genius use of food that would have otherwise been composted, plus they’ve started taking produce from Fern Verrow that wasn’t deemed good enough to sell.
“We have a scratch shelf and you’re not allowed to use anything outside of that. It’s a challenge—like Ready, Steady, Cook using waste products,” she says. “Before we put about 25 percent of the veg from Fern Verrow which went into compost. Now, only 6 percent goes into compost.”
“We set the menu at £20 a head for three courses and it doesn’t cost us a penny. It was food that would have been discarded. It makes economic sense.”
Using up every scrap in the kitchen, eradicating single-use plastics, and becoming mates with farmers all help limit a restaurant’s impact on the planet. They may take more work but Buckley makes a very convincing case for running an eco-friendly restaurant: “The definition of sustainability is to maintain something that is steady and even-paced. If I wasn’t sustainable, my business would probably close down.”
It’s a win-win for the planet and the restaurant.