"We want to avoid waste and preserve the earth" - a conversation with the owner of the zero-waste café "In guter Gesellschaft" in Hamburg

„Wir wollen Müll meiden und die Erde erhalten“ – ein Gespräch mit Alana Zubritz vom Zero-Waste-Café „In guter Gesellschaft“ in Hamburg

A café that produces hardly any waste, only offers vegan food and drinks and where guests can spend a few hours with relaxed music and without a guilty conscience? You can find all this at the "In guter Gesellschaft" café in Hamburg's Karolinenviertel district.

Alana Zubritz and her friend Ina Choi-Nathan fulfilled their zero-waste dream six years ago - "we wanted to prove to ourselves with our little café that sustainable business can work!"

Ina Choi-Nathan und Alan Zubritz

How did you come up with the idea of opening a zero-waste café?

Our original idea was to create an event location and a meeting place for sustainable projects and workshops. We then came across the topic of the circular economy and zero waste and wanted to find out whether the principle could also be applied to gastronomy. We found it exciting to create a place that is visited every day and is also sustainable.

What inspired your idea?

I originally studied spatial concept and design and worked in a product design agency straight after my bachelor's degree, where I designed various types of packaging. After a short time there, however, I realized that I didn't want to design anything that was predestined to be thrown away.

In 2010, when I started to deal with the circular economy through my Master's in Sustainable Design, the topic was not yet big and widespread - there was little research and material on it. A concept (reusable, deposit and glass waste systems) already existed in Germany, but I wanted to make the topic non-political, cool and attractive. Me and my friends were then among the first to organize clothes swap events with a DJ and Prosecco. And because it was so well received, it turned into a business - our café.

Your café is based on the zero-waste principle. Can you explain this principle again?

In the linear economy, products are purchased that are packaged in packaging made from finite raw materials such as mineral oil. These finite raw materials cannot be returned to the cycle, as plastic does not decompose but breaks down into microplastics.

The circular economy, which is the focus of our zero-waste concept, is the opposite of this linear economy. We make sure that everything we buy is packaged in recyclable packaging - in paper, recycled glass or reusable containers. For example, we use large "plastic" buckets for olive oil or cocoa, but these are deposit buckets that are 100% recyclable. We get our nuts from a small local trader; they are packed in jute sacks that were brought into the trader's business especially for us. We get our drinks and oat milk from 'Voelkel' in returnable glass bottles. This means that all packaging remains in the cycle and almost no waste is produced in our café - that's what 'zero waste' is all about. We want to avoid waste and preserve the earth.

How much waste do you produce in a week?

We produce quite a lot of organic waste, which we then dispose of in our organic waste garbage can - which we are very proud of, because we use the organic waste to generate green electricity and compost in Hamburg, so we don't see recyclable waste (organic and paper) as "waste" in principle. Apart from that, we have a small five-liter bucket behind the counter in which we collect non-recyclable waste. This bin fills up about once a week, mainly with waste generated by guests, for example when they leave something on the table.

Because our café is vegan and zero waste, we serve a very small sector and unfortunately there are still products that we cannot order in reusable packaging. For example, margarine and some spices such as cinnamon. We try to buy these products in large containers so that we only have to throw away one large plastic bag instead of many small ones. Unfortunately, there are still no alternatives for some things.

Do you work with local producers?

As far as possible, we rely on local producers. At the beginning, we were able to exchange a lot with the first unpackaged store in Hamburg, Stückgut, which opened around the same time as us - as far as suppliers are concerned, we actually work just like an unpackaged store. We ourselves and the producers take great care to ensure that the products are produced locally and are organic. However, there are also products in our café that we rely on that are not produced in Germany, such as coffee, cocoa, olive oil and various spices.

Is transparency important to your guests?

Yes, very much, because many people don't even know where they are or what we do when they visit our café. The guests get their finished tea, lemonade or piece of cake, but they often don't know the whole process that takes place behind the scenes. As you only get the finished product from us, we have to communicate our concept very clearly to the outside world. And we also see open communication as a way of introducing other restaurants to our idea and saying: "Hey, the circular economy in gastronomy works. You just need to know where and how to start."

Do you use plastic-free alternatives when you give something to-go to your guests?

Well, we don't actually have any to-go cups and if we do, we're very strict about it: we don't offer "RECUPS" because these are also plastic cups. If someone wants something to take away, we give them a jam jar, for example, for which they pay a one euro deposit. Otherwise, we have simple paper bags for cakes to take away and guests have to bring their own containers for food.

What happens to leftover food?

For hygiene reasons, we can't keep anything that has already been with the guests. What is left over and left standing has to go in the bin. We try to dispense the food as well as possible and are now good at estimating how much is eaten.

If we have something left over at the counter or in the kitchen, we usually put it on the "TooGoodToGo" app. But otherwise, we tend to live by the principle: "What's empty is empty" - we'd rather have that than overproduce.

Apart from your café, where are you currently still lacking in education in Germany when it comes to waste?

I'm in a bit of a frustrated phase at the moment, because you fight and fight, but somehow you stay so small and not as many people are interested in our concept as I originally thought. We in Germany produce some of the most waste globally, but we think it's not our problem because we have a good waste collection system - there is still so much education missing and we want to contribute to this problem. Zero waste can be cheap, but you have to have time and invest it.

Are there many challenges that you are currently still facing?

The challenges we are facing at the moment are more at a government level. All the corona measures, the price increase, the VAT increase and the minimum wage increase have really restricted us. We have had to redesign our menu so that we can still offer good food with fewer staff. This means that we can't afford to have a chef in the kitchen preparing everything fresh every day, but we have switched to "cold plates" with various dips.

We hope that we will soon be able to prepare delicious vegan scrambled eggs or omelettes again. Because of course more guests will come to you if you have a better menu.

What is your wish for the future of the café and for sustainability?

I'm currently trying to outgrow the space a bit. In addition to the café, I would like to take care of other educational projects. And beyond the café, perhaps also develop a larger service that gets even more people on board and makes the topic of the circular economy more present. My wish is that the topic gets a lot more attention - but it also takes a lot of work to implement it in the catering industry.

And what needs to happen for the topic of 'zero waste' to become even more present in the food service industry?

It's not easy for the food service industry at the moment, because the political situation and the coronavirus crisis have caused many unpackaged stores and suppliers to disappear. You have to support the restaurateurs and approach the manufacturers directly and say: "Hey, you have a good product, but why don't you want to switch to reusable packaging?" It already works so fantastically with drinks deliveries, why can't other manufacturers do the same? I think it's such a shame that it's still not easy after six years.

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