A typical day for the Cirque du Soil team goes like this: check the schedule, devise a route, drive around the local area picking up organic waste from commercial and residential customers, drop the waste off at composting hub (where it gets turned into a beautiful and nutrient-dense fertiliser in a state-of-the-art food recycling machine), plan and run street engagement campaigns, engage with compost program members, hunt for grants and seed composting projects, rinse, repeat. Phew.
The team’s core focus is fast-forwarding Melbourne’s path towards a circular economy, and using commercial and household food waste as a means for growing food and regenerating soil. It might not seem all that glamorous, and there certainly aren’t any capes, but this is what saving the planet looks like. “We joke that Broadsheet goes in the front door and looks at the branding and the people and the food, but we hang out at the back,” laughs founder Jean Darling. “Because that’s where all the food scraps are being collected.”
Let’s rewind a little. In the context of the climate crisis, organic waste is a huge problem. In Australia alone, over five million tonnes of organic food waste goes into landfill each year. Once it gets there, it starts to degrade and create methane (which is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide), a process that lasts for decades.
Now, have a think about your relationship with your organic waste. If you’re lucky, you might have access to a council-run FOGO (Food Organics Garden Organics) program, through which you’re supplied with a green-lidded organics bin that gets picked up by the council and taken to some kind of mysterious composting Narnia.
You might have a local composting facility – either council- or community-run – where you can drop off your organic waste whenever you have enough of it. Or perhaps, if you have the space, time and inclination, you’ve got your very own home composting set up.
For most Australians, though, none of the above apply, and so the vast majority of our organic waste ends up in landfill. Determined to fix this problem, Jean established Cirque du Soil in Melbourne in 2019. At the time, only 30% of Melbourne councils offered a FOGO service.
Jean, who has a background in architecture and placemaking, and who used to work for environmental sustainable development (ESD) consulting firms, was shocked to see just how many town planning proposals for new housing developments had no policy or measures in place for organic waste recycling. So she pulled together a small, part-time team – including Stephen Mason, who had a background in social impact and experience in scaling social enterprises – and got to work.
When it comes to taking climate action, it can be difficult to know where to begin. But in taking on organic waste – even at a local level – Jean and Stephen, who are both Bank Australia customers, found something they knew they could have an impact on. “If it was a country, food waste would be the third largest emitter behind the US and China,” says Stephen. “There was a massive opportunity for us to have a positive impact.”
Over 70% of food waste that ends up in landfill comes from households. And while Stephen and Jean admit that councils are getting better at rolling at FOGO programs, there are still plenty of “left-behind segments”; the areas the councils don’t address, such as food businesses, the commercial sector, multi-unit developments and so on. “When you look at ESD, and the policies around that, you could build a 200-resident tower right now and only have landfill and mixed recycling [bins]. Local planning policies at all levels need to change”, says Jean.
The ‘hyperlocal’ bit of the Cirque du Soil mission is important because it helps the team limit its carbon footprint while prototyping a truly circular food waste management system in their local area. They currently operate within a five kilometres radius, which means waste is collected, composted and returned to the earth within five kilometres of where it was first discarded.
True to Cirque du Soil’s circular economy ethos, if their work doesn’t close the loop of waste reduction and recycling, then they actively look for ways to be better. There are hopes to purchase an electric van in the near future too (when the prices are a little more social enterprise-friendly). “We just keep coming back to this idea: what does good look like?” says Jean.
Jean’s ultimate vision is that, one day, government and council-run FOGO schemes are so robust that Cirque du Soil, and other community-run organisations like it, only need to exist to address the gaps. “But we are so far away from that, it’s quite insane,” she says. “Sweden and Korea are at the forefront – they have no food waste going to landfill. The apartments there have a seven-bin colour-coded system. Here, the City of Yarra recently rolled out glass bins, and while it’s a great step forward, urban residents are limited by space, and simply can’t fit so many bins into their front yard.”
The next phase of Cirque du Soil’s growth will involve creating ‘waste collectives’ for multiple waste streams and circular waste consulting for city events and urban development projects.
The end ‘product’ and goal of the Cirque du Soil process – the fertiliser – is so nutrient dense that they are always looking for ways to get it back into the ground. Jean also reckons there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to changing people’s notions of what ‘waste’ is. “It’s about how you convert this perception that waste is dirty,” she says. “Some people call it ‘resource recovery’. We’re not just a waste business, we aim for ‘waste-in-place’, by initiating a systems redesign, which is something we need to keep reminding people.”
Adds Stephen: “I have this hilarious dream that one day waste will need to be transported in armoured trucks, because people will actually understand the nutrient value of what’s in there.”