Shaking up sustainability (Image: supplied).
Shaking up sustainability (Image: supplied).

PartnersJanuary 29, 2019

Shaking up the bar industry’s waste problem

Shaking up sustainability (Image: supplied).
Shaking up sustainability (Image: supplied).

Every night big black rubbish sacks full of plastic are thrown in the bin out the back by bar staff. Alex Braae spoke to those looking to reduce, and reuse the waste from your nights out. 

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean there’s a dirty great collection of plastic that just sits there, floating. It’s around about halfway between Hawaii and California, is estimated to be millions of square kilometres in size, and serves as an accumulation of humanity’s sins against sustainability. It’s not something that you expect to be discussing on a sunny Friday afternoon at a Ponsonby bar.

We’re sitting out on the low-slung balcony at Revelry. The group are all people from the hospitality industry who have seen the enormous quantities of waste that gets produced by their sector, and are appalled by it. So they’ve decided to do something about it, not just with things like getting rid of plastic straws, but across everything their venues do.

The artwork around Revelry doesn’t look out of the ordinary at first glance. But on a closer look, it’s rubbish. Not in the bad way – it’s literally rubbish that has been repurposed. The lampshades and sculptures above the bar have been made from old plastic bags. There’s a wall of jars with old debris in them, like a clump of plastic straws. One of the jars contains a Converse sneaker, the plastic white toe gleaming behind the glass.

We’re here to try their new summer range of cutting board cocktails – drinks that have been made with stuff that otherwise would have been wasted. One of them, for example, is a martini that has found a use for coffee grounds. At some places, coffee grounds would be composted; at others, they’d simply have been tossed in the bin.

I suggest that maybe for some people, the idea of a coffee ground cocktail could be a bit gross. Mikey Ball, a hospitality industry consultant who teaches venues how to become more sustainable, agrees that some people might feel this way. “We’re part of a convenience nation – a convenience world even. So even the fact that you’re using something in a completely different way is mind-boggling. But I think the sight of that also adds intrigue,” he says. And he’s right. I am intrigued.

It’s around now my Sunset Spritz turns up. I get the full rundown on what has gone into it. There’s a jelly made from citrus and ginger pulp, 42BELOW Vodka, Campari and some edible glass made from ginger peelings. All of the flavouring in it comes from elements that would have otherwise been binned.

The sustainable Champion’s Breakfast – made with ingredients that would otherwise have ended up in the trash (Image:Supplied).

It’s a cool thing to know about your drink, and it’s a great way to start a conversation with the patrons who are propping up the bar. Just having these drinks on the menu surely makes people think more about what is going into their drinks and consider the environmental footprint of their night out. But the thing with hospo workers is that they almost always have to do a lot of work in not a lot of time, and don’t often have much time to chat.

Ben Taylor, the owner of Revelry, tried to talk to every customer about their drink at the launch event for the cutting board cocktails menu. “I spent about an hour there, talking to every single person in depth about what it was. But typically, at most businesses, you can’t do that. You might just have three seconds over the bar for it.” And some people might just want their drink, thank you very much, but that’s fine too. Talking about it isn’t necessarily the important thing for Ben – doing it is.

Ben has heard a lot of opinions on sustainability since Revelry started this push. Some people coming in are really into it, and some just want their drink in peace. “You can’t move everyone along, so you’ve got to provide different approaches to different people.” Straws are where the rubber often hits the road on this – Revelry has long given someone a metal, reusable straw if they asked, but “plastic straws are the enemy.” And in 2018 the bar ditched plastic straws for good.

Because they were trying so hard to to slash their plastic waste, Revelry were approached by 42BELOW about running the summer cocktail menu built around making use of waste. Inspired, the Revelry guys have started focusing on getting everything they can out of the produce that comes through the door.

“Think about it like you’re a chef,” says Mikey Ball. “The fruit and vegetables, you know where they’re coming from because you’ve put that thought in. But this is 20 years ahead of where we are as bartenders. If a piece of fish comes in, the first thing a chef thinks is about how they can use all of it.” But in bartending, it tends to be that when you’ve squeezed a lime once, you throw the rest of it out.

