Peels, skins and can crushers: How to reduce waste behind the bar

Bars generate a lot of waste. Much more than your average punter, or even staff member, realises. Aleksandra Bliszczyk chats to Daniel Monk of Melbourne’s Rum Diary about reducing all the plastic, glass and food waste that comes from serving drinks. It’s not always easy, but it’s our duty.

Daniel Monk started working at Melbourne cocktail bar Rum Diary – which is often named among the city’s best – four years ago. As venue manager he dealt with a high-turnover business daily.

In 2016, when Monk became brand ambassador for Rum Diary’s own brand of spiced rum, his hours shifted to mostly daytime work.

Arriving at the bar in the mornings, he saw in plain daylight just how much rubbish had accumulated from one service.

“You walk past and see three bins full of rubbish from the night before. Over a week, it’s almost 21 for a small bar, and it’s probably a lot more at bigger bars,” he says.

So in early 2018 he tested an idea: how green can a bar get?

In a disused old smokers’ area behind Rum Diary on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Monk set up the Sea Turtle Club, a tiny tiki cocktail and beer bar pop-up whose aim was to generate as little waste as possible.

He made drinks with old citrus shells and banana peels, kept ice in Eskys instead of freezers, and went directly to growers to source fruit that came without annoying little plastic stickers.

Reducing plastic and single-use items is now something he’s deeply passionate about, and he’s focussed his efforts on reducing Rum Diary’s footprint. Monk hopes to encourage bar managers and owners around the country to lessen their environmental impact wherever they can. And, Monk says, customers will notice and thank you for it.

Reduce glass

Beer tastes best fresh, and wine on tap is the way of the future, but these are costly upgrades to an established bar. The first step is looking at your single-serve beverages.

According to the Aluminium Association in the US, cans have the highest recycling rate of any beverage container, and contain 70 per cent recycled content on average – more than three times the recycled content of glass (23 per cent recycled content on average) or plastic (PET) bottles (just 3 per cent recycled content on average).

Glass also has a higher carbon footprint due to its weight and the amount of excess packaging required for it to be transported safely and securely.

And when it comes to the end of a beverage container’s life, while both glass and cans are 100 per cent recyclable, more energy is required to recycle glass, than aluminium.

“[Recycling aluminium] is cheaper than having to smash, clean, take the paper off [and] melt the glass down,” says Monk.

At the Sea Turtle Club, due to its limited space, not everything could be on tap. So all the beers were tinnies, and customers were encouraged to crush and recycle cans themselves using a hand-operated crusher installed next to the bar.

It’s a way of showing patrons that everything does cause waste, says Monk, which is something people forget when they’re out and others are cleaning up after them. And if it means less work for the staff, win-win.

Talk to your suppliers and source locally

“Bars have a lot less plastic than any manufacturing process, which I found out going into making rum,” says Monk. “Every bottle comes wrapped in plastic, and that box is wrapped in plastic … Even before we get it, it’s already gone through plastic five times, [and] people don’t think about that. It’s a bigger problem than anyone can see.”

Tackling this issue starts with a conversation. Talk to your wine, beer, spirit and fresh produce suppliers, says Monk, and ask what they can do to reuse crates or boxes without single-use plastic wrapping.

“I’ll go down to my fruit supplier and ask what comes in crates and if I could basically help out the small guys who weren’t using plastic,” says Monk.

The first and easiest step is to go to the market yourself to buy fruit. When you order a box of bananas to be delivered, they’ll almost always come wrapped in sturdy plastic. Take your own bags or boxes and buy fresh cocktail ingredients in bulk, without any packaging.

And you have to be vigilant. “I’d make sure I buy whole watermelons, not half a watermelon that came wrapped in plastic.”

Ditch cling film

Cling film is used in kitchens and bars every day. Monk says that it’s so engrained in the foodservice industry that we think plastic is the only way to keep food safe. But it doesn’t need to be single-use.

Monk says you can dramatically reduce your venue’s plastic waste, and costs, by using only reusable containers instead of cling film. Simple.

Get creative with fruit

“We mainly have lime skins and lemon skins,” says Monk. “Not being a restaurant, food waste never really struck me because it’s not something that’s going to be a long term affect. Obviously it causes methane … and contributes to global warming, but as a bar I was more [struck] by the plastic.”

That being said, bars use a hell of a lot of citrus, so Monk found a way to mimic citrus juice without buying or juicing any fruit.

“With citrus, all the acid’s kept on the inside and all the flavour’s kept in the shell,” he says. He collected the leftover citrus peels from Rum Diary that would otherwise go to waste, and infused them into batches of shrub (a sweetened vinegar-based syrup).

This lime-skin-infused shrub provides a cocktail with the same acidity, sweetness and lime flavour as using fresh lime juice.

Monk also found new uses for fruit off-cuts as garnishes. Instead of cutting anything fresh, he garnished tiki drinks with pineapple skins and leaves.

Mix up your mixers

If you don’t have a tap system for your mixers, you should at least get one for sparkling water. There are several brands on the market that offer bench-top taps for sparkling water that hook up to mains water, therefore saving money, fridge space, and bottle waste.

Once there’s endless sparkling water, then you can look into mixer syrups.
High quality tonic syrup isn’t hard to find and can simply be mixed with gin and topped with sparkling water to make a plastic-free G&T.

Syrups can also be found for cola and lemonade and used in the same way to make basic spirit mixed drinks.

Depending on how much fruit juice you go through, try making it yourself ahead of service. Or ask around to see who sells fresh juice in reusable bottles. Fresh or cold-pressed juice can last a couple of days in the fridge, and will always taste better than any shelf stuff.

Walk the talk

“It’s all about trend setting,” says Monk.

Even though the amount of plastic one bar saves may be small in the grand scheme of things, he says having open dialogues with suppliers and producers shows them that the industry cares about reducing waste. Every time someone brings up the issue, your supplier is more likely to listen and push to change the system.

And, like the can crusher, find ways to engage your customers with the waste their cocktails are creating. If you’re managing your waste creatively, make a point of talking to your customers about it. If it makes them think more about reducing their own waste, then that’s your good deed for the day. If it gets them excited about your bar so they tell their friends and return regularly, even better. 

This article was first published in foodservice's April 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.