Reducing food and packaging waste is one of the large challenges of our times. It’s as complicated as how we produce and supply food, large-scale, in our culture.
On a small scale it is simpler if we can buy food locally, from farms or food co-ops and farmers markets, take it home in our own bags or baskets, and compost the excess in our own yards. (Ideally our communities provide – or will soon provide – food waste collection or composting alternatives.)
In the larger picture, our stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals and home kitchens need solutions for moving food and handling food waste.
It’s great to see people learning to carry groceries home without plastic bags, a practice that has been normal in many other cultures forever. Many stores and restaurants are seeking and want to offer you recyclable containers to take food home – a necessary next step. (Affording those recyclables and ensuring that they get recycled are also difficult.)
Even at home we need some best practices (and possibly products) for storing, reducing, using, or removing our own garbage.
What can the gardener, cook, or customer do about the garbage?
Are you in a city, town, or country place? Where you live means you have different answers. But wherever that is, you have some choices.
Produce less waste
In a restaurant that can mean ordering only what you will eat just then. Or carry your own reusable container for leftovers. Always carry your own water bottle or beverage container. Instead of buying takeout fast food that comes in excess single-use packaging, eat in a place that uses dishes and glasses.
For cooking, buy what you will actually use rather than throwing out half-full boxes two weeks later. Store bulk foods in glass containers. Choose groceries that are packaged less wastefully, and flatten or crush the packages you must throw out.
If a place offers recycling bins, use them responsibly. Thank the store or restaurant owners that are making efforts to reduce waste, since it is not usually cheap, convenient, or easy for them.
Compost what and where you can
An apartment dweller will find it easier to reduce than to process food waste. An enjoyable choice (that I have kept going for 20-some years) is an indoor worm compost. (Look up “Vermiculture”; find books such as “Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System, 2nd Edition” by Mary Appelhof.)
Then find a source for red wrigglers (little worms that do not escape the bin), and put them to work turning your non-meat food scraps and coffee grounds into compost. Kids love this.
If you have a garden or yard you have bigger opportunities. If your city or town does not permit composting in piles or open bins, it is for concerns about rats or other animals. (Done properly, a good compost, with non-meat scraps buried deeply, does not attract vermin – but the rules are the rules.) So buy a closed compost tumbler or container that no animal can penetrate.
Where you are permitted to compost, build or purchase one as soon as possible. Cooperative Extension master gardeners, your town or city, or environmental organizations have information about styles, materials, products and how to compost. Your food and plant material should not go to the curb when it can become a wonderful soil amendment.
Bury the garbage
Many a grandparent, who had a farm or country home, will tell you: They cooked the dinner, collected the fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee and tea bags, (and maybe the plate scrapings), and after dinner took it outside and buried it in a hole in the garden. (They probably learned not to put meat in there or the raccoons or the dog dug it up.)
A great way is to dig a 12-inch or deeper trench through a garden or in the back of the yard, and put the scraps in there, burying as you go. You could do it hole by hole. You could put shredded newspaper or office paper in there too. By next year that trench will be a great place to grow anything. Or you could dig up the resulting compost, and mix it into your garden soil or around your landscape plants
Freeze it temporarily
In winter it’s tough to bury anything or even to get the goods to the composter. Do this: Collect food scraps, houseplant clippings, coffee etc. in a sealed container on the counter. (I used to use milk cartons or coffee cans but now have a great kitchen compost holder – my favorite Christmas present. It comes with compostable little baggies too.)
Either freeze the waste in a freezer until you can take it outside, or routinely put the waste outside in a tightly covered bin to freeze until the weather lets you get it to the compost pile or hole in the ground. In spring you will have a wonderful, inspiring bin full of super compost-ready stuff. If it gets too watery, just add shredded paper or leaves, twigs, and pruning clippings.
As a culture we have a long way to go to solve decades and centuries-long mishandling of our waste and our abuse of the earth and its ecosystems. For our descendants and other living creatures, if not for ourselves, we need massive cultural, infra-structural, and systemic changes. But at least we can do better immediately with the food we buy, package, prepare, transport, and throw away.
Let us each, within our own situations, do what we can.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95).