Think outside the bin in the world’s very first zero-waste establishment

Feb 26, 2024 | News

Silo, the world’s only zero-waste eatery, believes that waste is a failure in imagination. Silo’s founder explains how he uses a ‘bin first’ approach for menu design. He also explains how passion is often mistaken as preaching. His latest venture, he says, aims to bring zero-waste into the kitchens at home.

Douglas McMaster, excitedly waving a colourful plastic cube, says “Our impact shouldn’t be measured by this.” has a bin like that, but as a restaurant centered on the idea of “zero waste”, they don’t. What is not served is fermented, what can’t or won’t be eaten gets composted, and any packaging is recycled or sent up the supply chain.

What’s left gets added to the ‘artwork” that McMaster calls this tiny cube. “We don’t even have a general garbage bin. “This is it.”

It’s not it, as McMaster already hinted. “It is a symbol for thousands of innovations stacked on top of each other in the supply chain. It’s the last bit of it, and we made it into a work of art. But our impact should be measured in terms of how we influence other industries like design, crafts, technology, and system design. We are at the point where the arrow is piercing the industrialisation and killing the issue. He stops himself, suddenly shy. “I can’t help it.”

McMaster has a problem, or so his critics perceive it. Grace Dent of the Guardian and Jimi Famurewa of the Evening Standard both complained about the fact that their dinners became sermons on sustainability when Silo first opened. McMaster couldn’t resist diving deeper into the politics of waste, so what was meant to be a quick tour of the dining area before our interview became a discourse about the way zero-waste is perceived. “Our dining room is not beautiful for any superficial reasons, but because we need change the way people view waste,” McMaster says, gesturing at his circular tables made of recycled plastic and his wall lights made of recycled wine bottles.

He is not superficial. His tables are also not superficial because the problem of waste is both literally and metaphorically rooted. “It frustrates when people think that zero waste means making pesto from carrot tops. It’s all about systemic changes. We hide waste in landfills or in a cupboard in our kitchens because it’s ugly. Zero waste is all about getting rid of the bin and working from there.

McMaster’s Silo revolves around this idea — even its name, which refers the different systems they use to keep materials that can be reused or refilled. The enthusiasm with he shows these to me is as endearing and inspiring as it is endearing the refillable canisters for cleaning products from a company called Fill, the recycling silo or composting silo; and the place where wine corks piled high are ready to be collected and reused. McMaster’s main challenge is also reflected in the word silo. In his steadfast determination to show the world the beauty and potential in zero waste, is he at risk of becoming siloed?

Blue kuri pumpkins with cultured cream Furikake

When I ask him about the criticisms leveled against him, he replies with a painful expression: “I’ve heard a lot of naysayers.” “It is hard to accept, especially when they are some of the most important reviews in our history. But I’ve learned to separate what we do from how it is perceived.”

Silo’s employees don’t preach, he says, but their passion is palpable. He says that the team’s relaxed body language in the kitchen shows how much this makes sense to them. “We are not damaging nature and we’re also doing it in a creative and compassionate way.” You can dine at this zero-waste restaurant without learning anything about zero-waste, but it is a little like going to church just for Christmas carols. Inevitably the gospel will be heard.

As I listen to McMaster, I am compelled to think that he is right. “Waste is linear material that’s not natural. It isn’t born of nature and then processed to make it unnatural. So it can’t decompose or digested.

We hide waste because it is ugly. Zero waste means removing the bin and working from there.

He says that in the grand scheme, it is only now beginning to exist. He says that the rate and scale at which it is spreading around the globe is “cancerous”, with serious implications for global climate change (methane from landfills is a major contributor to climate change), soil, water and biodiversity health.

“We are trying to design as many single-use materials from our system,” says he. Silo is a company that takes the maxim’reduce reuse recycle’ to its logical conclusion. Silo doesn’t use plastic except for the ‘art’-cube. The recycled plastic used in their plates and counters is post-industrial. They only recycle glass and cardboard. McMaster says there is a hierarchy in waste: “Compost is good and landfill is bad.” Recycling is a medium.”

Silo is preventing as much waste as possible from entering waste streams.

McMaster gives our writer a special treat from the fermentation store

He explains that fermentation is their first line-of-defense, as he opens a cupboard stacked with tubs, jars, and handwritten labels. Egg whites are mixed with oyster shells and pumpkin guts. Shards of crackers or leftover dairy products, as well as scraps from carcasses, are also added. “Fermentation has been practiced for centuries in Asia, but is not well understood in the West. We don’t even consider using it in our cuisine. McMaster says, “That’s crazy.” “It is the best way to turn all these nutritious scraps that would otherwise be composted into something of high-value.” He pipettes tiny beads of velvet crabshell garum onto my hands to try. “This is gold.”

Some ferments have a’meta-‘ label: meta-quaver, meta-dairy and so on. This is also easy to mock, until McMaster explains. McMaster explains, “These are the results of layers upon layers processing scraps from different time periods – of loads chemical reactions that we don’t understand and which seem almost cosmic.” I say, “It’s dairy compounded with dairy.” He smiles and agrees. “Right! These favours are so special, so refined, and so deep that they lead the dish. We build the dish on those favours. We taste the crab garum, and ask: “What goes with this?” “Cucumbers.” Five months later, we sample fermented cucumbers, and ask: “What goes with this?”

Silo’s superpower lies in the fact that this is not a good theory. McMaster’s dishes were so good that even Dent and Famurewa agreed. Even Dent and Famurewa had to admit that McMaster’s dishes are a delight.

A dish of mussels with fennel, oysters and fennel

“These puffed crispys are made from a fermentation by-product, so they’re by-products of by-products,” he exclaims as his staff removes the crisp, golden crackers from the oven. To the naked eye, they look like great crackers served with fresh goat cheese.

I’m impressed, but I’m also baffled by how Silo could be scaled down to fit in a typical household. McMaster’s response is intriguing: he has been asked this question many times. “I don’t know why I am responsible for finding zero waste solutions for the entire human race. He laughs. “All restaurants can do what we do. But the home is a completely different system.” You can’t fit a pail full of cream or a whole animal in the fridge.

Silo’s zero waste model is a blueprint that can be used by other industries and restaurants. Zero waste at home is another issue, although the indefatigable McMaster recently began tackling it.

Zero Waste Cookery School, his online platform separate from Silo, offers cooking and buying tips that are suitable for all budgets. McMaster continues, “It isn’t as radical as the restaurant because I want it accessible.” It’s a recognition that eating sustainably is difficult for many people. It’s a thrilling venture for a chef that has spent more than a decade on the zero-waste front. He fermented and bought in bulk before it became trendy. He is sincere and evangelical, so I can understand why he has been called self-righteous. Like the plastic cube, it seems to be a reductive view of someone who is trying to do what’s right and encourage others to do so.

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