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by THE TRASHY BLONDE
NOTE: This article was started before the appearance of COVID-19. Certainly our current lifestyles are markedly changed by the pandemic and what new changes are on the horizon, only time will tell. However, more than likely, if and when things go “back to normal”, we will all go back to our old habits, good and bad. So I think the following info is good to know, just in case…
So back to the discussion of what makes up our MSW. What?? You don’t remember what MSW stands for?? Uh, neither do I- let me look it up here real quick…oh yeah, Municipal Solid Waste- the usual stuff you throw in your garbage can. According to the EPA data from 2017 (hopefully they are still tracking this kind of info and we should get the new data for 2018 at the end of this year), Americans generated 267.8 MILLION TONS of trash in 2017. About half of that (139.6 MILLION TONS) went to the dump (or ocean, whatever) with the other half being recycled, composted or burned for energy. We have talked about how some materials that we throw away are happy to be recycled, whereas others, not so much. Aluminum, paper products, #1 and #2 plastics are welcome at the recycling plants because you can make a profit from recycling these. Higher number plastics are tolerated at the recycling plants, but are harder to recycle and therefore more expensive to process. But local recycling programs accept them nevertheless, as it keeps them out of the landfill, which is a major goal of recycling. My major goal in writing THE TRASHY BLONDE articles is to try and educate and influence my local community into improving its recycling habits, as well as perform a necessary community service of reminding everyone to avoid my cooking in any shape, size or form.
The EPA tracks the amount of material in garbage by its composition and weight. In 2017, the largest component of the MSW by weight was paper products, making up 25% of the total MSW. Good news is that two thirds of that paper (remember, that includes cardboard) was recycled. But you will never guess what is the second most common material in the MSW. Believe it or not, it’s FOOD! Crazy, huh? I mean, we all like food. I LOVE FOOD and I know for a fact I am very good at cleaning my plate at dinner time if it’s someone else’s cooking. So how do we end up wasting so much food- 40 MILLION TONS of wasted food in 2017 in America alone. About 40% of all food grown to be put on our plates ends up getting thrown away. Rich developed countries waste about as much food as developing countries have available to eat. The most common foods wasted are fresh produce like fruits and veggies, including roots like potatoes and carrots, etc. So another believe it or not, people trying to follow a more healthy diet in industrialized nations are usually the most wasteful ones. I cannot tell you how many bags of liquefied celery I have come across in my fridge and had to compost.
So why do we waste so much food? According to Green and Growing.org, there are several reasons why rich countries have such high food wastage.
- Cheap food: Food is relatively cheap in developed countries. In the US, the average consumer spends about $600 a month on food (eaten at home or in a restaurant). That’s $20 a day. So let’s say a pound of apples cost $2 in the US. You bring home $3000 a month (after taxes). You just spent 0.06% of your monthly income on those apples. If you lived in Pakistan, that same pound of apples would have cost you only $0.50. But since you only make $215 a month, you just spent 0.23% of your monthly pay check. If you lived in Bolivia, you would have spent $1.42 on those apples or 0.3% of your $467 monthly wage. If that apple, once you got around to biting into it, was not to your liking, an American would be much more likely to throw that apple away after just a bite or two, as that apple was not worth much to him. In the other countries, that apple was worth 4 to 5 times as much to them.
- Unrealistic Cosmetic Expectations: When we are at the grocery store, we want to buy the perfect apple. It’s got to be the perfect age, not too young and not too old. It must have the perfect shape and have that perfect shiny skin with no bumps or blemishes. (Jeez, it sounds like I’m describing the perfect date. No wait, that’s a whole different kind of fruit…). Anyway, most apples are not perfect. Your neighborhood grocer knows that and the apple tree farms know that and they also know that you are not going to buy a less than perfect apple. So, a lot of perfectly good, but not very pretty apples don’t even make it to the grocery store shelves. If the imperfect apple is lucky, it gets fed to livestock, thereby completing its natural life cycle. If not lucky, that apple goes straight to the landfill where it combines with the tons of other less-than-perfect looking fruits or veggies and they all get covered in trash and then rot together, ultimately making methane gas, which, depending on how you look at it, can be good or bad. That’s a topic for another day.
We, as a nation, use a lot of resources to grow lots of food. Our local farmers know better than I what it takes to get the crops to market. Resources such as land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, equipment, packaging, transportation, crop insurance, farm subsidies… just to name a few, I’m sure. The US grows enough food to send plenty to other countries and still have more than enough left for us. In 2017, America exported $133 billion worth of food, beverage and feed.
