“I want you to see inside this machine,” says chef Shinobu Namae, as he lifts the lid off a stainless steel box the size of a small dishwasher in the kitchen at Bricolage Bread & Co., his new cafe and bakery in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood.
At first glance, the contents resemble the cylindrical plastic beads used to stuff the hard pillows found at budget hotels in Japan, mixed with corn husks and tomato peels — refuse from the restaurant’s morning mise en place. The plastic pellets are drilled with tiny holes containing billions of microbes that break down organic matter into a solution of carbon dioxide and water, which then flows into the city’s sewage system.
The machine is one piece of Namae’s plan to combat food waste in the restaurant industry. According to a 2017 report by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, restaurants account for 35 percent of the 3.4 million tons of edible waste generated by food-related businesses.
Three years ago, he purchased a larger version of the eco-friendly garbage disposal for his Michelin-starred restaurant L’Effervescence — which won the Sustainable Restaurant Award at this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony — as part of a trial conducted by Japanese manufacturer Sinkpia. Working in collaboration with Tokyo University of Agriculture, Sinkpia is using feedback from participants to develop a machine that can recycle raw garbage into fertilizer.
“It’s just the first step. Eventually, we want to make compost that we can give to farmers,” Namae explains, describing his vision of a closed-loop food system. “The restaurant industry is responsible for a big part of the problem, so we should try to take care of it. I want to build a network of chefs who care about sustainability.”
He was inspired by Silo, a “zero-waste” restaurant in the U.K., where mushrooms are grown in coffee grounds and a composter sits in the middle of the floor. He attempted rooftop composting but encountered hygiene problems, due to Japan’s climate. After researching waste management around the world, he “realized that Japan didn’t have the same technology,” and contacted Sinkpia. L’Effervescence became the first restaurant in Tokyo to install the company’s bacteria-powered garbage processing machine, which is mainly used by convenience stores.
Namae is trying to convince other Tokyo chefs to adopt the technology, but many have balked at the extra expense. The machine costs roughly ¥1 million and the electricity required to run it amounts to around ¥2,500 per month. However, Namae posits that, over time, the expenditures “end up being similar” to the monthly fees charged by conventional waste-disposal services.
One of the biggest benefits of using the garbage processing machine has been the mind-set shift among staff. “When you calculate how much you throw away every day, it makes you try to waste less,” he says.
Indeed, preventing waste is the best way to solve the problem. At L’Effervescence, the kitchen staff experiment constantly to find creative uses for off-cuts and produce pairings — for example, turning dehydrated turnip peels into a powder that is baked into pound cake and given to guests as a present.
Restaurants such as two-Michelin-starred Florilege, led by chef Hiroyasu Kawate, have made fighting waste a priority. Kawate’s dishes incorporate plant stems and roots and broth enriched with leftover bread. His signature dish — sustainably sourced beef carpaccio from 13-year-old cows, in a sauce made with vegetable trimmings — comes with a card describing the state of food loss in Japan.
The government estimates that Japan created 6.21 million tons of edible waste in 2014 — nearly twice the amount of food assistance distributed globally by the World Food Programme in the same year. Last winter, Kawate raised the issue in a presentation at Gastromasa, an international culinary conference held in Istanbul. He also gives talks at culinary schools and has participated in workshops in Tokyo to help educate families about food loss.
“The attitude among my guests is changing gradually. The consciousness shift that is needed in Japan will take time, but every little bit helps,” he says.
This is the third installment of a monthly series exploring issues relating to food sustainability in Japan.