Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Waste not, want not.

Since moving to Arizona, I’ve been wondering what to do with my food scraps. As I’ve written about before, food scraps don’t biodegrade in landfills because that process requires airflow. Instead, food scraps petrify. Between 30% and 40% of the food we grow is wasted somewhere between farms and our bellies. And all the food waste that ends up in landfills generates a considerable amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Food waste is currently a hot topic within the food, energy, and environment sector. In fact, last fall, the USDA and EPA committed to halving the food waste in the US by 2030, and food waste was a talking point during last year’s World Food Day, held by the United Nations.

The first step in curbing food waste in my house is to deal with food scraps. Long ago, we tried worm composting. It is supposed to be easy, but like all things to do with food – deciding what to eat, grocery shopping, cooking, packing healthy snacks – easy can still be time-consuming. We never really got into the groove of working with the worms, and that was before we had two kids to keep track of! In addition, the climate in Arizona is not particularly hospitable to worms. For about six months out of the year, we’re in the triple digits (that’s over 38°C). We’re not keeping a worm bin in the house where it’s air conditioned, but it’s really too hot to keep them outside. And while many cities are starting food scrap recycling programs, we don’t have a program available yet.

As it turns out, some clever people have solved this problem for me. There are now dozens of companies that will pick up food scraps from your home or business and compost them for you. The one in our area is Recycled City. Once a week, a guy named Stan drops off a large plastic bucket (like a painter’s bucket) and a little bag of something called bokashi – it looks a bit like sand and helps break down food waste while eliminating odors. All week long, we throw our food scraps into a bowl on the counter, as needed. At the end of each day, we toss them into the bin in the garage with a little sprinkle of bokashi and snap on the lid so nothing gets out (or in!). At the end of the week, we set our bucket out in our driveway, and Stan replaces it with a clean, fresh one. It’s that simple.

Stan, from Recycled City, takes our food scraps and leaves us a fresh bucket.

Recycled City composts the food scraps it picks up from homes, businesses, and even restaurants. The nutrient-rich soil that results is used for urban gardens in downtown Phoenix, which is classified as a food desert by the USDA. They even offer CSA boxes from their partner farms, and we have the opportunity to get free soil back as part of the service. For the price of a few lattes, we get all of the perks of composting with very little work. Finally, a food system solution that really is both easy and quick!

There is likely some variability among different service providers, but the general idea is pretty universal. You can find a service in your area by doing a web search for “food scrap recycling service” or check out the interactive map by Compost Now.

Moldy veggies, egg shells, coffee grounds, and even bones can all go in the compost bin!

Finding an alternative destination for my food scraps won’t technically help the food waste problem, but it can help keep food out of landfills. And dealing with my food scraps keeps this issue more present in my mind than just dumping stuff in the trash. When I see how much of our produce or leftovers go to waste, I see patterns in what doesn’t get used – like that little bit of extra pasta or the baby onions from the CSA box that I wasn’t sure how to use. All that waste is FOOD, in a world of people who are starving. It’s also money – my money that I consciously devote to getting better food for my family. And it’s all of the water and soil and energy and farm workers and truck drivers and resources both human and mechanical that WE ARE WASTING. Seeing it on a daily basis makes me want to find a solution.

Because food waste is such a hot topic, there are several websites devoted to how you can limit your food waste (like this one and this one). The things that are key for us are making weekly menus and buying only what we need for the week. One issue we’re having right now is that we typically do our meal planning and shopping over the weekend but our CSA box comes mid-week. Some of our CSA produce doesn’t make it to the weekend or we end up doubling up on certain items that we purchased before the box arrived. Rather than letting all that food go to waste, we need to start building some flexibility into our menus – like incorporating a stir fry, curry, or veggie sauté into our menu later in the week. That way, at least some of the produce that arrives in our CSA box can be used right away. Another option is to make salads for lunch, which generally means more nutritious food for less money than going out to eat. Raw, steamed, or roasted veggies (all pretty quick options) make for great salad toppings. There are probably other options, too. Being aware of the problem – how and why food goes to waste in my household – is the first step toward a solution. Next time you clean out the fridge or scrape your plate into the trash, think about how you might solve the food waste problem in your home.


  1. Financial motivators are always a big one for people. It would benefit processors and growers to have less waste because they could make more profit (or more business by extending the financial wins to consumers). Wasting less food in the home is beneficial to us too because we'd spend less money. I think the hard part is thinking about how much money we actually throw out. We forget how much we spent on stuff, or don't really think about a cost associated with throwing away a few pieces of fruit or old veggies or whatever. Maybe challenging people to tally up what food goes uneaten and compute a dollar cost is a start?

    Long shipping pipelines have to be a large contributor to this problem. They have to predict way ahead of time how much food will be needed somewhere far away and can't really react to changing conditions. Or can they? If a shipload of bananas leaves Ecuador, is there dynamic routing once that ship docks in San Diego or LA or wherever?

  2. I think "cost to consumer" numbers are featured in a lot of the sites on food waste. And there are some useful apps now that can help you track when your food is getting old and likely to go bad; I'm sure they could add a cost estimator, or maybe they already do. As for being dynamic, I think that's one of the areas people are working on because no, the market doesn't respond well to change. A lot of food is also wasted because it doesn't meet the high standard for production (like exact size and shape of produce), but it's still totally edible. Right now, there is no infrastructure for a secondary market or even donations of food that doesn't meet that standard. That is always going to be a wasteful system.

  3. Cool! do they drive to Patagonia? :-)