meet the nü waste warriors
Douglas McMaster’s Justice League gives upcycling a twist
Silo chef Douglas McMaster takes us behind the scenes of the world’s first zero waste restaurant with tales of nü waste warriors, liquid gold, magic mushrooms – and magnificent metamorphosis
Then he whizzes upstairs to enthuse about his latest machine, a glass crusher machine he brought over from New Zealand with which he hopes to master to close the loop of glass. “That’s going to be game changing for the entire zero waste industry,” he says.
Silo London is the only zero waste restaurant in the world. The decade-old idea started when McMaster was unsatisfied by his working in a pseudo-caring restaurant in Sydney. It was there that he met zero waste prophet Joost Bakker, who he calls a “genius” for proposing a restaurant with no bin, and sparking this movement. But more about him later.
McMaster is popularising zero waste thanks to an award-winning waste-defying menu that uses a food system designed from scratch to close the loop in the food production process.
“You can think about the way we process food at Silo as being like the film Inception, it goes more abstract the deeper you go,” he explains. “There are layers to our ice-cream sandwich, which uses fermented waste from the ‘Siloaf’ bread and butter, and the pulp of our ‘Quavers’ is made from the garam buttermilk that is made from a waste product. So it’s like layers in an abstract dreamworld.”
In the open kitchen, no food is wasted, leftovers are composted and beef comes from retired dairy cows. And throughout, microbes are hard at work, creating new products through natural processes like fermentation. But he doesn’t stop there.
Silo upcycles before it recycles. The entire restaurant has been crafted from reused and sustainable materials. The stools and tables, which look like toadstools, are grown and cultivated from mycelium – the network of fungal threads is one of the most important organisms on our planet – as are the light shades. The pendant lights are moulded from foraged seaweed; tabletops are made from reconstituted food packaging; the plates were once bags; the floor is made from natural cork harvested from bark, and the wall lights are crushed glass wine bottles.
And the awards keep coming. In 2021 alone, Silo picked up the award for sustainability at the National Restaurant Awards, a Green Michelin Star, and 50 Next award for being a future star in the gastronomical galaxy.
But McMaster’s not too fussed about kudos for being a trailblazer: “The prestige is very flattering, but what matters is that sustainability is turning the tide. Our hope is that within five years, winning any kind of award is predicated on sustainability. Recognition only matters if it inspires meaningful change – giving a shit is what matters.”
And give a shit, he does.
Next, he wants to create an artwork called ‘Human Error’ or ‘Alien Waste’ made from bits and bobs of uncontrollable waste, like Sharpies and the foil necks of wine bottles.
“I dream of this artwork being perched above the canal in Hackney Wick outside Silo lit up or, even better, at the Tate Modern.”
Always radical, McMaster is constantly finding new ways to design waste out. Now he wants to prove that waste can be desirable with his latest concept… nü waste.
“I think a lot about cognitive association. If I say ‘snails’ to you, you will have associations based on your experience with them. Likewise, people perceive waste as negative – it’s gross, it’s dirty, it’s slimy, and it’s a hindrance that should be hidden away behind a cabinet door or in a secret landfill,” he explains. “Nü waste is a new perception of waste, hence the spelling with the two dots.”
Like the nü metal subgenre? “Yes. I want to start a new wave of innovation, closing the loop in exciting and creative rock ‘n roll ways,” says McMaster.
That’s why he’s bringing together a collaborative team of people who create enchantment out of the things we all leave behind. Like creating a knife from the used nitrous oxide (laughing gas) cartridges left on the streets after a typical weekend in Hackney Wick.
Just don’t call it upcycling.
“Upcycling is a very Blue Peter word. You associate it with turning a wine bottle into a candle holder. It’s dull, insipid and isn’t rock n’ roll.”
Here, Douglas McMaster introduces the Silo artisans – a Justice League with a ferocious attitude to upcycling
samurai of metal
“Tim’s become one of the biggest players in the game. He started by making plastic handles for his knives. Then moved onto making blades from the empty nitrous oxide canisters which litter Hackney Wick’s streets after parties. At first, he thought it wasn’t possible, but now 98% of the blades he makes are from these NO2 cartridges. I have lots of amusing videos of us collecting them from all over Hackney Wick and London. He’s so generous. Whenever we have chefs visiting Silo, he makes a knife for them.”
zero waste prophet
“Joost Bakker is a zero waste genius. He’s the guy who first said to me, “could you not have a bin?”. Ten years ago, I was in Sydney working for a fine dining restaurant that I really despised. It was everything that was wrong with restaurants. They filled up a skip of wasted food every day in a criminal violation of nature. But then I met Joost and it was cosmic serendipity, an extreme contrast from a toxic food system to an enlightened Future Food System. Joost was dealing in waste materials for design but it wasn’t a systemic zero waste supply chain. So that’s where I came in. I am still his Padawan learner, and he has another called Matt Stone, who is the leading sustainable chef in Australia. So, when he said, ‘let’s not have a bin’ – I accepted the challenge – and I’ve spent this last decade trying to achieve this.”
