What the Australian food industry is doing to fight the war on plastic

Straws suck: Some bars are switching from plastic to metal drinking straws.
Straws suck: Some bars are switching from plastic to metal drinking straws. Photo: Adam McLean

Poor Alexander Parkes. When the British inventor created the world's first plastic in 1855, he probably didn't count on mankind developing a dangerous, 448-million-tonne-a-year addiction to the stuff.

Not that plastic is, in itself, bad. It can be used to repair body organs. To build lighter versions of things such as car parts. To make dolls, Lego, Transformers and other memories of a happy childhood. All good uses of the substance. The frightening amount of disposable plastic being made (some reports estimate that around 40 per cent of the world's plastic is designed to be used once then thrown away)? Not so good, especially as more reports surface about the amount of disposable plastic entering our oceans and food systems. Then there's the issue of how long it takes for plastic to break down, with estimates ranging from 450 years to never.

The tide, however, is turning. Care of the amplifying power of the internet, the plastic-free message is ringing around Australia, including its bars, cafes and restaurants. These are some of the inspiring ways the hospitality industry has risen to the anti-plastic challenge.

Changing the cafe culture

With an estimated 1 billion plastic-lined takeaway coffee cups used in Australia annually, the ubiquitous drinking vessel has become the pin-up boy of our disposable society. Some cafes are choosing to fight back by joining schemes like Responsible Cafes (customers bringing in their own cup enjoy discounted coffee) or switching to compostible cups. Others are simply reacting by not using takeaway cups at all. At Antz Inya Pantz in the inner Perth suburb of Vic Park, for example, customers have to either drink their coffee in-house, bring their own or buy a non-disposable cup. Since opening in May 2016, the cafe has removed 151,812 – and counting – takeaway cups from the system. "In two years, I've had five people that wanted a takeaway coffee walk out of the cafe without listening to our spiel," says Antz Inya Pantz owner Craig Muzeroll. "Considering we serve around 400 customers every day, five people is a small percentage. People in Vic[toria] Park get it. They know we're a little eccentric."

In Geelong, Little Green Corner is another striking blows against plastic, not least by working with local milk producer Schulz Dairy to have its milk delivered in metal pails that staff then decant into (reusable) glass bottles.

Hugh Whitehead and Chris Welsh of Geelong's  Little Green Corner. The cafe's plastics-free efforts include having milk ...
Hugh Whitehead and Chris Welsh of Geelong's Little Green Corner. The cafe's plastics-free efforts include having milk delivered in metal pails.  Photo: Gail Thomas

"We don't save any money by not having packaging, but we're cool with that," says owner Hugh Whitehead. "It's an idea that fits in with our values about waste and that's good enough for us."

Getting milk delivered in large-format containers is just the start of Little Green Corner's anti-waste stance. Rather than stock bottled drinks, the cafe makes its own seasonal drinks by combining (tapped) sparkling water with cordials and syrups made with seasonal fruit. Menus are kept tight with each of the four dishes offered a reflection of what local farmers have brought through the door.

"People don't want a lot of choice," says Whitehead. "If you have something that's equivalent to what guests think they want, they're usually pretty cool with having a look at something a little different."

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About that bulk-milk delivery. Although those 15-litre metal pails are just for trade (the system was originally pioneered in 2012 for Joost Bakker's radical no-waste Melbourne cafe, Silo), Schulz Dairy has been trialling glass bottle deliveries at Melbourne farmers' markets. While glass bottle deliveries require a certain level of commitment from customers (asking prices aside, buyers must return bottles washed and cap-on for collection the following week), there's enough promise to suggest there might be a bigger market for this old-school format at a broader retail level.

"We hope we're providing consumers with a sustainable alternative to plastic, but we need them to help us and go that extra mile," says Simon Schulz, third-generation dairy farmer and owner of Schulz Dairy.

Raising the bar

Dimitri Rtshiladze, bar manager of Perth cocktail bar Mechanics Institute, admits he was nervous about removing plastic straws from the bar. "It kind of seems stupid now, but it was a real concern a year ago," he says. "It seemed like a big risk to start charging people for an amenity they've been given for free their whole lives."

