Field notes

Melbourne turning food rubbish into food for gardens

MELBOURNE • In a narrow alleyway in the centre of Melbourne, a steady flow of shoppers, tourists and office workers squeeze past each other before ducking into one of the street's sleek hole-in-the-wall cafes, quirky bars or gourmet restaurants.

Nestled between two busy roads, the alleyway, called Degraves Street, is one of the city's famous laneway dining districts and attracts thousands of people each day.

But the alleyway's densely packed collection of dining outlets has long created masses of rotting food rubbish.

Until recently, the waste would pile up in bins scattered around the district, which affected the ambience and attracted rats and cockroaches. But a pilot recycling scheme in Degraves Street has successfully cleared the waste - and the vermin.

The scheme involves local restaurants and cafes dumping their food waste in a machine which processes and sterilises the waste before turning it into fertiliser for local parks and gardens.

About 90 stores, the bulk of the stores in the precinct, have joined the scheme since it was introduced by the City of Melbourne three years ago.

Ms Wong, who runs a cafe with an Alice In Wonderland theme in a small arcade in the centre of Melbourne, says the recycling scheme has made everything a bit cleaner and helped her run the cafe better.PHOTO: CITY OF MELBOURNE

Ms Janet Wong, who runs a cafe with an Alice In Wonderland theme in a small arcade off the laneway, said the scheme had "made everything a bit cleaner".

"It has really helped my cafe run better," she told The Straits Times.

"Cleaning and closing the cafe is now so much faster. I think regular patrons would notice the difference," she added.

Ms Wong said her cafe and the surrounding businesses joined the scheme about 18 months ago. Her employees have since noticed that "there were no rats and cockroaches where the bins were".

The pilot recycling scheme in Degraves Street involves restaurants and cafes dumping food waste in a machine which processes and sterilises the waste and turns it into fertiliser for parks and gardens. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN PEARLMAN

She said: "When the arcade didn't participate, there was a universal garbage bin for everyone. There was garbage pouring everywhere. It used to be pretty messy."

The City of Melbourne said the scheme has reduced waste produced in Degraves Street by 90 per cent and prevents about 2.5 tonnes of rubbish each week -about a quarter of which is coffee grounds - from going into landfills.

The scheme costs about A$300,000 (S$305,000) a year to run - paid by the city - and employs seven people to help collect the waste and recycle it.

"The recycling facility helps to improve the amenity by keeping Degraves Street clean, limiting the amount of rubbish bins on the street and reducing truck movements," said City of Melbourne spokesman Jem Wilson.

"The facility was installed because a waste audit of businesses in the area revealed that around 90 per cent of the waste produced in Degraves Street could be diverted from landfill."

Australia has high rates of recycling for paper, plastics and green waste, with more than 90 per cent of households using kerbside recycling bins. But recycling of food waste in Australia is rare, with the bulk of it ending up in landfills.

Most councils in the state of South Australia have begun offering food scrap recycling in recent years. Schemes typically involve fortnightly collections in special green bins.

Other councils around the country offer various schemes such as access to mobile food bins. But the measures are ad hoc and each of the nation's 24 million residents produces an average 361kg of food waste each year.

Ms Wilson said: "Each year in Victoria (a state with a population of about 6 million), we throw out 250,000 tonnes worth of food - which is more than enough wasted food to fill the Eureka Tower." The tower is a 297m-high skyscraper.

The Degraves Street scheme uses a A$250,000 dehydrator machine, which is housed in the basement of a nearby carpark, along with a cardboard baler, or crusher, and recycle bins. The machine was developed in South Korea, which has the world's strictest food waste laws and in 2005 banned such waste from going into landfills.

Since 1995, the amount of food waste recycled in South Korea has increased from 2 per cent to more than 95 per cent. The country previously treated its waste and released much of it into waterways but the process had a devastating impact on the environment and marine life.

Food waste in landfill produces liquid pollution, which can leach into soils and affect the environment. It also creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Australia has no ban on food waste going into landfills but the authorities in Melbourne hope the Degraves Street scheme could be extended to dining hubs, shopping areas and residential complexes.

So far, food waste schemes have been set up at about 30 sites across the city, including at hospitals, prisons and markets.

The Degraves Street machine, supplied by an Australian firm called Eco Guardians, takes about eight to 10 hours to convert the waste into rich fertiliser.

The firm says restaurants create up to 2.5kg of food waste a week for each of their table spots and hospitals create 2kg for each in-patient daily.

"These type of solutions to reduce food waste will only grow in popularity," said Eco Guardians general manager David Berry.

"There's a massive potential for the machines in high-rise buildings. Tenants could dispose of their organic material and could be charged only for what they process," he added.

Though recycling food waste in Australia is relatively rare, there has been a growing push to prevent wastage of uneaten food.

It is estimated that a fifth of purchased food in Australia ends up uneaten and in the garbage.

The cost of this waste is believed to be between A$8billion and A$10 billion a year, including production and landfill costs.

The federal government last year announced it wanted to develop a national food waste plan, which would aim to halve the amount of food waste by 2025.

The plan includes encouraging people to eat food that may be past its best-before date but remains safe, or which does not necessarily look blemish-free.

Other initiatives include encouraging food that "does not meet commercial appearance and quality standards" to be sold at local markets or stalls. Other food could be used to produce animal feed, biofuel or compost.

"Where waste does occur, it should be diverted from landfill," the federal government says on its website.

"Food waste significantly adds to the financial and environmental costs of waste management and squanders precious resources such as energy, water and fertiliser."

The drive to harness unwanted food in Australia has been led by a non-government organisation, OzHarvest, which "rescues" excess food from more than 2,000 shops, supermarkets and restaurants and delivers it to about 900 charities.

The organisation has delivered more than 50 million meals in the past 11 years.

"We pick up anything from quality surplus fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat, pre-prepared sandwiches and meals to delicious cupcakes or muffins that weren't sold that day," the organisation says.

In Degraves Street, the effort to reduce waste is only just beginning.

A restaurateur there, Mr Sharif Hasan, said the recycling scheme had cleaned up the area and led to more customers who spent more time dining.

"It's much better - you can walk past and there's no smell," he told ABC News.

"You're actually willing to go there and spend time having your coffee. So more people are coming in, more tourists are coming in and it's much cleaner."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2016, with the headline 'Melbourne turning food rubbish into food for gardens'. Print Edition | Subscribe