"In this world," Benjamin Franklin once said, "nothing is certain but death and taxes."
Face it, human beings are trash machines--incapable of consuming anything without creating a pile of garbage seemingly twice the volume of the product. The United States now produces more than 400,000 tons of trash a day and space is running out--landfills are overflowing, waterways are clogged and beaches are becoming lethal playgrounds.
In 1986, the total solid waste in this country added up to 160 million tons--a full 8% of which came directly from the kitchen as food waste. There are 16,400 landfills nationally, half of which are expected to close by the year 2000.
The one landfill that serves the District of Columbia and suburban Virginia is expected to be completely filled in the year 2003. The landfill for Montgomery County, Md., will be filled in this May. (A new application has been submitted to extend capacity until 2004.)
How can you help break the wave of trash?
According to Eric A. Goldstein, senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, three steps can be taken to substantially alleviate food-generated garbage.
How to Make Compost
First, he says, "to take a nice hunk out of the problem, people should set up composting programs in their back yards." Composting, the degradation process brought about by bacteria and fungus organisms, can effectively turn organic kitchen and garden refuse into a moist black soil conditioner. And, even apartment dwellers with balconies can compost, according to Pegi Ballister-Howells of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension for Middlesex County, Va.
To start composting, the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service suggests laying small twigs or chopped corn stalks down first to aid in aeration and drainage. Then, add both garden (yard waste accounts for a full 18% of landfill mass) and kitchen refuse such as husks, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells and canning wastes. Next, add a layer of a nitrogen-rich material such as fresh manure or fresh grass clippings, hay or green weeds (you can buy synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the form of blood meal or cottonseed meal). Do not add meat--it will attract rodents. Water the pile to keep the contents moist. If you smell a strong whiff of ammonia, the pile is either too tightly packed or too wet. Turn the heap, add some coarser material for aeration and start over. Every three or four weeks, fork over the pile, pushing outside material to the inside so that everything breaks down.
As for the apartment method, here's how: Take a black (color is important because it absorbs heat) plastic bag, fill it three-quarters full with cooking and plant refuse (again only vegetable refuse; meat products could attract rodents), add a nitrogen product and fill with water (it will not decompose if dry). Set out on the balcony--it needs the sunlight--and poke holes in the bag to let the water drain out. "Every once in a while," suggests Ballister-Howells, "when you walk past, you can give the bag a kick, it moves things around and aerates it." If the bag loses its oxygen, she says, anaerobic bacteria will flourish and things will begin to get smelly.
A second trash-reducing idea, according to Goldstein, is to be sensitive to waste in your shopping decisions. According to a report by Worldwatch Institute, an independent non-profit research organization, packaging accounts for about 30% of the weight and 50% of the volume of household waste.
"The packaging explosion has gone too far," says Goldstein. "We don't need to wrap something in one layer, then rewrap in a bigger layer, and then put it in a plastic bag--this is an area where consumers can make a big difference." The amount of packaging for food doubled, even tripled, after World War II, says Goldstein. In 1958, the per-capita consumption of packaging material in New York State was 404 pounds per year. By 1986, it had risen to 800 pounds. "Advertisers and marketing experts have assumed, and in some cases it's true, that packaging sells." So make sure, he says, that you're buying for the product, not the package.
One obvious answer, says Goldstein, is bulk-food shopping. It not only benefits the consumer in price reduction and the environment in waste reduction, he says, it also benefits the producers themselves in overhead reduction--they spend less on packaging, they lose less in the profit corner. "When I'm in the market," says Goldstein, the bulk-food aisle is "the most heavily populated aisle--as the 1990s approach that will be an important trend emerging."
According to a May 1987 article in Supermarket Business News, bulk food is, in fact, declining, as many supermarkets cut back on the number of items available or cut out the program completely. Safeway, which started its bulk-food program in 1983, sees no great increase or decrease in the number of people who shop from the bins. It has what Ann Cockrell of Safeway calls a stabilized customer base.
Take Your Own Bag
A third contribution: Bring a satchel. Follow European shopping fashion and take your own bag to the store. "It's stupid when you go to get something that is already packaged to dump it into another plastic bag. Then when you get home you unpack bags, and they're all strewn all over the kitchen, you realize that the products you bought make up just under half of the total volume."
Other shopping decisions might include insisting on recyclable cardboard (rather than Styrofoam) egg cartons, reaching for milk in the paper (rather than plastic) cartons and asking for paper bags when checking out.
Currently, Safeway and Giant offer the choice of paper or plastic. At Safeway in the second quarter of 1988, customers chose plastic over paper 3 to 1. In an effort to do its bit for the environment, Safeway is testing at its Vancouver stores a photodegradable plastic bag that breaks down into fragments when exposed to light and eventually reduces to carbon monoxide and water.
Giant places its plastic-paper bag ratio at 60%-40% in favor of plastic. It has not yet incorporated a photodegradable bag in its stores, preferring for the moment to research bags that can decompose without sunlight--something Mark Roeder of Giant says will be more useful in an area served mostly by landfills.
Recycling should come back full force, says Goldstein, to help combat the trash problem. And according to a national poll of 1,000 adults taken by Penn & Schoen Associates, 91% said they would be willing to pay a few cents more for products packaged in recyclable or biodegradable material.
"In World War II, we had a lot more recycling because of the need to preserve precious metals for the war." Then as materials returned to abundance, we became extravagant, Goldstein noted. "The legacy of the postwar era, while being a very productive era for us, is that we became a throw-away society."
Olga Sweeney of US Recycling Centers Inc. in Rockville and Hagerstown, Md., says many residents have gotten the message. When she opened the center in 1986 in Rockville, 40 people showing up on Saturdays was considered good. In the last few months, the number of people has quadrupled. "Recycling is very suddenly big business. And I think it's because that garbage barge from New York scared a lot of people," she said. (Call your local Extension service or look in your local Yellow Pages for nearby recycling centers.)
Items to separate from your garbage and recycle include glass bottles and jars, aluminum beverage cans, foil, aluminum pie plates from frozen foods, cardboard, brown paper bags and newspaper. Recycling of paper is especially important as it is the largest single component in landfill waste--taking up 36%.
A word about plastic.
It makes up 7% of the municipal solid waste. And only 1% of it currently being recycled. The most widely recycled plastic product is the soft-drink container--20% of which is being recycled. In an attempt to reduce plastic waste in New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo declared in March that his administration would begin phasing out the use of Styrofoam cups and other unbiodegradable plastic food containers at several of the state parks and beaches.
Packaging Helps, Too
Of course, food packaging is not all bad. Much of it has allowed us longer storage time on certain foods. Says Lenus Barnes, chief of the Solid Waste Regulation and Collection Section of Montgomery County, Md.: "I remember when there wasn't a lot of packaging, when my mother would have to throw out things that nowadays we could have stored a longer period of time and have consumed."
But gone are the days of the American Indian who used every last scrap of the buffalo he killed.
Says Goldstein: "Now garbage is excessive and a very expensive proposition. Disposal fees have in some cases doubled because we are running out of landfill space. Incinerators have their own environmental problems and are very expensive--in fact, sometimes the single most expensive decision a community will have to make."
What makes economic and environmental sense in the end, concludes Goldstein, is recycling and waste reduction through responsible buying.