Schulz organic milk is available in glass bottles.
Schulz organic milk is available in glass bottles. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Fortunately, Rtshiladze's fears were unfounded with almost all guests getting behind his February decision to ditch plastic straws in a bid to cut into Australia's 10-million-straws-a-day habit. While Mechanics Institute hasn't gone entirely straw-free – crushed ice cocktails including mint juleps and Brambles need to be drunk with one – the bar now sells reusable metal straws for a dollar. If customers want to use their straw at the bar, bartenders will wash it for them between drinks. Rtshiladze is embarrassed it took him this long to make the switch. "Looking back, it seems mental how many straws we and the industry were using," he says. "The whole thing to use a straw for tasting when we really didn't need to when we had bar spoons and the back of our hands. It's like the solution was there the whole time."

Pleasingly, more Australian venues – bars, restaurants, cafes and otherwise – are choosing to take the path less straw-covered. Even more encouraging is that industry leaders such as Bulletin Place (Sydney), Pink Moon Saloon (Adelaide) and Crowbar in Brisbane are among those joining the movement. (The Brisbane City Council, incidentally, voted in May to ban plastic straws, bottles and helium balloons from its events.)

The Last Straw, an Australian organisation established in 2015 by Hobart bartender Eva Mackinley, has driven much of this change. One of its more vocal advocates is Harriet Leigh, head of hospitality at Sydney distiller Archie Rose, who has been fervently spreading the straws-suck message.

"One of the marvellous things about the anger of the Millennial youth aimed at the apathy of the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers is they have to do something," says Leigh. "They don't have the luxury of saying change will happen or climate change may not. They have to make the change."

The environmental impact of the country's straw use aside, Leigh also has issues against straws from an alcohol appreciation perspective.

"You wouldn't put a straw in a fine single malt or glass of Grange – why would you disrespect any other drink in such a base manner?" she says. "Do you think James Bond or Don Draper would have a straw? There is nothing sexy about a straw."

A matter of convenience

"I still can't work out exactly what it is," begins one Facebook review of Plant 4 Bowden in Adelaide. "Whatever it is, I'm loving it." Jono Kaitatzis, the owner of Plant 4, laughs. He's not sure how to describe the space either. What he is sure about, though, is that when he established the community-minded market-slash-co-working-space-slash-bar-slash-yoga-studio in an abandoned power plant in October 2016, making the space plastic-free was non-negotiable. Of all its anti-waste initiatives (on-site composting; an investment in metal straws), most impressive is that Plant 4's cafes and pop-up food vendors at the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday markets use real plates and cutlery that are gathered, washed and reused.

While the idea isn't revolutionary (this gather-and-return system is commonplace among Asian food courts), it's notable for an operation that feeds up to 450 people on a busy night. The process isn't cheap: up to seven staff are employed each day to clear and reset tables in Plant 4's communal dining area. Still, it's a cost Kaitatzis says he's happy to shoulder. "Customers have a nicer eating experience and stall holders love it because they don't have to do it [clear and wash dishes]," he says. "It's a huge expense but it's something we'll never change. It's more important than making a buck and you gain from it in other ways."

While the witch-hunt against bottled water continues, house water systems are starting to feel like more the norm than exception. (While venues such as Momofuku and the various Rockpools rely on systems like Purezza for carbonating their sparkling water, a Sodastream and bottles of really cold water will yield perfectly serviceable results for home users.) While the rise of new-generation food delivery apps such as UberEATS and Deliveroo – a recent Roy Morgan report revealed 2 million Australians are using these delivery services every three months – raises waste packaging issues, observers can take comfort from news Deliveroo is introducing an opt-in option for plastic cutlery following successful waste-reduction trials in the UAE and Britain.

Dan Hunter, owner-chef of Brae, Birregurra.

