Thanks for listening to my NPR commentary about how the food waste we generate affects not just our wallets but the animals we attract to it. Listen below, on KQED’s website, read the transcript below, and please share with friends and family. It’s a perspective that can change the world for animals.
You’ve heard it before: of the edible food Americans buy and bring home, about 40% gets thrown in the garbage. That translates to between $1,300 and $2,200 per household per year. When we stop treating food as garbage, the benefits are manifold — most obviously: saving money. But removing food scraps from our garbage cans is also a benefit to our relationship with the natural world — especially wildlife.
The more food we throw away, the more wild animals come to rely on that food in our trash cans, leading to human-wildlife encounters that can be inconvenient and costly for us and dangerous — often fatal — for them.
Perceiving opportunistic visitors — from the largest bears to the smallest rodents — as a nuisance often ends badly for them, but rather than changing our behavior and removing the tasty buffets that lure them in the first place, we demonize the raccoons, opossums, mice, and rats who rummage through our garbage cans and pay companies to gas, poison, or glue-trap them.
Sadly, this isn’t the only price animals pay for our wastefulness. High mortality rates by vehicle collisions and consumption of toxic non-digestibles are also linked with animals’ attraction to our garbage. Reducing food waste is essential and do-able, especially since we know the main causes of it in our homes:
Buying more food than we need
Being unwilling to consume leftovers
Improperly storing food
And misunderstanding the meaning of “sell-by dates.”
By seeing the food in our refrigerators as valuable rather than disposable means taking responsibility and being resourceful. There’s a reason humans have been canning, pickling, and fermenting foods for hundreds of years. But if that feels too advanced…at least consider:
Making a cobbler out of tired-looking fruit
Making stock from veggie scraps
Freezing chopped herbs before they wilt and so much more…
By literally turning lemons into lemonade, we save money, we save resources, and we save animals.
Today’s episode is not as gruesome as it sounds — aside from the fact that killing animals and eating their body parts is kinda gruesome — but it IS fascinating. It’s all about words with animal flesh and fluids at their roots both actually AND etymologically. Words you’d never expect. Words you never even realized. Take a listen and see what I mean!
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I’ve had so many eye-opening moments since starting this Zero Waste journey — one of them having to do with food waste. It’s why I’ve devoted three podcast episodes to this topic, when I thought I’d just be doing a simple episode on how to compost.
Certainly it’s been revelatory to learn about the rampant (and preventable) food loss and food waste that takes place in the harvesting, production, processing, and transportation arms of the food sector — the animal livestock industry being the number one culprit. But it’s been the food waste that takes place in the consumer sector — in our own homes — that has left a deep impression on me.
As I explain in Food Waste Part 2: Food is Not Garbage, Americans throw away up to 40% of perfectly safe, perfectly edible food — all of which winds up in a landfill, sitting in a dump, creating methane and other greenhouse gases.
The lightbulb that went off for me is simply this: food doesn’t belong in the garbage. I know that may sound ridiculously obvious, but I think because it’s so ridiculous obviously that it doesn’t even penetrate our skulls. We can’t see the forest for the trees.
When I started on this journey and began making changes in my life and in our home, one of the dilemmas I was faced with was what kind of garbage bags would I be able to find that fit our existing cans (below) and that are biodegradable. I started researching and googling and stressing until I realized…we don’t need ANY garbage bags at all — because there’s nothing stinking up our garbage!
The only reason we line our garbage bins with plastic bags is because of all the wet food we throw away that becomes stinky and smelly. Once we put those stinky garbage bags into our outdoor garbage cans, hungry, opportunistic critters (or “pests” as many people consider them) find these food-filled cans and create the human / animal conflicts that lead to their demise. The raccoons, skunks, opossums, crows, foxes, even bears who topple our garbage cans and make a mess are simply being resourceful enough to want to eat the food we considered waste and discarded.
Animals are the ultimate zero-wasters!
But, no food breaking down in our garbage…no smell. No smell…no “pests.” No “pests”…no conflicts or fear of disease-transmission. No conflicts…harmony. (And if you’re worried that urban and suburban wildlife would starve if we stopped throwing food away, my recommendation would be to focus on creating a wildlife-friendly habitat.)
Same goes for dumps.
The only reason dumps smell putrid is because of all the food we throw away that becomes stinky and smelly. If organic matter weren’t putrefying (especially because it can’t properly break down without the oxygen and soil and microbes it needs to do so), dumps wouldn’t smell. They also wouldn’t create greenhouse gases or attract “pests” that also create conflicts and a certain bad reputation and sometimes death for them. (Listen to the podcast for more about the negative effects of food in dumps.)
So instead of buying biodegradable garbage bags (which, by the way, can’t biodegrade without the right conditions, and there are no right conditions in a dump), we simply put our garbage and recycling into their respective receptacles — sans plastic bags.
Despite the goal being zero waste, we do still create waste in our home, mostly from products we still had and are using up before starting this journey and packaging from online orders (for the garbage) and aluminum cans from the cats’ food and the beer bottles David occasionally buys (for the recycling). All of the garbage items are dry, so there’s no issue there, and as for the recyclable items, we simply rinse out the cat cans and beer bottles before putting them in the garbage bin. The rest is any mail I can’t compost (yes, I’ll be discussing the challenge of reducing unwanted mail!) No need for a liner.
On garbage days, we bring take the receptacles directly to the city cans in our garage, dump in the contents, and rinse out our cans before returning them to the kitchen. Easy. Peasy.
As for what we do with food scraps, you’ll want to listen to the Food Waste Part 2 podcast episode for the gazillion ideas I provide for reducing food waste in the first place — and composting is the final (not first) suggestion. That’s right…the other massive revelation that guides my actions every day: ZERO WASTE ISN’T ABOUT WASTE DIVERSION. IT’S ABOUT WASTE PREVENTION.
Yes, I compost all the food scraps that remain (more to come on that topic), but I’m now focused more on eliminating food scraps in the first place, including when I eat out or at other people’s homes. (And for years we used compostable bags to line our compost pail on our countertop to make it “more convenient” for us to bring it down to the city’s green bin in our garage, but we stopped buying those, too, because it’s only a little less convenient to bring the actual pail down to the green bin, dump it, and bring it back to the kitchen. Big. Friggin. Deal.)
I’m reluctant to even recommend biodegradable garbage bags, because of all the reasons I gave above, but I realize there are municipalities around the world who don’t offer green bins for homeowners or apartment dwellers and many people don’t have compost bins (or know what to do with them if they did), however, please do me a favor and first: