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Interview: Dan the Man on their zero waste journey

We love everything Dan the Man does. We were very lucky to be able to taste Dan the Man's delicious food at their zero waste event and gathering a few years ago. During COVID-19, the team had also been delivering their precooked meals. I remember eating their Jewish chicken soup and thinking, I can really taste the soul in the person who cooked this soup.

The soul it is. You can tell everything they do at Dan the Man is so enriched with their heart and soul. We first met Ilana Cooper, Managing Director & Community Collaborations at Dan the Man, a few years ago. Our meeting was a casual catch-up to learn about what each other's doing in the waste space. I was very moved and inspired by Ilana's passion, curiosity and persistence. We've become friends and been supporting each other's businesses to grow over the years.

In this interview, we have Ilana talking to us about everything zero-waste at Dan the Man, the challenges and the tactics, the ups and downs. Dan the Man's journey proves that any businesses in Sydney is able to do the right thing. We just need a bit more willingness, tactics and if at all possible, more Ilanas.

Dan the Man zero waste event company in Sydney

What is waste free at Dan the Man?

In the kitchen and at our events:

  • No Glad wrap.
  • Use dried floral and reusable potted plants for our grazing tables, instead of fresh flowers.
  • The whole ingredient is used on our menus, so less is wasted.
  • We make most of our dishes from scratch, but sometimes we can't avoid packaged items. As we develop our menus, we’ve slowly found substitutes or have decided to make our own. For example, we make our own lavosh instead of buying it off the shelf, ricotta instead of parmigiano in plastic, focaccia instead of buying bread from the stores we also fill it with leftover herbs from the kitchen! 

With our suppliers:

  • All of our suppliers take back and reuse their cardboard boxes where possible.
  • Trialling a reusable box delivery service with our fruit and veg supplier.
  • Trialling a packaging-free delivery and return system with our chocolate supplier and Essential Ingredient for some of their grains

With our partners:

  • Rose Bay Community Garden: They take our green waste. We shred office paper for bedding for their chickens. They give us herbs to make our own tea. They even wanted to give us a Queen bee and hive to make our own honey (just need one of us to take on the responsibility of beekeeping).
  • Country Valley: trial a reusable milk churn system.
  • Bec & Bridge: We take their offcuts from their production and use them as hankies for our canape events.

How did you come up with these alternatives and trials to reduce waste?

When we started our waste journey, the whole team met once a week. Each week we would pick a waste stream we noticed in our operation, and we’d work through a creative process of trying to design it out. This creative process is now part of our offering for waste consulting to other businesses that want to do the same thing.

To give you a bit more insight, it all comes down to 3 principles/tactics:

  1. Think non-linearly
  2. Imagine it’s not an option
  3. Who would want to partner

For example, when we were trying to get rid of Glad wrap, our minds went straight away to the alternatives, such as stretchy reusable wraps, beeswax wraps, compostable material etc. We tried them out, because it’s always important to try and get feedback from those who use it the most (UX design principles), but neither was ideal for our purposes.

Then we realised we were thinking linearly, and when we caught it, we knew how to approach it differently. We broke the Glad wrap concept down into basics for a catering operation all we need is a food grade material and some way of attaching it to our platters.

We found a food grade material, and use bulldog clips to attach it to the platters. The food grade material is reusable and so are the bulldog clips. About two months later, we had an inquiry from a company wanting to know what to do with office supplies that they didn’t need anymore, we gave them our thoughts on what they could do with different items. When they mentioned bulldog clips, we said ‘we’ll take em’! 

Caption: Dan the Man team visiting Emerald Hill Farm.

Do you intend to minimise all kinds of waste, or are you focusing on any particular areas?

We’re looking to minimise all kinds of waste, but being a catering company and very aware of the implications of food waste, we started with food waste and related packaging.

Internally, we’ve split our waste streams into ‘Kitchen Prep’ waste in the kitchen, e.g. carrot tops; ‘Logistics’ waste when getting dishes to site, e.g. Glad wrap (now gone); “On Site’ waste on site, e.g. compostable packaging; ‘Suppliers’ anything that comes to us from a supplier, e.g. cardboard boxes; and ‘Office’ anything we use in the office, e.g. paper or coffee.

