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May 2006
Waste Not Want Not
By Latham Thomas

 

Some of us can’t help reflect on what impact our food might have on our bodies—what metabolic processes take place, how well we digest and assimilate nutrients, how it affects our mood and so forth. For a subset of concerned consumers it is also important to ascertain how and where our produce was grown, if chemicals were sprayed upon it and how long it traveled to get to our kitchen table. There is, after all, a clearly delineated rubric of quality standards for food—local, sustainable, organic, etc. Yet, when these same “concerned” individuals are made to face other environmental consequences of eating, a curious disconnect occurs.

We are living in a culture that turns everything into consumable products. It’s not enough to eat an apple—enriched with nutrients and life force, contained in its own perfect package—which leaves behind a small biodegradable trace of its existence. We have to buy apple chips, which come in colorful plastic packages leaving behind waste that takes over a hundred years to break down—not to mention that chemicals and sugars added to packaged foods are tantamount to waste.

What’s with all the packaging? When you go to the grocery store you are overwhelmed by bright cellophane-wrapped food products. Our culture is obsessed with packaging. It is “normal” to pry through a box of cookies with a layer of cellophane wrapping, a box, and a plastic tray just to get at the desired morsels. Upon check out, we are faced with the question, “paper or plastic?” or simply handed the ever-popular reinforced double plastic bag or paper in plastic combos. At such a moment it is important to remember that one million plastic bags per minute are being unleashed into the environment with no place safe to go. Sure they are useful, cheap and plentiful, but they are causing a great deal of harm to our environment. And yet, deforestation concomitant with paper bags is a poor alternative.

What is the answer to our bag problems? Did I hear environmental tax? The environmental tax reform process is well under way in the European Union and is taking root worldwide. Ireland was the first country to introduce a plastic bag tax in March 2002 and, currently, grocery stores charge customers 15 cents for each new plastic or paper bag. In 2005, the San Francisco Commission on the Environment unanimously approved a proposal asking the city to charge grocery shoppers 17 cents for every paper or plastic bag they take home. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, 55 percent of shoppers in Japan agree that plastic bags should be taxed. They voted to support a government plan to reduce garbage by allowing supermarkets and other retailers to charge customers for plastic bags.

Imagine how much annual waste we would prevent if every country imposed a tax on bags. How wildlife could be spared if we collectively adopted more eco-friendly practices. How many trees would be left standing.

There are simple things we can all start doing to help prevent waste. Such as purchasing bulk food items from the local health food store, eating less packaged foods—including take-out—and using our own tote bags when shopping. We need to be conscious and therefore dissatisfied enough to change destructive habits. Like-minded individuals acting in concert have the power to effect positive change.

As consumers we have the power to choose how our dollars are spent. We don’t have to wait for the state to impose a garbage tax to start thinking more environmentally and seeing the world through the lens of sustainability. Here are some ways to integrate your (unavoidable) waste:

1. Start a home compost bin. You can get a supply of healthy red wigglers ready to munch away at your organic waste and create nutrient-rich new soil. If you are in New York City, visit the Lower East Side Ecology Center or their stand at the Union Square Greenmarket for worms.

2. Drop off organic waste to a compost center. If the thought of handling worms makes you cringe, then bring your organic waste to the Union Square Greenmarket composting stand. Visit www.lesecologycenter.org for details.

3. Find new uses for your plastic bags and bottles. Use cut plastic bottles as seed starters for new plants or in craft projects.

External packaging aside, there are parts of foods commonly thought of as waste, which are useful. Traditional cultures take from Mother Earth only what they need to subsist. The following traditional Zen anecdote reminds us that this attitude has long been revered as a more enlightened understanding: In a certain monastery the monks were scolded for caring too much for food. They found the ascetic regimen imposed by the abbot to be too strict. One day a monk discovered smoke coming from the abbot’s chimney late at night, and moving closer witnessed the abbot at an illicit midnight snack. The monks joined together to ambush their teacher and unveil his hypocrisy; only to find that he had taken on the responsibility of boiling all of the seeds, stems and pits discarded by the kitchen to make a stew in order that nothing be wasted.

Here are some ways to re-incorporate items commonly considered worthless:

1. Take all of your leftover vegetable scraps and make a vegetable stock, simply add some kombu, garlic and shiitake mushrooms. Use immediately or freeze for future use.

2. For those who juice, the nutrient-rich fiber that’s left behind can be added to salad. Just sprinkle some hemp seeds, add a little avocado, a dollop of quinoa, and your favorite dressing. This works best with carrot, beet and celery vegetable fibers.

3. Orange or lemon rinds can be added to witch hazel for a nice face toner; ground up in your garbage disposal to make the drain smell fresh; or simmered with spices as fresh potpourri.

Connecting with the environment is the first step towards making a positive impact. From composting to making vegetable stock or shopping with your own canvas tote, find the practice that works for you. Let us be mindful of consumption. Contact the corporate offices of food companies and request more efficient packaging. Let us enjoy food, but remember to embrace our waste.

Latham Thomas is the program coordinator of the Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies wellness project at B-Healthy. She is a holistic health counselor who teaches parent and child cooking classes through her company Tender Shoots Wellness and also is the founder of the Eco-Circle Playgroup, an ecology playgroup for NYC toddlers. For information contact tendershoots@hotmail.com.


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