For an up-close and personal look at America’s food-waste problem, start composting. Each week offers another fragrant bucket full of regret. Every neglected morsel quickly accumulates into one big smelly indictment of your prodigal lifestyle.
By now, you’ve probably seen some staggering statistics on the issue: Collectively, U.S. residents toss out an estimated $165 billion worth of food every year, enough to fill some 730 sports stadiums with all those forsaken leftovers. On average, each of us casually discards about 20 pounds of viable sustenance every month. That sounds like an awful lot. But it looks so much worse, steadily piling up inside your own funky food-scrap container at home.
Composting, of course, is supposed to be part of the solution to our society’s waste problem. But solutions can be messy — this one especially.
If you’re like me, you used to feel pretty good about your personal waste-management efforts. Sure, it’s a hassle to rinse out plastic bottles and bundle pizza boxes. But hauling those big clear bags full of recyclables down to the curb each week felt like a step forward — another load of perfectly good raw materials bound for reuse instead of lingering in some landfill for eternity. Now that I’m separating food scraps, too, I feel very differently. Scraping leftovers into a trash can the old-fashioned way wasn’t an especially good feeling. But once that stuff made its way into the anonymous black hole of common garbage, commingled with all the rest of the detritus, it was quickly forgotten.
Composting, on the other hand, provides a constant reminder that even the considerable gluttony in this country can hardly keep pace with the unprecedented level of decadence. At a time when the culinary establishment preaches resourcefulness, the idea that one should make use of every little speck of produce and protein, the compost bin takes regular inventory of our failings. Food scraps don’t quickly disappear anymore. They just gather in a grisly, singular rotting heap until collection day, when the whole gruesome cycle begins anew.
Every time I crack the lid on that gnarly plastic container, I am overcome with acute foodie guilt. What a lazy, inept home cook I’ve become! Just look at all these lost opportunities. Those severed sandwich crusts could have made easy bread crumbs. And these gnawed-up chicken wings? What, you’ve never heard of bone broth? Oh, and those banana peels — why, even hippy-dippy devotees of the quaint Anarchist Cookbook showed more imagination.
In theory, composting should make us feel better about where our leftovers are going. All of yesterday’s unwanted trimmings will eventually make very useful fertilizer for producing the foods of tomorrow. In the meantime, however, we must wrangle with the rot and how it reflects upon us.
At a time when the culinary establishment preaches resourcefulness, the idea that one should make use of every little speck of produce and protein, the compost bin takes regular inventory of our failings.
From a practical standpoint, the main problem with composting is essentially the same fundamental question that drives all waste-management programs: Where do you put it?
When New York City extended its fledgling curbside composting program to my own neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, last year, the sanitation department issued our building one big sturdy brown compost bin on wheels, complete with a modern locking mechanism and a very wholesome-sounding label: “Organics Collection.” It’s hard to imagine a better euphemism for what disgusting things one usually finds inside. The city also provided a bunch of smaller plastic containers for each individual apartment. Ideally, daily food scraps go into the smaller bin until it becomes full, then the whole heaping pile gets dumped into the bigger bin and awaits collection outside.
Of course, keeping rotting food inside your home, even in small amounts, is bound to create its own problems, like pests and odors. So the city recommends that you keep the smaller bin inside your freezer until collection day. It’s a serviceable suggestion, if far from ideal. The bin is roughly one square foot in size and now takes up about one fifth of my freezer space. So effectively, my present-day inefficiencies are hindering my ability to stockpile future nourishment, as well.
Hopefully, being so regularly confronted with ample evidence of my own disgusting habits and all the logistical challenges this creates will eventually inspire me to make some serious lifestyle changes, to shop and eat more efficiently and that sort of thing. But in a household with two young children — one who barely touches his food, the other who routinely throws her food — an effective domestic revolution of that magnitude is going to take some serious effort, to say the least.
An increasing number of New Yorkers will be facing the same complex issues in the coming years, as the city gradually extends its composting program into various new residential neighborhoods. (Just ask your friends in Greenpoint about the newly sweet aroma of progress in that part of town.) Also, this fall, the city will be holding public hearings on a plan to expand the program to the commercial sector, with large hotel restaurants, food wholesalers and entertainment venues expected to start separating their food scraps, too. Eventually, the city intends to compel all restaurants to do the same.
It’s a noble goal, but one that is sure to have unintended consequences.
Prudent restaurateurs should start planning now. Like, maybe think about getting a bigger walk-in freezer.