In 2015, the USDA and the EPA announced plans to help reduce food wastage at the retail and consumer level by 50% by the year 2030. Part of the plan was designing a Food Recovery Hierarchy which looks like an upside down pyramid. The largest component of the plan at the top is the Source Reduction which works to reduce the amount of food being grown initially in response to less wasteful use by consumers downstream. Targeting businesses such as large grocery chains or universities that provided cafeterias to their students, these businesses were encouraged to conduct a Waste Audit. By seeing what food got wasted and how it got wasted (and we are not talking about the college students’ partying habits here), the businesses were able to make changes that made a significant difference. At the University of Texas, one of my old stomping grounds, they were able to reduce food waste by 48%. This was done by allowing students to taste-test a food before they chose it, and then making the student go tray-less. Apparently, if you don’t have a tray and you only have two hands, you carry only the food you really want to eat to the table. So you eat everything you brought to the table because you are either too lazy or too embarrassed to get back in line for something else.
The next step on the hierarchy is encouraging businesses, organizations and individuals to donate extra food they don’t need (or can’t sell) to food banks, etc. It is hard to imagine that in one of the richest countries in the world, we still have a real problem with poverty and food insecurity. In 2018, there were 31.8 million Americans who met the poverty threshold which is an income not quite $1300 a month for a family of one, which is about the amount you make working 40 hours a week at minimum wage. By the time you pay for your fixed essentials (housing, utilities, clothing, transportation costs to get to work and back, taxes, etc.), there is not much left . The average grocery bill per person, as mentioned before, is about $600 a month. You can see that a person trying to make it on minimum wage, despite a full-time job, would have to spend almost 50% of her paycheck on food. So she either eats less, or eats the least expensive food she can find which is usually mass-produced cereal grains, high in calories and low in nutrition. Anyway, we are lucky to have a very active, community-supported Food Pantry here in Memphis.
Next step down on the rung of food sustainability is, if the people won’t eat it, feed it to the animals. If that’s not possible, then the food goes to the next step- make it into something else or burn it for fuel. OK, so let me give an example (this might be completely urban legend, but I believe it to be true, cross my heart and hope to die). As a high school and then college student, I worked part-time at a national chain burger joint. I won’t tell you which one, but it was named after a girl. Anyway, when you cook a yummy hamburger, it releases a lot of fat. By the end of the day, you have a 50 pound pickle bucket filled with primo grease. My fellow employees told me that this was sold, late at night behind the back alley, to a very prestigious cosmetic company that then turned it into very expensive facial moisturizers. Gross. But hey, it feels good AND it keeps the grease out of the landfills. So win-win in my opinion.
Next rung down, and the last before you reach the landfill, is composting. Before we got civilized, all food was composted. Whether an animal or human ate it or not, that food would eventually make its way back to the earth, usually pretty close to where it grew up, where it would naturally decay and turn back into the soil from whence it came. But these days, we are eating salmon from Japan and broccoli from California. People in Spain are eating corn from America and beef from Brazil. So our bodies are basically walking, talking bags of nutrients that originated in other parts of the world. Talk about globalization. What started out as a box of chocolates from Switzerland is carefully being stored in my fat cells, and the parts of the chocolate truffle I can’t digest have floated down the pipes to the septic system to join other unused nutrients from who-knows-where.
But what about the nasty chocolate that has the surprise center of disgusting coconut cream. After I have bitten into it and realize to my horror what it is, I hastily spit it out and rinse my mouth out with soap. Now I am afraid to try any of the other innocent looking candies in the box, so… what to do? In the past, normally I would have tossed the lot into the trash, not wanting to take the chance of getting poisoned again by coconut. But now, living out on the farm I have other alternatives. First is the pigs- they seem to be immune to both coconut and my cooking- so that is where most of my otherwise wasted foods go. Next is the compost heap. My husband loves composting because it can be a science, if you really want to get into it that much. (Remember, this guy reads text books on microbiology for fun). He turns the compost, waters the compost, tests the compost, feeds the compost, sings to the compost. I just toss the food in.
And you can just toss the food in too! Even if you don’t live on the farm, there are cute little composters you can buy for backyards, porches, even for your countertop. Or build your own like we did. If you want to be really cool, you can go with worm composters that are designed for the more adventurous. But you ask me, “Lois, why would I want to go through all this trouble. I don’t have a garden. What am I going to do with a bucket full of compost”? Well, practically everyone has some little green space around their home or apartment, even if it is only a strip down the driveway. That strip would LOVE your compost, I can guarantee it. Or, if you have friends or family that garden, they would LOVE your compost. One way or the other, your unwanted food will have a happier ending if you can get it back to its original state- fabulous, wonderful, dirty earth!