If you have been following me, you already know that my journey of living sustainably started with eliminating waste (see: The Minimalists). Although, in the beginning that waste looked a little more like the overconsumption of things, unhealthy behavior, and poor relationships. Here we are a few years later and waste now looks like…well, waste. And, it’s EVERYWHERE.
Last fall we were driving through Southern Illinois on our way to Scratch Brewery, which is an amazing brewery that uses only locally grown and/or foraged ingredients. It was such a beautiful day, I remember taking several photos of the golden fields and bright blue sky. The colors were so bold, I remember telling Kohl it seemed as though we were viewing the scenery through an Instagram filter. And then we saw it - a giant hole being dug up alongside the road. Ah, it must be a lake! Nope, a landfill.
The average US citizen generates just over 4 pounds of waste every day. Keep in mind, there are over 300 million people living in the US, I will let you do the math. In 2017, almost 150 million tons of waste was placed in the 2000 + landfills scattered across our country. Food, making up 22% of all landfilled waste, was the highest material identified — with plastics coming in second at 19% and paper/paperboard at 13%. Estimated at 1.6 billion tons, approximately one third of the World’s food is wasted annually — with 60% of waste occurring within the US & Europe.
It wasn’t until last year that I understood the negative impact food waste has on our environment. According to Project Drawdown, the food waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. This is because food waste (and other organic materials) cannot properly breakdown in a landfill. Organic materials (and items labeled biodegradable or compostable) require certain levels of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon with regulated temperatures in order to effectively degrade. When we throw organic, biodegradable or compostable items into the landfill, they do not receive oxygen - and therefore, decompose anaerobically. This type of decomposition produces methane. Methane is estimated to be anywhere from 26-30x worse for the environment than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential. Not only does food waste impact our environment, but estimates suggest that the global cost of food waste is $750 BILLION annually.
Soon after learning all of this, Kohl and I decided to try composting! Now that it is winter, it has been a little tricky to figure out if we are actually succeeding at this. Nonetheless, we are trying! We built our own out of palettes that we bought off of Craigslist. I tried to keep it as zero waste as possible and avoided purchasing an actual compost from the store. I even used old belts to secure the palettes together but it was still a little shaky and in the end, I had to get some zip ties. We followed (sort of) this tutorial. I have gotten several questions about composting, recommendations, etc. So, I thought I would just cover a couple of the most common.
While I like that we made our own compost and we were able to keep it almost plastic free. We aren’t really the best at rotating (which is pretty core to composting) and so if I were to make a recommendation (or do it over again), I actually think I would purchase a rotating compost bin - something a little like this. St. Louis Composting has a quick summary of how to set up your compost with the right amount of browns, greens and water.
No, the compost does not smell. I am hopeful that indicates we are doing something right, right? We also haven’t noticed any of our furry friends getting into it - which is another common concern.
We typically throw all of our compost scraps into a bag in the kitchen and empty it when ready. This is working for now, but eventually I would like to get something a little easier on the eyes than a paper bag full of food scraps. A friend actually just shared this countertop bamboo compost bin and it is super cute. I know others store them in the freezer, which we also do sometimes! Now, we just have to ensure we don’t confuse compost scraps with food scraps we have saved for making vegetable broth.
Homemade vegetable broth was what I consider to be our next level up when it comes to food waste. We follow Chef Rob Connoley, the chef of Bulrush. If you aren’t familiar with the restaurant, he creates these amazing dishes with locally grown, organic, and foraged ingredients. And my favorite part, it is a zero waste kitchen! “All scraps become sauces, fermented drinks, and in rare cases, food waste is sent to compost. We average 5-10 gallons of food waste a week.” The Food Waste Alliance found that approximately 85% of uneaten food in American restaurants goes into a landfill and the Green Restaurant Association has estimated that 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food waste is produced annually… by a SINGLE RESTAURANT. Okay, coming full circle, when I first started following Rob I noticed that he actually referenced composting as the last resort. After some research, I realized that we could use most of our vegetable scraps to make homemade vegetable broth instead of sending them straight to the compost. To make our homemade broth, we saved the scraps of things like onions, kale, the ends of green beans, etc. We saved it all in the freezer and once we were ready, we semi-followed a recipe by The Minimalist Baker. At the time we didn’t have a bay leaf or rosemary…or tomato paste… or now that I look at the recipe, we didn’t use celery or carrot either. So really we followed the “process” not so much the recipe, make sense? We did cut up some fresh onion and garlic (skins and all) and parsley. It turned out so good! We used it as the base for ramen. It felt so rewarding knowing that we made our meal out of something that in the eyes of most would be considered garbage. The broth we didn’t use for ramen that evening, we put into some containers and stored it in the freezer. We used it a few days later and again it turned out great!
I know that not everyone has the desire to compost at home (or make their own veggie broth), so if you are interested in reducing your food waste here are a few other recommendations:
Check out residential composting through Perennial City
Create your meal plan and grocery list for the week to avoid over purchasing
Freeze your bread if you think you might not have the chance to eat it within the first few days of purchasing OR use stale bread to make croutons
Donate food that you don’t plan to eat (or if you know you are going out of town and it could go bad before you return)
Freeze your leftovers or items that you might have over purchased (for example, we bought a bunch of peppers once, so we froze them)
Use what you have! Get creative with your meals by exploring new recipes with existing food you already have