Dan Hunter, owner-chef of Brae, Birregurra. Photo: Eddie Jim

Kitchens of the future

"Everyone knows Brae because of what we do as a restaurant," says Dan Hunter, chef-owner of Birregurra's World's 50 Best-lauded restaurant. "But the stuff [wife] Jules and I feel most proud of is our business culture and how we operate behind closed doors."

Hunter is one of a growing number of Australian chefs whose idea of green-thinking goes beyond what vegies he's going to serve. Getting his milk delivered in bulk (he's another happy customer of Schulz Dairy), putting all of his kitchen food waste into compost for his huge vegetable garden. Unpacking polystyrene containers and sending it back with delivery staff to be reused. Constantly staying in touch and supporting farmers (a simple conversation convinced a supplier to pack a 10-kilogram order of chicken wings in one big lot rather than 10 one-kilogram packs). Admittedly, there's a practical, financial benefit to restaurants minimising their waste production, but for Hunter, it's more about sense than dollars.

"The situation globally is so bad now that we've reached a situation where micro-plastics are showing up in sea salt," says Hunter. "If you think reports like these are someone else's problem but you want to continue eating from the planet and praising nature's bounty without helping to reduce waste, you're a bit of a dick."

Hunter has allies everywhere. Aaron Turner at Geelong's Igni gets vegetables delivered in usable crates and returns boxes and cartons to suppliers to be reused rather than broken down and recycled. I've ridden shotgun in Tony Scherer's ute as the organic Tasmanian farmer has made emergency Saturday morning radish deliveries to restaurants in Hobart, the hours-old brassicas neatly arranged on sturdy trays he cycles through customers.

The use of reusable containers isn't just a regional Australian thing; nor is it limited to fruit and veg. In the West Australian port city of Fremantle, Bread in Common's Scott Brannigan gets meat and fish from Torre Butcher and fishmonger Kailis Brothers delivered in plastic tubs that are then washed, sterilised and collected with his next delivery. True, it's extra work for the kitchen, but Brannigan has some powerful motivation.

"As a parent, I think about the world my kids will live in and the amount of plastic that will be in it if we don't try to change," says the father-of-two. "Even the smallest ripple could make a massive difference for their future."

Small steps can collectively make a great change

I know what you're thinking. "Here's another tree-hugger telling me how to live my life. What makes him think he's better than us?" I don't blame you. Historically, soapboxes have made lousy pulpits.

But for what it's worth, I harbour zero allusions about any sort of superiority. If anything, I actually think I'm worse than you.

As a journalist that eats, drinks and travels as part of his job, consumption – and perhaps even conspicuous consumption – is part of life. Just as some people work out so they can eat cake, reducing waste is one way I try to atone.

There's no silver bullet solution to vanquishing single-use plastic. Like the venues I spoke to as part of this piece, it's about making a series of small changes that, collectively, amount to something big. Some of these changes are easy: bringing my own cup with me when I fly and using it for water, wine and coffee, say, and buying pantry staples at bulk food stores.

 

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Others are more complex. If I have to stay in a hotel for one night, I'll put all my rubbish in the one bin or, even better, in public waste and recycle bins. On check out, I'll then leave a note for housekeeping letting them know I haven't used the bin(s) so they don't have to change bin liners on account of a single piece of dental floss. I like to think these little steps make a difference.

Concern about the environment isn't a new thing. During primary school in the late '80s, I remember learning about greenhouse gases and the hole in the ozone layer. But this current groundswell of green thinking – the recent interest in #WorldEnivoronmentDay, the success of the ABC's War on Waste, the rise of Plastic Free July – feels different. Hopeful, even.

The internet might have helped popularise cat videos and freakshakes, but it's also amplified the green message to an audience that wants to listen.

Of course, talking the talk – or reposting the post, as it were – on social and traditional media is one thing. Walking the walk is another. Shifting the culture of a society that's become increasingly reliant on fast and convenient won't be easy.

Parts of the revolution will not be Instagrammable. But I hope that doesn't deter us. A team effort is our best bet at really tackling throwaway culture. Anything less is just going to feel – well, do I really need to say it?