Although I largely devote this blog to sustainability and fashion, I am passionate about learning more about sustainability in all areas of my life. One major area of concern lies in food waste. The US produces a staggering quantity of food waste. According to the USDA website, the US wastes about 30-40% of its food supply. It can be difficult to conceptualize something as abstract as 40% of the food supply. Breaking this down into per household waste, the EPA estimates that the average American household wasted 338 pounds of food, per household, per year, as of 2018. I’m going to write that one more time because that is a horrifying number. 338 pounds of food. Per household. Per year.
When I gather information and inspiration for these weekly pieces, I usually find and in some cases create advice and calls to action directed at the individual. However, the more I learn, the more I become convinced that the necessary changes must occur at the macro level. The burden usually falls to the individuals, with ad campaigns from charitable organizations and even governmental agencies advocating for the changes which each person can make in their lifestyle. As with most issues, placing the burden on individuals without providing institutional and infrastructural guidance and support unfairly shuffles the blame from the corporations and legislative and regulatory bodies. These entities have a moral imperative to enact and catalyze change due to the scope of their influence. The passage of the new food waste bill in the state of California on January 1, 2022 reveals the power of accountability and action on the part of the agencies and legislative bodies which truly hold the power to create large-scale change.
California’s new law fulfills this obligation by forcing every jurisdiction in California to provide organic waste collection to residents and businesses. This means that every city, county, or other entity which offers waste collection services must now collect food scraps, lawn clippings, paper materials, and other biodegradable waste materials. This requires residents and businesses to sort this organic material from their other waste so it can be composted separately.
While some cities in California and across the country have implemented programs which incentivize or introduce wide scale composting, this piece of legislation represents the first statewide requirement for responsible disposal of organic waste. This action, a small step in the right direction, will reset social norms about composting and create a rippling effect. All the education and advocacy in the world cannot make up for the real impact of substantial structural change.
As a brief case study, consider the single use plastic bag. Disposable consumerist culture welcomed these convenient bits of translucent plastic as a solution for groceries, pharmacies, restaurants, and retail. Environmental activists began calling for the use of biodegradable single use items or reusable bags to no avail. Education, dissemination of ads featuring dying marine life, and other efforts did little to stop the mass use of these bags. Finally, states began to ban them. With these pieces of legislation in place, consumers and retailers finally changed their lifestyles, and they began to find alternative solutions. After living in New York, a state which banned bags in March of 2020, I was shocked to see how ubiquitous these single-use sacks are in states which have not yet banned them. Legislation can catalyze a change which decades of knowledge and outreach could not.
Food waste, both cooking scraps and perishable items which spoil, rot, or otherwise go to waste, pose an issue. According to a 2018 report, composting and recycling rates in the US remain stagnant, at a little over 34% of people self-reporting to engage in these activities. A majority stated that they would recycle “if it was easy.” If you live in California, disposing of your food waste in a responsible manner has become not only easy, but mandatory. If you, like me, live in a place where it is less easy, I want to offer some tips and ideas for ways to make it slightly easier for you!
Reduce Your Food Waste:
The best way to reduce your food waste is simply to purchase, cook, and store your food consciously.
** Reduce what you buy. Purchase smaller amounts. Buy food sold unpackaged so you can purchase just one carrot if you just need one carrot. Don’t let the idea of a deal tempt you into buying a huge bag of oranges, if you know that you realistically will only eat half of them before they begin to rot.
** Shop local if possible: Small farmers in your area provide produce with a lower footprint. It travels a much shorter distance, so it will typically be fresher. Furthermore, small farmers do not typically discard produce for failing to meet an artificial standard of beauty in the way that many large supermarkets do.
**Plan your meals in advance so you can use up all of a perishable item before it goes bad. For example, if I buy a head of cabbage, I will usually plan to make at least two cabbage dishes in the next week so that I can use the whole thing without it going to waste.
**Freeze your perishables to extend their lives. I store chopped vegetables and fruits in containers in my freezer. I also love to chop up herbs, place them in a small container, cover with olive oil, and freeze. I just scoop out some herby goodness to use in basically everything I cook. I have a hard time eating a whole loaf of store-bought bread before it becomes stale or grows mold. I usually will store my bread in the fridge or freezer so that it stays fresher for longer.
