Between May and October last year (2019) the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A) held an exhibition called FOOD: Bigger than the Plate. As well as featuring sections around farming, trading and eating, the exhibition magically included the most interesting food waste showcase I’ve ever seen.
I went to the exhibit with a my friend (who has her own blog and Instagram page) and although we’d booked a slot to go and see the exhibit, the queue to get in was down the corridor – there was clearly appetite (no pun intended) for this type of exposition, and I’m so happy that food waste was a core element of that.
Paradoxically, food waste was the first out of four sections that you experience, called ‘Compost’. Putting this at the start highlighted the circular nature of food and how the perceived final stage of food’s journey can actually be the beginning.
For instance, coffee grounds that were used in the café downstairs were being used to feed mushrooms that would again appear on the museum’s menu. The organisation responsible are GrowCycle, who believe growing mushroom is a fertile opportunity for urban agriculture. Between 2013 and 2017 the team created a mushroom farm in a 3rd floor office space in Exeter using waste coffee grounds, and now they provide courses and mushroom kits for anyone wanting to try it out.
Like the GrowCycle mushrooms, the most striking and inspiring displays in the exhibition were of innovative ways people were using the parts of food that are traditionally thrown away.
Used coffee grounds again appeared, this time moulded into actual coffee mugs, courtesy of Kaffeeform, a start-up in Germany that collects used coffee granules from cafes in Berlin. Drinking coffee from a mug made out of used coffee – talk about the circular economy! The mugs are even dishwasher friendly.
Potato peelings had been crafted into sturdy and sustainable bioplastics, or ‘parblex’, by the company Chip[s] Board. All potato discards come from McCain, the oven chips company. Not only are these an amazing, sustainable invention, but really made me realise I’d never thought about where the potato skins off things like oven chips or fries from fast-food outlets go.
One of my favourites was by entrepreneur Fernando Laposse, who has devised a way to transform discarded corn husks into a beautiful patchwork of tiles. Named Totomoxtle, the material can be used to make furniture or interior design (such as wallpaper or flooring).
However, the most important aspect of Totomoxtle was under the surface. Laposse works with indigenous communities in his native Mexico, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by international trade and genetic monocultures of corn that the market demands. Biodiversity and soil health diminished too as a result of this aggressive glut. Not only does Totomoxtle provide job opportunities in the area, but it emphasises protecting diverse, native species of maize, for which the indigenous people are experts, and which is crucial for the region’s ecology.
Overall the exhibition made me hopeful and I left uplifted, for three main reasons. Firstly, that food waste could even feature in a high-profile and rather grand museum such as the V&A; secondly, that there was such demand for it; and thirdly, that so many people around the world are thinking about food waste differently, and inventing new technologies and designs that transport food waste back into our lives, rather than letting it remain discarded. Waste is the antithesis of value, and what these people had done was inject value back into products considered good for nothing except the decaying promise of the bin.
As my friend demonstrates, “We don’t have to engage in grand heroic actions to participate in the change. Small acts when multiplied by millions of people can transform the world.”
I think the exhibition showed that small acts of ingenuity can definitely change the world, but it also contradicted this quote to an extent. We are only able to act within the parameters of our material worlds; we may want to waste less, but the technologies around us do not offer the opportunities to fulfil these wishes.
For the world to change, and to tackle the climate emergency, we don’t need small heroic acts – we need all of our mundane, daily acts to contribute in the right way. At the moment, most of our daily actions contribute in the wrong way. That is mainly to do with what is available to us – our food, clothes, and objects are all created and supplied to us unsustainably, and so we participate in an unsustainable system.
These food waste innovations should be the norm, not special, and the system should be circular, so the things we throw away are viewed as useful materials. That way, when we participate in the system, much less damage is done to the environment and the climate.
The more I think about it, it’s crazy that the only piece of technology we have in our homes for dealing with waste is the bin. Sure, we might have a few different bins for different materials now – but what about an appliance that turns coffee grounds into mushrooms? A machine that turns veg peelings into bioplastic toys for kids? Things are changing, for instance more people have bokashi bins (see this story), and that is the direction I hope we keep exploring. I’m grateful that the exhibition demonstrated what potential there is in changing our perceptions of waste.