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A greener cocktail era: Exploring sustainable bars

As messages of sustainability and zero-waste gain traction in the international food and drink industries, cocktail bars are starting to examine their own environmental footprints.

The shift from being a waste machine to an eco-friendly establishment is a tale of two halves for bars

*This article was originally published in the July 2016 edition of The Spirits Business magazine

Your average bar is an ecological nightmare. From plastic straws and bottle caps to excess water waste and fresh fruit throwaways, the world of mixology is hardly synonymous with being environmentally sustainable.

While chatter regarding recycling, reducing carbon footprints and creating a ‘zero-waste’ world has been amplified across the globe, it has only recently been heard by modern hospitality. Perhaps this conscious awareness is an after-effect of the recession, when businesses and consumers committed to tightening their purse strings. Or maybe it’s to do with the influx of sustainable documentaries gaining traction on social networks.

Whatever the trigger, the shift from being a waste machine to an eco-friendly establishment is a tale of two halves for bars. Cocktails are inherently viewed as a luxury commodity and few of us consider the environmental impact each order has on the planet – plastic straws, napkins, lemon and lime skins, ice and water, not forgetting the crops harvested for spirits distillation and the energy needed to do so.

“As a society, we think we are so civilised but huge amounts of produce are going into landfill,” expresses Justin Horne, who founded London’s first zero-waste pop-up bar Tiny Leaf in 2015. “We wanted to challenge the status quo. Just because something’s not the norm, doesn’t mean it’s not doable.”

Taking stock

There appears to have been little research focusing solely on bars despite the food and drinks industries being tightly intertwined. A handful of organisations around the world have made it their mission to assess the impact of eateries on the environment – and the figures are astounding.

Zero Food Print is a not-for-profit organisation spearheaded by Chris Ying of publication Lucky Peach, Anthony Myint of restaurant and bar The Perennial in San Francisco and climate change expert Peter Freed. The group enlisted Origin Climate to conduct a ‘life cycle assessment’ of restaurant Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco. The study analysed the greenhouse gas emissions of the restaurant – which serves food to approximately 75,000 customers each year – including ingredient sourcing, food waste, energy use and deliveries. The restaurant’s annual carbon dioxide emissions were estimated to be 600 metric tonnes (MT), with beverages accounting for 16% of total carbon emissions (94 MT).

It’s statistics like these that are driving bars to rethink drinks and create a new, less wasteful cocktail culture. Ryan Chetiyawardana’s White Lyan in London hit headlines back in 2013 for its sustainable approach to bartending by eradicating the use of perishable ingredients, fruit and ice – a global first for the bar industry. These “drastic” measures have cut the venue’s waste – in terms of what ends up in the bin – by as much as 75% compared to a “typical” bar of similar size.

White Lyan in London hit headlines back in 2013 for its sustainable approach to bartending

“We are not perfect,” confesses Chetiyawardana. “There are definitely things we are frustrated about and we need to find a solution to deal with that. But we cannot be the only industry that doesn’t grow up – everyone else understands what needs to be adjusted. We need to take a professional stance about what’s going on.”

Take fruit and vegetables for example. Citrus goods such as lemons, limes and oranges are staple bar ingredients used daily for juicing, zesting and garnishes. But in the UK alone an estimated 20-40% of the nation’s fruit and vegetables are already rejected before they reach shops because they do not comply with cosmetic standards, according to data collated by environmental organisation Feedback.

San Francisco’s The Perennial endeavours to serve food and drinks that are part of a “positive food system”. Behind the bar, citrus is used for juicing, zesting and garnishes, but it is also then distilled, turned into syrups, sherbet, and marmalade, or added to a compost heap.

But the efforts being made to create a “closed-loop system” don’t stop there. The Perennial is building a 2,000 square foot aquaponic greenhouse in West Oakland, where it will “compost” the waste by using chickens, worms and black soldier fly larvae. The worms and larvae will then be dehydrated and made into fish food for sturgeon, catfish and clams that live in nitrate-rich filtered water, which is circulated to the planting beds to provide “excellent, non-synthetic nutrition” for plants, without wasting produce.

The Perennial in San Francisco endeavours to serve food and drinks that are part of a “positive food system”

“There are some bars that like to talk about being green, but I’m not sure anyone goes to this level of detail,” said Jennifer Colliau, bar director, The Perennial. “It’s not easy to change habits and you really have to plan ahead and think about every step in your cocktail-making process to reach a certain level of sustainability. Giving up an ice machine is a big step – it saves energy and it saves water – but it’s something many bars have become accustomed too, and it’s not easy to embrace change. But taking little steps isn’t necessarily enough.”

Not only this, but it makes sound economical investment according to those at the forefront of this movement. “I don’t think it’s expensive,” insists Colliau. “I don’t think anything I’ve done has cost more than traditional bar programmes. In fact, I think it costs less. Aside from Zero Food Print, there is absolutely not enough information about out there on how to do this. We need more, and better, resources.”

Notwithstanding difficulties, it seems evident bar owners across the globe are keen to do their bit for the environment. Australia’s Eau de Vie is striving to reduce emissions and waste by conserving energy and recycling spirits bottles through a local artist, who then transforms them into wall clocks and pieces of art.

Greg Sanderson, co-owner and general manager of Eau de Vie in Melbourne and Sydney, explains: “Water usage is the biggest issue with pretty much every bar, and this is the biggest area of improvement for us and all cocktail bars. I think it is near impossible to operate a zero-waste bar, but many measures can be put in place to minimise needless waste.”

Conscious consumers

From a customer perspective though, Chetiyawardana says consumers do not seek out White Lyan for its environmental endeavours and are not yet ready to embrace a greener cocktail culture. Or they are not yet aware a sustainable way exists.

He insists it is only a matter of time before consumers clock on to the impact their cocktails are having on the planet, and become just as finicky about how their drinks ingredients are sourced as they are about their food. “Waste is something that is affecting everybody and impacting everyday lives,” he adds.

“Consumers will get to a stage where they’re not just asking where their ingredients in restaurants are coming from, but they’ll make the link with drinks and cocktails and look for sustainability in bars as well.”

Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to vote with their feet; vote by being vocal about sustainability. But if places like White Lyan and The Perennial continue spreading their sustainable messages, we could soon see the awakening of a greener cocktail era.

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