23 Nov 2011

Got Dirt? Give Thanks

Thanksgiving dinner is a rare American meal, and not just because it’s an annual event celebrated with family and friends. This day of gratitude tends to spin off the yummiest of leftovers, so mercifully little food ends up in the trash.

That’s not the case for the other 364 days of eating we do. In fact, according to OnEarth.org, a whopping 96 billion pounds of uneaten food — some 253 pounds per American — gets thrown out every year.

That comes to 1,400 calories a day per person, explains contributing editor Laura Wright in her charming essay about food waste — or the equivalent of two full meals. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all the edible food produced, bought, and sold in this country ends up in landfills and incinerators.

Sure, food is wasted starting on the farm. And as dumpster diver Jeremy Siefert, who documents his version of foraging in the new film Dive!, discovered, groceries and supermarkets throw out so much fresh food that a man can easily feed a family of four quite well from one Trader Joe’s dumpster. Check out Eat Trash campaign to learn more.

But as Wright observes, it’s not the farms, processors, and supermarket chains that are the largest contributors to food waste. Compared with what we toss out at restaurants and in our own homes, the nation’s supermarkets are the model of efficiency, wasting some 16 times less food by some estimates.

There are lots of ways to reduce the amount of food we send to landfills, but I’m particularly enamored of this neat business I jut read about on Practically GreenBootstrap Compost is a year-round kitchen scrap pickup service currently only available to greater Boston residents, but I could see similar schemes springing up in any community.

As the web site explains, there are few simpler programs. (Rarer still are those that begin to turn a profit just months after launch). Each Bootstrap subscriber is provided with a 5-gallon bucket and lid which she then fills with coffee grounds, egg shells, bones, tea bags, and other biodegradable matter from her home. Once a week, the company exchanges the filled bucket for a clean one. The collected waste gets hauled to one of several nearby gardening projects to be composted.

The cost per subscriber? A mere $8 a week. The reward? Quarterly bags of fresh compost for the garden. “It’s like a bank” says Bootstrap founder Andy Brooks. “Clients deposit their raw food scraps, and then can withdraw fresh soil after 15 weeks. Customers who have no need for compost can donate theirs to a local community garden.”

“I absolutely love composting in the city” my friend Sarah Finnie Robinson, a new Bootstrap subscriber, told me. “It’s amazing to me to derive such profound satisfaction from this one change.”

Cities like San Francisco require citizens to separate their refuse into recyclables, compostables, and trash, and others, like Louisville, Colorado, offer pickup services for compostables. The farmers’ markets and a number of pocket gardens in my city of New York (PDF) provide drop-off points for food scraps that then get transported to compost facilities and turned into fertile soil amendment for local farming projects.

In a few weeks, Robinson will receive her first bag of Bootstrap compost, which she plans to use in her backyard garden and for her potted houseplants. How gratifying to think that her own discarded banana peels, coffee grounds, and egg shells will have generated this nutrient-rich soil. This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the dirt — and for all those who help make it.


grayisgreen