Landfill to Garden Fuel

It is becoming increasingly apparent to me, as a part-time waitress, that the food industry’s disregard for correct recycling and food waste methods is the bane of my small existence. When chefs or restaurant owners justify overflowing garbage bins destined for landfill by saying there’s “not enough space” for recycling or compost systems, I find it hard not to dramatically upturn the bins over their heads.

I had one small triumph a while back when I convinced my boss to stop binning hundreds of empty milk containers and recycle them instead. I appealed to him by conjuring up the frightful image of all that plastic filling valuable space in our ground. Initially he gave me the standard “no-space” argument but a few days later he texted, thanking me for “a push in the right direction” – a large recycling bin was being delivered later that week. One small step for the environment, one large step for my eco-ego.

But the problem is much bigger than milk bottles.

In Australian households, half of what is thrown out is compostable organic material. Imagine how dramatically this increases in the food service industry.

Every time restaurant meals aren’t finished or a quiet week results in unused food prep, it’s thoughtlessly dumped into big plastic bags. And it’s not just food going unused, but all the resources that go into producing and dispensing it – water, energy, packaging, fuel, labour. Even more alarming is when the food begins to decay, buried underground in landfill, it produces the greenhouse gas methane. Methane, according to Foodwise, is “25 times more potent than the carbon pollution that comes out of your car exhaust”. So why aren’t restaurants being more responsible?

Most say it’s all about cost…and it can be expensive. In New South Wales alone, there are six food waste processing facilities converting organic waste into compost, fertiliser and in some instances, electricity. Numerous purchasable bins and commercial collection contractors are available to pick up separated food waste and take it to these facilities. But these bins come at a price. Organic Recycling Group is one of these companies. For an organic waste bin and weekly pick up, they charge an extra $17 per week per 100kg of waste. This could mean a minimum of almost $900 a year.

But one beachside business has shown there are more cost-effective waste solutions. As Ludmilla Luft, owner of Iggy’s Bread, points out, “our food is a resource”.

Iggy’s, well known to many Sydneysiders for its heavenly sourdough, could be seen as the heart and soul of Macpherson Street, Bronte in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. After founding a successful bakery in the United States, Ludmilla and her husband Igor Ivanovic (Iggy) opened Iggy’s Bread of the World in Bronte over seven years ago.

But this incredibly kind and humble, baking duo aren’t just fulfilling desires for bread. With an emphasis on sustainability, Ludmilla is, as her husband calls her, a “compost queen”.

I meet Ludmilla outside of neighbouring café, Three Blue Ducks, where she is sitting and chatting to a few of her huge army of friends in the community. She walks me down the street to where they’re building their newest, and most enormous baking site. We stop by one of the elaborately painted planter boxes that line Macpherson Street. These are what Ludmilla calls “the Street Project” and are community gardens open to all, to grow herbs, fruits and vegetables.

Each pot of the 'Street Project' houses a sign welcoming anyone and everyone to contribute to the gardens
A sweet strawberry growing on Macpherson Street

As we stroll along the street, she explains the success and struggles of what started as a desire for council-funded, community gardens supplying food on the streets. She carefully picks rubbish and weeds from each pot and even plucks a delightfully sour cumquat off a tree for me to taste.

Initially funded by Waverley Council, the recycled pots were taken from neighbouring suburb Charing Cross and painted by members of the community. Sadly, when a particular council member left her position, the funding stopped and all economic responsibility fell back onto Igor and Ludmilla. This didn’t deter Ludmilla, “I’m one to believe that we can all still make money and have non-profit values”.

But the ‘Street Project’ alone didn’t quite put Ludmilla on her compost throne. Rather, the magic happens around back, off the bustling hub of Bronte shops and in a small, brown brick alleyway that runs behind five businesses. On one side, lined up are five of 15 of Ludmilla’s worm farms. On the other, sit piles of white buckets, filled with the organic waste that fuels them.

“We wanted to find a way to not put any food in the garbage and it started to make me realise, this is incredible! Am I just going to wait for council policy to enforce that food is a resource and should not be in garbage bags?”

The worm farms are filled with food scraps collected from five cafes and shops in the area, including Macpherson Street’s Three Blue Ducks and Bronte Carlo cafes. As the worms break down the scraps, they produce a “worm juice” concentrate which, when mixed with water, acts as an incredible fertiliser. “You mix the strong concentrate with rainwater and then you can also use the soil that they’ve transformed,” Ludmilla explains, “so this is our kind of ecosystem”.

Worms farms and "worm juice" line the back of Bronte businesses
Hello little worm

Eventually, the system produced too much food waste to use in Bronte alone. Ludmilla contacted Council once again and found that in fact, they had gardens that were lacking compost. “We filled the gap because they needed green waste to fill compost and they didn’t have the infrastructure to have somebody come with a van with 30 buckets every week or two weeks.”

Now, every Friday, what can’t be used on the worm farms or the Street Project gardens is loaded into an Iggy’s-owned truck and driven, by volunteers, to community gardens around the Eastern Suburbs. Right now, they are servicing Rose Bay, Clovelly, Randwick and Paddington. Ludmilla has been running this operation now for four years.

She is confident though, that soon enough, councils around Sydney, Australia and eventually the world will catch on, “It’ll come. I mean more and more it’s becoming a priority because our environment is starting to show signs of unsustainability.”

What keeps Ludmilla and Igor going are their supportive customers and friends, “Everybody keeps Iggy’s alive and I’m so grateful. If it weren’t for everyone buying our bread we wouldn’t be fulfilling our dreams. So we do have a lot of power.”

But even for those without an Iggy’s style of community activism, Ludmilla says her approach does make good economic sense.“We actually pay a lot of money for our garbage to be picked up and so if restaurants were composting, they could be saving money by reducing waste.” Organic Recycling Group offers general waste bins for $12 a week per 30kg. If organic waste bins cost $17 a week per 100kg, then general waste is actually more expensive by the kilo. So Ludmilla has a point.

“At the beginning it seems like you, as a restaurant, are just paying more as there are no free systems available that are providing this service,” she explains, “I think that if there was an effort to even look into it, we might find a lot more”.

While my milk bottle conquest and Ludmilla’s 30-60 buckets of compost every week may be small in the scheme of things, it’s all about our attitudes. She says, “If everyone feels the way I feel – that we all make a difference – then we are the power.” We just need driven and generous people like Ludmilla and Igor to spread their wisdom and love for sustainability and, ultimately, inspire others to do the same. She definitely inspired me.