Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Abundance and Industrial Solutions

Thanksgiving provides an appropriate occasion for more thoughts on food waste. Of course, it's our everyday patterns--not our feasts--that should determine how we deal with waste, so here is my own food story.

Once or twice each day, I put four teaspoons of ground coffee into an unbleached filter and make a half-pot of coffee. The next time around, I have to dispose of a wet filter full of depleted grounds weighing several ounces. While one day I might toss an apple core and the next some lettuce scraps, the coffee filters are my heaviest and most consistent waste stream, one that for some time was going straight to the landfill.

Why didn't I use a recycling service? Waste Management charges $100 a year to pick up a green waste bin. It's not hard to find ways to dispose of grass clippings and I have no desire to add to the profits of a multi-billion dollar company (new motto: "Think Green") when they already make $200 a year disposing of my garbage; so, for years I tossed my food waste in the trash bin.

A little over a year ago, I shifted my habits--not with any new service or source of information online, but with two simple tools I'd noticed others using. I set up a common back-yard composting bin, and purchased a beautiful vented stainless-steel pail for food scraps. Now I put each day's coffee filters in the pail, along with bits of fruit and vegetable waste. The pail sits on the counter next to the coffee maker, breathing through its filters and avoiding the odor that can result when the process of biological breakdown starts prematurely indoors. Every couple days, I go out to the back yard with a food-scraps pail and my favorite four-tine garden fork. I open the top hatch, through which I've been loading compost bin for the last year. I re-mix partially-decomposed previous layers of organic material, add in fresh food waste, and cover over with wilted grass clippings. The middle of the bin continues to cure, but I'll dig out the compost at the bottom through the side hatch and put it into the garden next spring in lieu of a branded bag of material purchased at a big-box store.

Now I don't need another huge truck getting four miles per gallon roaring up to my curb every week or two. I don't need to pay another utility bill for the privilege of sending away food I already paid for to be turned into compost that someone can try to sell back to me later. Better yet, I'm much more aware of the flows of organic material through the kitchen and the yard.

Our industrial economy expends huge amounts of effort and diesel moving material around. As long as green waste recycling is treated as only marginally different than our current model of paying to make stuff disappear, it lacks long-term sustainability. Our developed-world level of wealth allows us the luxury of not thinking about waste beyond the comforting thought that someone else is recycling a bit of it.

It is ridiculous to package food, distribute it, bring it home, fail to eat it, haul it away from the home, and then finally try to salvage all this wastefulness by recovering a bit of energy or fertilizer. If we really value renewable electricity and soil amendments, we could take a cue from Europe and just skip the whole wasting-food step altogether. The Germans harvest two million acres of food-grade crops every year and feed them straight to anaerobic digesters, producing over a gigawatt of electricity and building up their soils at the same time. Or we could work to make our waste volumes as small as possible and process them with equally small-scale backyard or neighborhood-level systems. The savings, and the sustainability, would slowly but surely grow in abundance.