Growing your produce from your waste: City Harvest

05 April, 2016 by
Danielle Bowling

Joshua Benjamin, executive officer at City Harvest explains how this new organisation can help to tackle the food waste crisis in Australia's foodservice industry.

1. TELL US ABOUT CITY HARVEST?

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City Harvest is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to dealing with food waste in Melbourne’s restaurants industry. It was established late last year when Rob Pascoe (managing director at Closed Loop Environmental Solutions) and a number of other industry professionals – including Graz van Egmond (CEO Banksia Foundation), Joost Bakker (eco-artist, designer, and sustainable restaurateur) and Costa Georgiadis (Host of ABC TV’s Gardening Australia) – became concerned with the amount of food waste, mainly from the hospitality sector, being sent to landfill. 

City Harvest was created to achieve 2 things:

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  1. To encourage and promote zero waste practices in restaurants across Melbourne – in particular composting of organics
  2. Our first garden is going to be behind King and Godfree, the deli and grocer on Lygon Street, Carlton. There are also conversations currently being had with City of Melbourne Council and other businesses on accessing rooftops in the CBD to house more gardens.

 These gardens are then managed and tended to by disadvantaged and disabled youth, who will be provided with certified horticulture training to help with future employment opportunities, and the chance to gain skills that will help them in both the workplace and a wider social context. We’ve partnered with CERES as our RTO (Registered Training Organisation) to deliver the Cert II in Horticulture to our participants.

Once the vegetables are ready for harvest, the fresh produce from these gardens will be supplied back to participating restaurants or food relief agencies.

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2. HOW DOES IT DIFFER TO OTHER FOOD RESCUE ORGANISATIONS?

There are some amazing organisations in Australia that deal with food waste, such as Oz Harvest, Foodbank, FareShare and SecondBite – and we are incredibly supportive of what they do. Of course, our first preference for any food waste that can be rescued is to be used to feed people, and to distribute as much as possible to those in need.   But in the end, even these organisations have waste which they have to manage.

City Harvest is unique because we deal with true waste – food that can not be rescued – and turn it into an opportunity for someone to change the trajectory of their lives through pre-employment training in horticulture.  This includes plate scrapings, food scraps from preparation, meat trimmings, fish frames and foods that have rotten. In this sense, our approach is both environmental and social – if it cannot be rescued for human consumption then we need to deal with it appropriately by composting and returning these valuable nutrients to the soil from which horticultural trainees will grow vegetables.

3. DOES EVERY RESTAURANT HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO COMPOST, OR IS SPACE/BUDGET AN IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION?

Yes! Every restaurant has the potential to compost, it’s just a matter of finding the right option to fit your space and budget. Most people associate composting with nasty odours and insects from those horrible big black bins you stick in the corner of your backyard and ignore.

But these days there are so many options – especially for the hospitality sector – that make the solution simple. Some cafes use worm farms, others use dehydrators.  City Harvest does not care how the compost is made – we want to partner with anyone in hospitality to help make a difference to vulnerable members of our community.

Many of our City Harvest participating cafes and restaurants choose to use Closed Loop technology, which offers fully contained units that are clean, hygienic and easy to use and are designed to eliminate nasty odours. These turn food waste into nutrient rich compost in around 24 hours.

In fact, some of the world’s most famous restaurateurs also use Closed Loop machines, including NOMA, Ren Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant, and D.O.M in Brazil.

Sustainability and a zero-waste approach has become a priority for some of the world’s most famous restaurateurs, it’s just a matter of time before Melbourne’s restaurants join the movement.

4. NAME SOME OF THE VENUES DO YOU CURRENTLY WORK WITH?

We are currently collecting compost from The Kettle Black, Hawthorn Common, Savoy Tavern, Kinfolk, University of Melbourne and Attica. We’re constantly receiving inquiries from new cafes, restaurants, businesses and even councils on wanting to get involved. We anticipate that the program will grow quite quickly once people hear about City Harvest and begin to realise that separating food waste and composting is not only better for the environment, but financially beneficial too.  

5. ANY PLANS TO EXPAND INTERSTATE?

There are definitely plans to expand interstate at some stage. We have already had expressions of interest from restaurants in Sydney and in Brisbane, so hopefully at some point next year we will be able to set up City Harvest in those cities.   

6. WHAT ARE THE KEY BENEFITS OF COMPOSTING FOR TODAY’S FOODSERVICE BUSINESSES?

There are a number of key benefits of composting for food service businesses – environmental, economic and social.

Of course, there is the major environmental benefit of diverting food waste from landfill. Many chefs and business owners are looking to transform their environmental performance, and commit to running a more sustainable business.

Given the amount of food waste generated in preparation and in service, restaurateurs find their general waste bills and collection reduce dramatically.

Maria Bortolotto, owner of Cecconi's Flinders Lane, says her restaurant has reduced their food waste bills by 65% and 75% reduction in food waste collections since they began composting. Other restaurants believe they have reduced their general waste production and collection by 90%.

The other benefit is staff engagement – people feel better about where they work when they see the owners doing more than just caring about the bottom line.

7. OVERALL, HOW WOULD YOU RATE THE INDUSTRY’S ATTITUDE AND APPROACH TO TACKLING FOOD WASTE?

We’re pretty good at recycling here in Australia, but despite our diligence with putting plastics and paper in the right bin, we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to food waste. In fact, every year, we send about 200 million tonnes of food to landfill. That means that food waste makes up approximately 60% of our landfill, with a lot of it coming from the hospitality industry. 

Most of us assume that organic waste will just decompose and simply dissolve back into the earth. But when organic waste rots, it produces methane – a gas that is 23 times more harmful than CO2 (Carbon Dioxide). Methane is one of the most harmful greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change, as well as being seen as a significant contributor to global warming.

Australia has some of the most nutrient poor and unproductive soils in the world – only six percent of the Australian land is arable. The quality of Australia’s soil has declined as a result of land clearing, water extraction and poor soil conservation. When soil lacks nutrients and stability, this in turn affects the quality of produce that grows in it.

So when we send food waste to landfill, we’re missing out on the opportunity to transform the energy contained inside it.

For other tips on reducing food waste, click here.