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Junk food

The waste produced feeding the world's foodies can be staggering. Christine Sismondo talks to the creative chefs
and bartenders pushing the industry to clean up its act

Photography by Chris Robinson
Food styling by Michael Elliott

For the past year, Iain Griffiths and Kelsey Ramage, a pair of tattooed, punk rock loving bartenders, have been touring the world hosting a seminar they call "Drink Like You Give a Fuck." Operating under the name Trash Tiki, the duo is focused on inspiring bartenders to run a relatively garbage-free bar by reusing ingredients that would normally be tossed. Through 2018, they're bringing their message to Singapore, Stockholm, Seattle and 21 other cities on five continents with the aim of making the zero-waste movement, one of the food world's most timely trends, as cool as it is eco-conscious.

The Canadian cocktail community couldn't be more enthused about the duo's three visits to Canada, especially since Ramage is one of their own, having grown up in Salmon Arm, B.C. and worked in both Toronto and Vancouver, before moving to London, England, where she met Griffiths. The tiki moment in bar culture is the perfect cocktail trend to convey their message. "Tiki is so opulent and wasteful, with all the crazy garnishes, plastic stirrers, bits and bobs that go over the top of everything, all drunk out of pineapple husks," says Ramage. "We wanted to take something that was used quite commonly, like citrus husks and pineapple husks and things like that, and make a second use out of them so that you're not just juicing them and chucking them away."

Husks of all kinds, it turns out, can be turned into garnishes and cordials that add layers of flavour to a drink. And when you consider that even chain eateries often have fresh juice cocktail programs these days, the number of citrus husks being tossed into landfills is staggering. "Through its renaissance, the craft cocktail culture has created this mindset of single-use ingredients," says Griffiths. "If we don't get people to understand every ingredient can be a multiuse ingredient then we, on the ground every day in bars around the world, are going to have just as much to answer for as a large corporate company."

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This is a problem for more than just cocktail bars. The pursuit of fresh ingredients – perfectly trimmed meat, Instagram-worthy vegetables and the world's best espresso – creates a lot of collateral damage. Even though much of the leftovers are biodegradable, it still produces methane gas, not to mention the wastefulness of throwing away good food when so many people are malnourished.

Fortunately, industry players both big and small are recognizing the value of not letting food go to waste. Loblaws has expanded its Naturally Imperfect ugly fruit selling initiative to its frozen foods, while small restaurants, such as Calgary's The Coup boast that they're completely waste-free. Breweries, including Newfoundland's YellowBelly, are turning stale bread into beer and stale beer into vinegar.

At Vancouver's Nightingale restaurant, head bartender Alex Black says it's become pretty standard for chefs, bartenders and pastry chefs to share waste to make syrups and cordials, promote environmentally responsible products and use compostable straws. The unassuming cocktail straw is the subject of considerable attention, in fact, since many craft bartenders use a new straw to taste every single drink before serving. Bacardi runs a Hold the Straw campaign and there are several grassroots organizations encouraging bartenders to go strawless, while others have switched to reusable options.

As cocktails made with – and often served in – fresh ingredients gain popularity, bartenders are coming up with clever ways to put leftovers to good use.

"About 80-million tonnes of waste is dumped in the ocean per year, much of it is plastic," says Gerry Jobe, a founding partner of the West Coast Canadian enterprise, The Last Straw. "And some of the most commonly found items are plastic straws, stemming from the 180 billion straws thrown away every year in the United States alone. We wanted to provide a solution to an ecologically devastating by-product from our industry." Until now, glass straws started at about $7 a piece, whereas Jobe's borosilicate straws are $1.49 each, which, compared to plastic straws, translates into savings for the operator after about 75 uses.

Improving profit margins has been a key motivator for the adoption of zero-waste measures and an establishment can save on garbage pick up if they get creative with their leftovers. Victoria's Big Wheel Burger worked to pioneer a carbon-neutral, low-waste system back in 2011, sourcing compostable packaging, diverting used fryer oil to biodiesel production and food waste to a community garden. "Our garbage bin gets emptied once a month but we probably only need to empty it once every couple of months, says founder Calen McNeil. "We just don't have that much garbage."

The level of interest in their efforts has surprised zero-waste entrepreneurs. Some 3,000 curious day-trippers crashed the opening of Cowbell Brewing Co. in Blyth, Ont., in August, eager to get a look at its energy-efficient, carbon-neutral facility and try some farm-to-table burgers washed down with a pint of smoky Rauchbier. Although it's North America's first certified carbon-neutral brewery, the real innovation was establishing the world's first "closed loop" brewing system, meaning there is absolutely no wastewater. Cowbell uses treated water from its own well, then after it's used at the brewery, it's treated again and used for irrigating the property. "We had the opportunity to build from the ground up, so it just made sense to include all these sustainability features on day one," says owner Grant Sparling, whose family has owned the brewpub's Huron County farm site for 40 years. "Sustainability is the future."

These efforts might seem like tiny droplets in an ocean full of floating plastics, especially considering that a few neighbourhood bars barring straws is nothing compared to the number used in the fast food industry. But some industry leaders think the spirit behind grassroots initiatives can be channelled into larger, more substantive change.

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Robin Goodfellow, co-owner of Toronto's Bar Raval and Prettyugly suggests entrepreneurs have more influence than they might realize. "Everyone's like 'don't serve straws' and 'straws are the devil,' or 'we serve metal', 'we serve paper' or 'we don't offer it'," says Goodfellow. "To me, it's like why doesn't the straw company get it together and stop using stuff that's destroying the world. So, I called our dry goods supplier and told him I wouldn't buy from him unless he started carrying biodegradable straws."

If others follow Goodfellow's lead, little measures ­– diverting some wastewater, giving dead limes and pineapples a second life or glass straws – may grow into a wider movement while making grocery stores, restaurants and breweries more profitable. Waste not, want not.

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