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Food waste due to aesthetic standards is being combated by dumpster divers, a restaurant that uses scrapped ingredients and supermarkets now selling less-than-perfect stock. By Drew Rooke.

Recycling food waste gaining support

Harvested, on Harris Street in Pyrmont, inner Sydney, isn’t a conspicuous restaurant. It’s chic and modern, with a glass shopfront, a white-heavy interior decor and matt-chrome lamps hanging from the roof. It isn’t far from fine dining. On the bar as you walk in are bouquets of native Australian flora and jars of plum jam, chilli tomato ketchup and apple balsamic vinegar for sale. Volunteers walk the floor preparing for the day, setting tables, vacuuming and writing the menu on the chalkboard at the entrance.

It’s an extravagant, Italian-themed menu today. Cannellini and pancetta soup; marinated buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes with apple balsamic; braised potatoes, broad beans, mint and baby olives; grass-fed beef agnolotti, house ricotta with orange gremolata; pumpkin risotto, brussels sprouts, lemon, almonds and mascarpone; crisp white polenta, mushroom ragu with cipollini onions; and chocolate mousse with Maltesers crumbs for dessert.

“The menu changes daily,” says head chef Travis Harvey. “It just depends on what ingredients we get.”

On the middle of each table is a menu with a note about food sourcing: “The following dishes have been created using produce destined for landfill.” There’s more at the bottom. “None of the items used are spoilt or unsuitable for consumption in any way. Our chefs have used creativity and their passion to stop food waste and have transformed these ingredients into beautiful food for you to enjoy.” Set up by the long-running food rescue organisation OzHarvest, this is Australia’s only food waste cafe.

Harvey takes a seat across from me. He’s a handsome man with a sharp nose, short and lightly gelled brown hair and striking blue eyes that are, today, a little bloodshot and weary-looking. “I haven’t slept since we started this thing,” he says, laughing.

Everything in the restaurant – including the space itself, which was empty until it was donated to OzHarvest on a three-month lease – is recycled: the cutlery, the jars that the cutlery is stored in, tables, chairs, and even the paper the menu is printed on. “Every single step of it has passed through the filter of how can we reduce waste,” Harvey says. “The idea is not to spend money but to use what is available.”

“When some people think about food waste they think, ‘This is rotten tomatoes, black cabbages, funky brown meat.’ The point of this exercise is to show people what food waste actually looks like.” And people are listening, at least judging by the fact that by midday the restaurant is filled with students, office workers and families, and a queue is forming outside. I ask two men as they’re leaving what they thought of their meal. “We went to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant last week – that was equal,” says one.

Food waste recycling was not a philosophy that mattered as much when Harvey started as a chef. He began in high-end dining, in Canberra and Europe, where each dish is served as an artwork. But a trip to Guatemala was the catalyst for developing a strong social and environmental conscience.

Harvey remembers a particular moment when his perspective on waste changed. While teaching a cooking and nutrition program for a women’s association in Momostenango, he was demonstrating how to make chicken stock. He strained the liquid then went to throw away the bones and vegetables, much to his students’ shock. Although the flavour had been drained, the women thought that secondary to the nutrition that remained. “I learnt a lot more in that program than I taught,” he says.

The DoSomething national FoodWise campaign estimates that in Australia we discard four million tonnes of edible food a year, based on figures in the federal government’s National Waste Report 2010. To this we can add the cost of the water, fuel and resources used to grow and deliver it. Not only is this ethically questionable and environmentally unsustainable, it’s economically absurd. FoodWise – extrapolating from a NSW government study of households in 2009 – puts our current national food waste’s value at a modest $8 billion.

The work of OzHarvest and other food rescue organisations only makes a dint in this problem. But the corporate players are beginning to take an interest. Often considered the wasteful villain, supermarkets are joining in, committing to selling disfigured and blemished but perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at discount prices instead of binning them as had long been standard practice. Woolworths has recently announced it aims to have zero food waste going to landfill by the end of this year.

In France, this aim has just been legislated, forcing supermarkets to donate any unsold and edible food to charity or for use as animal feed. Ronni Kahn, the founder of OzHarvest, acknowledges these are steps in the right direction but she has concerns. “It will be too easy for them to take edible food and give it to animals – it’s like dumping. There’s still a long way to go.”

Another big player is the Freeganism movement. This is synonymous with dumpster diving. James Ray, a 22-year-old from Sydney’s north shore, has been a dumpster diver for more than six months. I meet him on a chilly Wednesday night at Chatswood train station. He is an engineering graduate and is working as a tutor. He’s just come from a job an hour away, stopping off to get some groceries before heading home.

The loading dock for the Aldi supermarket in the Westfield building is a short bicycle ride away and when we arrive Ray wastes no time taking off his grey trench coat and hunting for discarded food in the dumpster. It’s his third time here. “I generally don’t actually dive in,” he says, laughing. “It’s not usually necessary, unless there’s something at the bottom I can’t reach.”

He throws aside a few plastic bags and below them is a pumpkin about the size of a volleyball. He inspects it diligently. “There’s a bit of a crack there,” he says, pointing to the top. “But other than that, it should be okay.” It goes in his bag.

The amount of waste is what motivates Ray to dive – he sees it every week when he goes on a run (Paddy’s Markets in Haymarket is particularly fruitful, he says). “I’m able to afford to buy food but there’s so much wasted,” he says. In fact, the waste is enough to support him – he now only buys things if he is running low on something he can’t find in a dumpster. And not only food. Some of his unusual finds include a retractable clothesline, a home alarm system, a set of Indian copper bowls and an extra large jacket. “It didn’t fit me but it was in perfectly good condition.”

“You can be a bit picky with dumpster diving because there’s so much stuff,” Ray says. “You only take what you need – that’s a good rule.” Along with the pumpkin there is also yoghurt, milk, sausages, crumbed chicken, and two loaves of bread. The bread is still soft and the rest within their best-before and use-by dates.

There may be more, though the hunt is halted when a Westfield security guard approaches. “Can you please leave the area? You’re trespassing.” His weary tone suggests that it’s a request he has made hundreds of times.

“There’s a lot of good food in there that goes to waste,” I say, as we head off.

“Yeah. It’s a shame, isn’t it?” the guard replies, before closing the roller door to the loading dock behind us.

There is a lack of education and information about the magnitude of the food waste problem and its wider environmental consequences, but deeper cultural reasons are the underlying cause. “We’re obsessed with the aesthetic,” says Harvey. We want our food unblemished, unbruised and perfectly shaped, which means much gets thrown away by suppliers because it doesn’t adhere to our strict cosmetic standards.

“We’ve become this over-consumptive society that is geared to just buy more stuff,” Kahn says. “We’re a disposable society. We want the newest, the latest. And we want to walk into a supermarket at midnight and have the same choice as we have at eight in the morning.”

Kahn says legislation like that in France is unlikely to change this attitude – there must be a change in individuals. “If I’m throwing away my little lettuce, what does that mean?” she says. “What if another 10 million are throwing away their lettuce? We have to shift our behaviour regarding our food habits. None of us should waste food – not just supermarkets.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2015 as "Waste lines". Subscribe here.

Drew Rooke
is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.

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