That’s horrendously wasteful – especially while limes are 30 bucks a kilo. So instead, Revelry has been using those offcuts and turning them into cordials, by pressing them over a few days layered with a bit of caster sugar. It sounds really easy to do – it just takes some time. But then Ben realised that to make all their syrups and cordials, they needed more offcuts. Fortunately, there’s a place that does lots of fresh juices in Ponsonby Food Court above them. So now they get their offcuts too, and turn those into something useful.

Mikey Ball (Image: supplied).

A lot of people think about sustainability as something that will cost them money. But actually, if it’s done right, the opposite is true. And Revelry now don’t have to buy cordial, which get shipped across the world in plastic bottles.

That ethos, of getting everything you can out of what you use, is what now drives Maddy Tate, who manages the restaurant Teddy’s across the road. She’s worked in hospo for more than a decade, and the industry has changed dramatically in that time. “I still remember working in a shitty pub in my small town, and you’d put two straws in every drink. Even if the person was going to take them out, nobody ever questioned it. Even if they didn’t want them, nobody ever said no to a straw.” Back then recycling was the same – it was just never that important.

There wasn’t necessarily a moment when Maddy realised the need for change; she says it was simply something she noticed more and more over time. It was partly this realisation that inspired her entry into 42BELOW’s Australasian Sustainable Cocktail Showcase. The starting point was an orange, and finding a way to use all of it. She calls it the ‘Champion’s Breakfast’.

“In my eyes sustainability doesn’t have to be hard. So my cocktail uses the juice, the rind, and the pith – I looked up stuff about oranges and the pith is actually nutritious.” She’s made it many times for workmates, and getting their heads around the pith was the tricky part. She made it into a “toasty cookie thing,” which she says really worked. Pith might not sound great in the first instance, but people tended to come around when they tried it.

Still, surely this is all a much bigger problem than just plastic straws and not throwing away unused orange pith? Ben Taylor agrees, noting that there’s a lot of cynicism and push back on initiatives like straws and banning plastic bags, ironically often from people who still believe in sustainability. “What about corporate waste, and what about this, and what about that?” he asks rhetorically. And it’s a fair point.

But Ben’s not in charge of a corporate waste facility. He’s in charge of a bar, and he’s doing what he can in his own patch. He likens it to the e-scooters that are zipping up and down Ponsonby Road while we talk – anything that gets people off the road is good. “We’ve got to change. The fact that we’ve got our world into a situation where we’ve got these plastic garbage patches in the ocean, where it’s got as bad as it has, and we’re still trying to flip people’s way of thinking. You just need to plug away and keep going. And I truly believe that you’ve got to legislate on that – people might not want to hear it but we live in a populist democracy. So until you’ve got enough people making that demand it’s not going to happen.”

The 42BELOW Sustainable Cocktail Showcase is also all about showing the different ways mixologists are incorporating better practices into their drink-making. Twenty-one finalists are selected from across New Zealand and Australia. They’re judged on both how innovative and sustainable the making of the drink is, as well on how it tastes. Then there’s a popular vote, which encourages bars to let people know what they’re doing with the drinks. From there, a small group of winners are selected to fly to Bali.

But it’s not for a holiday, it’s to go to paradise and help out with cleaning it up. Like so much of the world, Bali has a serious problem with plastic waste and rubbish, swirling around the ocean and piling up on the beaches. Like a bar, where often people just go for a good time, tourists in Bali are often pretty negligent about what they do with their trash. They’re only there for a few days, after all. To some, cleaning up other people’s waste might almost sound like a punishment, but to the showcase winners it’s an opportunity to both learn and encourage better practices.

We finish up the drink in the early evening, just as the first rush of the Friday night is starting. My head is buzzing with thoughts of what gets thrown out around my own house, what can be recycled, and what can be given a second life in a completely different form. Perhaps there really is a space for these conversations over a drink to inspire people to change their ways.

And in case you were wondering, yes, the Sunset Spritz, made with ingredients some might think of as rubbish, was absolutely delicious.

This content was created in paid partnership with 42 Below. Learn more about our partnerships here.

At 42BELOW we need a pure earth to keep making our pure vodka. So, we’re working with bartenders to help make sure the hospitality industry is as sustainable as possible and that #thefuturedoesntsuck. Go here. 

Keep going!