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Virtuous circles: reducing food waste

Clare Finney explores how Borough Market and its traders are taking a holistic approach to environmental sustainability. This time: reducing food waste


Stale bread. Soft biscuits. Oxidised wine. Vegetable leaves. ‘Deformed’ fruit. It’s amazing what you can find at Borough Market. You might not know it of course: you might think you’re just buying some chutney for your cheese, a cake for your coffee, or a fruit shrub as a soft aperitif before dining at Elliot’s – and you are. But you’re also helping Borough Market’s increasingly environmentally aware traders reduce their individual and collective food waste.

Some initiatives are Market-wide: Plan Zheroes, which helps food businesses easily and safely donate their surplus food to charities and community groups, collects surplus produce from a wide variety of traders. “I hate food waste,” says Kath Dawson, whose stall Ted’s Veg has been involved with the scheme since its inception. “Why chuck good food away, when it can go to someone in need?” Plan Zheroes works with local homelessness organisations as well as charities that support the elderly and people with mental health or substance abuse issues – for which meals are a core part of their service. Serve someone a hot meal and you can sit down and start talking to them about their issues, providing mental as well as physical nourishment.

Less obvious – to the traders as well as the customers – is Entocycle, though like Plan Zheroes this initiative operates just around the corner. To describe it as an insect farm is to do it something of an injustice, though that is its role in essence. “We have built very specialist, cutting edge technology using computer vision and automation to do the complicated egg production, then we use relatively simple equipment to do the fattening of the insects,” says founder Kieran Olivares-Whitaker.

The insects grow fat on food waste procured from the Market: vegetable leaves, fruit peel, stalks and so on. After 12 days they are dried and turned into protein flour, which is in turn made into animal feed. “Insect protein is a sustainable alternative to soy or fishmeal, which are both having catastrophic effects on biodiversity and the health of our planet,” says Kieran. The fact this protein helps to mitigate another of our biggest environmental issues, food waste, is an added bonus. The hope for the Market, and for Entocycle, is that their partnership grows more and more fruitful. “You guys produce food waste; we recycle food waste. We’re 150 metres away. It’s an ideal partnership,” Kieran continues. “We hope it will be a stepping stone to bigger things.”

Plan Zheroes and Entocycle are big-picture projects; pioneering initiatives with the potential to change lives on a large scale. So too is Biobean, which collects old grounds from the Market’s coffee traders and transforms them into ‘coffee logs’: briquettes for wood burners and open fires. But the journey to zero waste can start with a single banana loaf and the efforts individual traders are making to repurpose their surplus should not go overlooked.

Ask for a soft drink in Elliot’s and you’ll be offered not a cola or a lemonade, but a shrub: a soft drink brewed with surplus fruit and wine-turned-vinegar (pictured top). “Any wine we have left over that can’t be served is oxidised and turned into drinking vinegar, and we use seasonal produce from the Market to infuse it. We have no other soft drinks or mixers, which also reduces our waste,” explains general manager Candice. They love pickles and ferments – as does Turnips, one of the Market’s greengrocers, for which waste reduction has become a core part of the business: what Turnips has dubbed a “two seasons” mentality on the stall. “Especially when we’re coming to the end of a season, when we get a big pile of, say, plums or peaches,” Gino at the stall tells me. “We can’t sell them all fresh in time, so we take some into the kitchen and turn them into ferments or sauces.”

Turnips started out making smoothies, pizzas and mushroom risotto to use up produce that “doesn’t look as nice or that’s gone slightly past its best – that’s still good to eat, but we can’t sell on the stall or to restaurants,” Gino continues. Mushrooms are cooked slowly in a large pan before being added to spelt risotto. Any left at the end of the day are made into a duxelle paste and used on their sourdough pizzas, which are also a vehicle for less-than-perfect tomatoes, onions and other seasonal veg. “By chopping up the tomatoes and dehydrating them for pizza bases, they can last at least an extra week,” Gino observes. The stall’s juices do the same for any fruit that’s too ripe to sell.

Of course, it’s not just fruit and vegetables that have the potential to be wasted. According to the food waste app Too Good to Go – an app that helps businesses sell food that’s ‘too good to go’ to customers at a reduced rate – bread is one of the most wasted foods in the country. Each year we throw away 900,000 tonnes of bread – the equivalent of 24 million slices every day. Borough Market bakers Bread Ahead and Karaway Bakery have set their hearts and hands on reducing this, by both offering their wares via the app and otherwise transforming leftovers into higher value items such as bread pudding for Bread Ahead, and rye fries in the case of Karaway: a crunchy, salty, garlicky fried snack that simply cries out for a cold beer or glass of bubbly.

“Rye fries are a traditional snack in Lithuania, where we have them with drinks and often on picnics,” says Doma of Karaway Bakery. By frying their leftover rye bread and selling it, their hope is not just to reduce their bread waste but encourage us to do likewise. “We hope to show our customers that they too can easily make use of bread that has gone stale.”

Borough Market’s primary role is to feed us – but it is also to educate, and to serve as a role model. It’s testament to how seriously its traders take this responsibility that so many have reduced their own food waste through initiatives that I, for one, will be trying at home.