Bertha greets diners entering the UK’s first zero waste restaurant. She’s not the prettiest sight.
She is, however, effective, for Bertha is an aerobic digester. In 24 hours at Silo, Brighton, Bertha can generate up to 60kg of compost from kitchen and plate waste, as well as top-ups from neighbours and surrounding businesses.
The restaurant, opened by Douglas McMaster in 2013, prides itself on realising a ‘pre-industrial food system’. McMaster and his team churn butter, roll oats, and pressure mill flour on site from scratch. Bulk deliveries arrive from local suppliers in re-usable crates, pails, urns or food grade jerry cans. ‘Many of our delivery drivers hate me’, chuckles McMaster.
‘We don’t ram information down people’s throats. And by making a quality product that is accessible, by making an environment fun to be in and relaxing, by drawing people in for reasons other than saving the world, we might then create necessary change’, he continues.
Sticking a hefting great compost machine in the entrance hall does drop a few handy (though perhaps subliminal) hints to customers. If Bertha did spew facts, she’d be spoilt for choice. For instance, of the 7 million tonnes of household food and drink that was thrown away in the UK in 2013, 4.2 million tonnes was avoidable, 1.2 million tonnes was possibly avoidable and just 1.6 million tonnes was unavoidable. This last category includes cores, peelings, and eggshells, all of which can be composted.
Scrolling out on the satellite view provides even more food for thought. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states that every year consumers in industrialised countries waste approximately 222 million tonnes of food, which is almost as much as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa, equating to 230 million tonnes.
‘There are too many people fear mongering. There are too many people saying, ‘You have to do this, dadada dadada’… ‘It’s just not a good way to find our way to any kind of change in our culture: to tell people what to do.’
‘Zero waste is a philosophy. Everybody deals with waste as a literal thing. I want to tell people that actually, zero waste is like existentialism; it’s a philosophy. Might be a niche one. But, it is one. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a whole series of connecting principles which effect every decision you make, so in that way, it is a philosophy.’
McMaster sounds a warning: ‘I’m going to sound like Russell Brand soon!’ then steers the topic onto digging into the realities of achieving zero waste. ‘The idea of direct trade and urban composting: that’s the winner. That’s the big one. That’s the revolutionary idea.’
A blackboard to the side of the dining room reads, ‘There are a lot of people on this planet. Most of which are moving to the city. If we create systems in which all our waste is natural, then we could all use composting innovations like ‘Bertha’ to close the loop and live zero waste’. It’s accompanied with a side dressing of hashtags: #ImagineAWorldWithoutWaste, #WasteIsAFailureOfTheImagination, and #TrashIsForTossers (Lauren Singer, the popular blogger who publishes under this name has just been over from New York to talk at Silo).
To make urban composting a reality requires all-natural waste. And accomplishing all-natural waste requires imagination by the crate load. For the first four months after opening it wasn’t feasible for the locals – who often dealt in bulk orders - to drop off deliveries in line with Silo’s unique requirements, so Douglas would drive his reusable containers each Monday around to every farm and supplier needed. He came to a realisation: ‘You have to buy big.’ To do so ‘means preservation and fermentation; there are all these techniques to allow bulk to work. The whole system changed. It shifted in different directions, but in a kind of exciting, positive way.’
‘The other thing is that the way in which this bulk is achievable is by having less options’…‘Convenience and choice; they’re the deadly words.’ For this reason, the menus at Silo currently feature eight dishes, starters and desserts included.