Do you have a framework when it comes to reducing waste?

We started off working through any waste stream we could see in our operation. But if we had been doing a lot of kitchen-related waste, then the next waste meeting we would focus on office waste, so it wasn’t too much work for the kitchen.

In recent times, however, we went back and did a waste audit (yup, that’d right, we were even non-linear about our process). We put together a list of our top 10 most wasted items and decided to focus from top to bottom to create the most impact.

We really enjoyed the creative process of noticing what would come up in our operation and tackling that item in the early days, but now that we are doing a lot more in the waste area, and we are providing consulting services to other businesses to help them reduce waste, it’s better for us to focus on the ‘bigger’ waste streams.

What’s ‘bigger’ is defined by the company it could be bigger in volume, cost, or social cache, for example, ditching Glad wrap has much more of a cool factor than ditching compostable serve ware, but the cost and volume of compostable serve ware is bigger than Glad wrap.

Could this framework be applied to other businesses in different industries? If yes, how?

Absolutely. Our approach to waste is a creative process, not an industry one. All we need is a business that:

  1. Has a desire to minimise waste. It could be for the financial benefits, though we’ll get better results if the motivation isn’t entirely financial. There also needs to be either an environmental or a social motivation (e.g. staff engagement).
  2. Can establish an internal resource to be our point of contact or a team of people that represent the desires of the organisation.

What are the biggest hurdles these businesses have to overcome to achieve zero waste?

One of the biggest hurdles we’ve seen, and we did it too, was overwhelming ourselves with the enormity of the problem. That’s why when we speak to people who are interested in going on a journey, and we always make sure we set the bar low. Removing one waste stream is good enough for now. Being able to really chunk down all your waste streams and look at low hanging fruit to get people motivated is often the necessary first step.

I remember when we started, we picked a really challenging first step and it became overbearing. So we went back to the drawing board, picked a low hanging fruit, and the team was engaged again.

Waste is a big problem, stepping forward and saying we want to take responsibility for the waste we generate is a huge achievement in itself. There are many stumbling blocks on the way and we wouldn’t have survived if we looked at it as a process with a beginning and an end.

Our process has changed direction and purpose so many times as our motivation and business needs have changed. It needs to. There is no end. It’s evolutionary not revolutionary. We’d rather have every business tackle one small waste stream that inspires them to keep going themselves, rather than one business tackling a big waste stream and overwhelming themselves with the process they don’t want to go through again.

What's your vision for Sydney's sustainable future?

I have a very idealised almost utopian view of Sydney’s future. Apologies in advance.

I’m a big believer in the power of community and partnerships, and stand by these relationships as one of the most beneficial ways forward. 

For example, our kitchen is in Charing Cross on a little retail strip of shops and apartments. I would imagine Councils across Sydney dividing their area into smaller communities operating under their guidance. Each community would work together to identify partnerships and opportunities for their waste.

I remember when we were having difficulty finding what to do with cardboard boxes from suppliers that would come very infrequently. The easiest option was to put it in recycling instead of storing it until the supplier came back 2 months later. Then I remember looking across the road at Vinnies and having this gut feeling they might benefit from some cardboard boxes. I went across the road, asked them if they would have any use for cardboard boxes. The staff looked at me with absolute delight, ‘Yes! Please!’.

Without engaging the community and looking for partnerships, we would have continued putting cardboard boxes in recycling (until we figured something else out). Whilst not our ideal outcome as it still has the opportunity to be a wasted resource, it has at least one more use after us.

That’s a small example, but there are other options in a bigger picture. For example, working with council to get a commercial composter for the community. It could be in a place where everyone could access it at any time. The compost could go back to the community to use on their gardens. The council could assist in financially supporting the initiative, as it would reduce the cost spent collecting waste from commercial and residential and disposing of it. 

Check out Dan the Man's website. We love Dan the Man's newsletter, which keeps us updated with their waste journey (that's how I know about their food delivery service during COVID-19 too!). If you run a business, or would like to learn more about putting zero waste into commercial practice, get in touch with Ilana.

Anett Petrovics