As I noted in my last post, for my New Years Resolution I will be keeping all of the food-related trash our family produces and documenting it. We’re leaving for Ethiopia in two days so it seems like a good time to both reflect on what the last two months have produced here in the U.S. To be clear, this isn’t food scraps and food waste. We already compost, which makes a substantial reduction in our trash production (quick shout out, read here about Seattle’s awesome efforts on this front). We’re talking straight-up trash, mostly non-recyclable plastic packaging that is surprisingly ubiquitous.
Here’s what I’ve already observed:
- anything related to convenience makes trash (individually wrapped tea bags vs. bulk tea)
- anything related to snacking makes trash (observe the ridiculous quantity of potato chip bags, albeit hippy olive oil, GMO-free chips)
- anything related to seafood and meat makes trash — these are not things available bulk or unwrapped, and they are frequently in heavy duty plastic to protect from contamination or freezer burn
- anything related to travel makes trash — the small bag of trash in the last row of photos is trash collected from a single 3-day weekend visiting family in Vermont. But some of this trash could be avoided with better use of the reusables featured in the last row of photos!
Sometimes timing is oddly serendipitous. As I started thinking about kitchen trash and taking pictures of my children playing in it, I rediscovered this book Travis and I bought last year — Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. This book includes photos, stories, and statistics from different families in different cultures about what they consume in a week. To say that I am obsessed with this book is an understatement, I cannot stop reading it and poring over the images. Here are four of them (going left to right, then down and left to right): one of a Sudanese refugee family in Chad, a family in China, a family in Bosnia, and a family in Britain, surrounded by their week’s worth of food. There is a huge difference in the quantity of food consumed in these pictures. But just as striking to me is how much more increasingly packaged and processed the food becomes moving from a refugee camp to a newly developed country to a developed post-war country to a completely Western country. This increase is striking. And disturbing.
And what about the U.S.? Consider our American supermarkets…
I would say that American food is hyper-packaged. But I didn’t find a lot written about this. I found dozens of images and stats about wasted food, EPA links about the safety of American food packaging, an academic article about the dangers of food packaging, blog posts touting the benefits of frozen food because it reduces food waste and packaging waste, blog posts arguing against frozen food because it uses packaging, and a very weird look at edible food packaging. I did enjoy this person’s take on food packaging waste from a restaurant and to-go experience. And this is a great post about reducing packaging in your trash overall. But for the most part, I found no discussion of the average household’s waste based solely on food packaging.
Don’t mistake me – I don’t want meat to be handed to me without safe packaging. I don’t want my husband to have to (entirely) give up his potato chip addiction. And I don’t want to agonize when I am traveling and grab something to-go. Some waste is inevitable. But how much? What can I reasonably reduce? And what does the stack of trash on the floor say to me? Will changing the trash change the quality of what my family and I eat?
So as we move through the year and continue to collect our trash, there are three things I am going to work on and think about:
- remembering to bring my own to-go containers when we go out to eat – If I can help it, I’m never going to bring home a styrofoam box again. I’ll just stick the reusable container in the diaper bag with the rest of the weird paraphernalia that I, as a parent, daily tote around;
- making my own snacks – we had homemade cassava chips the other day and they were tasty. Perhaps it’s time to invest in a deep food fryer and a food dehydrator?:)
- and thinking about packaging in a bigger picture. There are three kinds of packaging waste: transit (pallets, etc. for moving packages around and storing them); secondary (the plastic and packaging holding the small packaging containers together); and primary (the packaging container itself). Buying local, buying direct, and buying in bulk as much as possible will help address food trash on multiple scales.
It’s a lot to think about. And I’m sure the next couple of months of travel will present their own challenges and lessons. I’ll report back this summer. Onward!