Even with the best planned meals and most consciously purchased ingredients, a few things will go to waste. This is where composting comes in. Depending on where you live, you may need to employ various strategies to find the right solution for where you are. My parents have composted in their yard my entire life. They have a green drum with a crank on one side for easy rotation of compost. My mom balances her compost by adding carbon rich organic material, like dry leaves and coffee grounds, before turning her compost vigorously. After I moved out, I gave up on composting for a few years, as I moved from apartment to apartment. About three years ago, I finally began doing it again, this time by myself. I am by no means an expert on soil management, but I would like to share my own experiences with composting and offer tips I have found helpful over the years.
Collecting scraps for composting offsite:
Depending on where you live, there may be a composting program in your city. Check into local community gardens and other similar organizations and services to see if any of them accept food scraps. If you’re local to the Hudson Valley, check out The O Zone’s Compost CSA program! Some cities even boast businesses which will collect your compost for you for a small fee. If you locate a free or paid service to collect or drop off your compost, make sure you follow the rules about what they do and do not accept exactly.
Pro tip for scrap collection:
Keep a rigid container in your freezer for collection of food scraps. This can be a large plastic container, a cookie tin, or any other non-porous vessel with a lid. When I did offsite composting, I started with a countertop compost bin. In my unairconditioned apartment, that bin quickly became a disgusting, odiferous fruit fly paradise. It took weeks to get rid of those winged pests. I then started storing the food scraps in bags in the freezer. They didn’t really hold their shape, and when the scraps began to thaw en route to the community garden, they often leaked. I don’t remember if I heard this tip on a podcast or saw it somewhere, but I finally tried the rigid, lidded container (mine is a small plastic storage bin). It works like a dream! I set it out on my counter while I cook, tossing in the food scraps, and then replacing it in my freezer. When it fills, it is easy to take to a compost drop off site without concern for leaks or spills. I now compost in my own backyard, and I still use the bin in the freezer. It gives me far more flexibility in my taking out the compost schedule.
This may not be possible, especially if you live in an apartment building with limited outdoor space. If you reside in a property with a yard, consult with your landlord (if applicable) to see if they are open to a compost pile. One of my landlords had zero objection to me creating a pile in the backyard of the multifamily dwelling where I lived.
A number of pre-made and DIY compost bins offer options to meet your needs and budget. I decided that I couldn’t justify springing for the canister with a crank like the one my parents have. After doing some research online, I eventually decided to build my own out of shipping palettes. I stopped by a locally owned hardware store in town and asked about purchasing 4 palettes. The proprietor informed me that he has dozens sitting around and that he would be happy to give me as many as I wanted. Armed with my free building materials, I used a drill to affix the crates into a cube using extra long wood screws. If you don’t have access to these, a hammer and nails will do the job as well. You can simply designate an area for scraps, without a container if you so choose. I did not want my dogs getting into the decomposing food waste, so I chose to contain it.
I placed my creation in a corner of our backyard. In addition to my food scraps, I collect my yard waste, weeds, dried leaves, etc. My neighbor’s crabapple tree dropped about 25 gallons of bitter apples into our yard. To keep my dogs from feasting on this bounty, I collected them and dumped them into my compost bin. To be honest, I do not “manage” my compost pile in the way that some resources recommend. I just add material and turn it with a shovel periodically. After only a few months, the bottom of my pile yielded a rich, dark compost, which I am looking forward to using in the spring. (In the interest of full disclosure, I do not consume meat, and I have no experience composting with meat scraps. I also do not live in an area with bears. There are a plethora of resources available to find a composting strategy compatible with your lifestyle and circumstances.)
I hope that this bill in California paves the way for more legislative action across the nation to help with organic waste management. Until the infrastructure support exists, the burden falls to individuals, unfortunately. My goal in sharing my own experiences with composting and reducing my food waste is to offer some tips on making this process easier for y’all. I would love to hear what you have tried and what has worked for you!
Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.