“Smile Plastics is a post-industrial source plastic upcycler. The bar that I’m sitting at right now, Silo’s tabletops and chopping boards are all Smile Plastic. Adam sells big sheets of upcycled waste plastic for designers to take and to make things from. He is pumping through monster quantities of waste plastics.”
“Mark is a third or fourth generation potter from Malta. We met because he had a pottery called Potter’s Thumb in Brighton. He moved back there after the pandemic and then moved all the way to London to be here upstairs at Silo – creating solutions in our new pottery. We now have a glass crusher up there. When we master closing the loop of our glass that’s going to be game changing for the entire zero waste industry. There is no restaurant or food system that goes anything close to that extreme.”
“The beautiful plates at Silo are made out of waste. They look like a solar system. Behind them is Louise from Weez and Merl in Brighton. She melts and marbles plastic bags to show how beautiful plastic waste can be. People need high design contemporary things to spur them to do something useful. Her things are like a shiny thing to a blackbird or a flame to a moth. Elon Musk wanted to make electric cars the future. He did that by making his first Tesla electric car the fastest car in the world. It might have been a drop in the ocean for electric vehicles, but it turned everyone on to them. And the same way, Louise creates plastic glamour.”
“Johnnie’s a bread prodigy, a wise, diplomatic rogue and a significant character in the practical application of nü waste within a subculture. To give you an example, one of our signature dishes is a Marmite syrup on an ice cream sandwich. The idea of turning our waste spread into Marmite was driven by Johnnie. And that is a great example of nü waste. It closes a massive loop for us here. If Johnnie was a superhero, I think he would be Ozymandias from Watchmen, a not-so-evil genius with a master plan.”
godfather of plastics
“In this universe, Pierre is the Godfather of bioplastics. The French material innovator is located next to Silo and has a company called Notpla, as in ‘not plastic’. He’s the seaweed, biodegradable and bioplastic expert, and my go-to whenever I need advice on the true efficacy of materials. To be honest with you, it very quickly becomes obvious what the line is. If it’s strong, clear plastic, it’s probably not biodegradable. Even if it says it is.”
“Welcome to the golden gateway of zero waste food! Koji is arguably the most important ingredient at Silo because it closes so many loops. A metamorphosis only occurs because of it. The cultivated fungus has spores with magical properties that convert waste into gold. Whereas mycelium is inedible and therefore good for furniture, koji is extremely delicious. You grow it and then blend it into buttermilk garam, stirring it in a barrel with the right amount of oxygen at a warm, ambient temperature. It turns magically into spectacular liquid gold. Koji is absolutely the future. So much buttermilk is wasted in the world because people don’t see potential in this liquid. But we see gold potential waiting to be born. As we sift for gold, we sift out bad ideas.”
The glass crusher
“I imported this glass crusher from New Zealand because that’s the only country that makes it. It processes waste glass into soft, smooth sand-like granules to fill in potholes. They were like, ‘Okay, let’s innovate! We need to fill in potholes – and we’re sending glass to China. Maybe we can use the glass to fill in the potholes!’ With innovation and creativity, you are essentially putting together two pieces of information. (This is a case of the First Principles approach. Elon Musk is the most famous practitioner of it.) I had to do a little crowdfunding years ago just to get the money. Now it’s finally in action upstairs, it’s one of the most significant moves on our journey towards zero waste.”
Inspired by Douglas McMaster? Of course you are!
See if you also share his vision of utopia
What’s so good about this?
We can all eat fresh, waste less and make the most of what nature gives us. If you want to sift out the bad ideas and stick to the good ones – and learn more about closed-loop systems, radical suppliers, off-grid ingredients, waste-free prep and clean farming – check out Douglas McMaster’s beautifully crafted book, Silo: The Zero Waste Blueprint – A Food System for the Future.
Meet the writer
Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”