Seven Lessons in Reducing Food Waste from the Zero Waste Bistro

NEW YORK—Zero Waste Bistro, a pop-up dining experience organized by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York that ran from May 19-22 as part of the citywide two-week NYCxDesign event, recently shared several lessons on reducing waste in restaurants and hospitality businesses. Thousands of visitors to WantedDesign Manhattan got a chance to see the exhibition, but just a select group of guests were able to participate in the sold-out tasting sessions, demos, and workshops that covered topics like zero-waste fashion, edible building materials, and running a zero-waste restaurant.

The food concept at the Zero Waste Bistro came from the chefs at Restaurant Nolla, the first zero-waste restaurant in the Nordic region and one of the first zero-waste restaurants in the world. In short, they describe their philosophy as “refuse, reduce, reuse, and only as a last resort, recycle.” In the food they prepared throughout the four-day pop-up and in their presentation, “Refuse, Reduce, and Reuse; Recipe for Running a Zero Waste Restaurant,” they shared the following lessons for reducing waste in the kitchen:

Serve seasonal foods provided by local farmers.

The chefs at Nolla do this by taking whatever nearby farms are producing. Rather than requesting certain items, they accept whatever the farmers have in a given week, ensuring the food that’s grown in their region doesn’t go to waste. Other restaurants can follow this model by connecting with the farmers in their area, whereas individuals can do so by shopping farmers markets and looking for locally grown foods at the nearest supermarket.


Eschew food packaging.

Nolla doesn’t accept food in packaging at their restaurant in Helsinki. In New York the chefs shopped farmers markets to find sustainably produced and package-free foods for the Zero Waste Bistro. Food packaging can stay in landfills for generations or lead to ocean plastic pollution. Restaurateurs can minimize their impact by connecting with their suppliers to request food without packaging, and by returning the packaging they do receive to be reused. Individuals can further this effort by carrying reusable produce and shopping bags and shopping in bulk. “When we get something that comes in packaging, we send it back to our supplier,” says Nolla chef Carlos Henriques. “When people understand why, they respect us more for doing so.”

Rethink “byproducts.”

At the Zero Waste Bistro, the chefs created sauces flavored by leftover shrimp shells and made ice cream from cocoa husks leftover from Mast Brothers chocolates. Their food philosophy encourages using everything available, such as citrus peels and carrot tops if they’re local and in season, and rethinking what’s possible with leftovers and byproducts; a lesson that applies to both home and hospitality environments.

Photo by Nicholas Calcott


While food waste may not be completely avoidable all the time, the chefs recommend composting leftovers and byproducts. A head of lettuce can take 50 years to decompose in a landfill, whereas in compost it can provide rich and fertile soil to help more plants grow. At the Zero Waste Bistro and at their restaurant in Helsinki, the chefs used an Oklin industrial composter, which turns bio-waste into soil in only 24 hours.

Use recycled/recyclable materials.

Designed by Linda Bergroth and co-curated with Harri Koskinen, the Zero Waste Bistro demonstrated that design can be beautiful and prevent waste at the same time.

Made largely from post-industrial plastic waste and natural pigments, the Durat composite, which comprised the 30+ foot long table at the Zero Waste Bistro, as well as trays and table accessories, are completely recyclable. The architecture of the Bistro was built with Re-Wall, a material made from recycled Tetra-Paks. Architects and designers can improve the footprint of their projects by considering the recyclability of the materials they choose and by specifying up-cycled/recycled materials.

Buy timeless, high-quality pieces.

Seating, lighting, and tableware for the Zero Waste Bistro was provided by the Finnish Design Shop, the online purveyor of sought-after Nordic designs, and Artek, the Finnish design firm founded by Alvar Aalto. The curators of the space were keen to demonstrate that selecting high-quality, timeless designs—like the Alvar Aalto Stool 60—reduces waste by ensuring they will be kept and used for generations, whereas adhering to trends or buying poor-quality designs means there’s not long before it’s out with the old and in with the new.

Pay attention to plastic in the materials and items you choose.

Plastic is the dominating packaging material in the world and plastic consumption is growing all the time. Regardless of the improved recycling schemes and energy production in different countries, plastic waste keeps accumulating. Zero Waste Bistro introduced two solutions: a disposable cup made of completely plastic-free cartonboard, by Kotkamills, and a new bio-degradable packaging material for cosmetics by Sulapac.



Top photo by Nicholas Calcott

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