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The Future of Food Is Zero Waste

Jan 10, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by Matt Hopkins

As the world starts to reckon with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire climate warnings, a good place to begin is food waste. Every year, one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption—1.3 billion tons—is wasted. (Americans in particular throw away 40 percent of their food, despite the fact that most of it is perfectly edible.) In aggregate, the world’s annual food waste produces 3.3 billion tons of carbon. That’s more greenhouse-gas emissions than from 37 million cars. Needless to say, a global effort in the reduction of food waste would go a long way toward mitigating our carbon footprint.

Some people are taking matters into their own hands. Five years ago, Douglas McMaster, a British chef, decided that he wanted to open a restaurant. He traveled the world visiting Michelin-starred restaurants he admired so that he could replicate their success, but was quickly disillusioned. “It was criminal, some of the things that I witnessed with [food] waste,” McMaster says in Matt Hopkins’s short documentary A Failure of the Imagination. “I started to realize that the food industry is a complete disaster. It’s unsustainable… Our expectations and desires are unnatural.”

McMaster returned to England with the idea of opening a zero-waste restaurant, meaning that it would produce no trash. There wasn’t a manual for his mission—such a thing didn’t exist. “I had a vision of a food system that was better, a food system for the future,” McMaster says in the film. “Little did I know that it was going to be the hardest thing that I’ve ever done.”

A Failure of the Imagination depicts the restaurant’s grueling five-year journey from idealistic concept to fruition. “We kept striking brilliant ideas, but [the success rate] would be, like, one in 100,” McMaster says in the film. “There are only so many knocks you can take before waving the white flag.” Failure, though, turned out to be an essential part of the process—“we needed to fail to learn,” the chef says.

In 2014, McMaster opened Silo in Brighton, just an hour outside London. The concept was to return to a preindustrial food system, forming what McMaster calls a “closed loop.” The menu is entirely dictated by seasonal produce. McMaster buys ingredients directly from farmers, fishermen, and foragers to avoid packaging that can’t be reused. Anything he can’t source locally is made in-house—the kitchen mills flour, churns butter, rolls oats, brews vinegar, makes yogurt and chocolate, and cultures cream. Silo even features an on-site brewery, with drinks made from foraged and fermented plants, herbs, fruits, and vegetables. When Silo does generate waste, it goes directly into the restaurant’s gargantuan food compressor to be composted.

McMaster believes that Silo’s success is far from an anomaly. In fact, he thinks every restaurant can adopt this idea. “Two hundred years ago, every restaurant was a zero-waste restaurant,” he says. “It’s a very simple, very realistic model that works with nature and not against it. Not only is it ecologically viable, but it’s also economically viable.”

Just last week, McMaster reopened Silo in London to rave reviews. Marina O’Loughlin, a restaurant critic for The Times of London, wrote that “nothing fails to impress,” adding that McMaster “wreaks preternatural deliciousness out of the most unlikely components with food that is complex, multilayered, and sophisticated as any high-end swankpot, but with an almost living freshness and vibrancy.”

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Author: Emily Buder

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A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.