I grew up on a small family farm in South Georgia. Small family farm is code for hard work and community. On our farm, we didn’t own all the farm equipment we needed, nor did the surrounding farmers, but collectively we organized and shared resources and when it came time to harvest, everyone worked together as a community. Working together for the success of all: to me, that’s community. You take care of each other, you take care of the land and it will take care of you.
I remember one time when my aunt brought plastic plates and cups for a big family dinner. Afterwards, I was in the kitchen with my grandmother and she was washing all of those disposables products. My aunt stared at my grandmother with a mixture of shock and exasperation on her face. After a deep, pregnant pause she finally she said, “Why are you washing those? I bought those so you wouldn’t have to work so hard after the big meal.” My grandmother, true to her Great Depression roots, said “we don’t throw away perfectly good things.” The single use lifestyle wasn’t my family’s culture.
I worked full time in the restaurant industry while attending college and was active in many extracurricular activities. I needed things to be fast, convenient and in many cases: disposable. I moved away from considering the value of things beyond a fleeting, single use. If my blender broke I bought a new one and threw the broken, but fixable, one away. Like many of us, I actively fostered a disposable, single-use lifestyle because I didn’t have to pay the full lifecycle cost of these items: someone or somewhere else did. I slowly accepted these changes from how I grew up and didn’t realize just how far I had transitioned from the culture where things had value.
But life has a funny way of catching up on you and while working in the dining facility at a large university in urban Atlanta, I found myself more and more interested in understanding food waste and how to reduce it. Composting wasn’t an option, but technology was! Our campus purchased one of the first university bio-digesters, which processed food waste into nutrient rich water within 24 hours. This digester is a large stainless steel container that sits out on the back dock. You open the lid and inside are pellets where the microbes live that digest the food waste. You open the lid, toss in the organic waste and it’s periodically turned to jump start the digestion process. It was so cool and I just knew we were on the right track to zero waste. But alas, one hot Georgia weekend a bar towel was accidentally tossed into the digester and the chemicals in the towel killed all the microbes. That mistake left us with a 1/2 ton of spoiled food waste sitting in the Georgia sun. Not a magical solution after all.
There were, however, some triumphs we didn’t anticipate. The bio-digester led people to reevaluate their own habits. One employee started a group of women at her local church that would mend cloths for the homeless instead of tossing them in the garbage. Another started taking home vegetable scraps for her backyard chickens. The next thing I knew two other employees decided to raise chickens, too. Unintended positive outcomes, related to reducing waste.
So you can see that the digester was the impetus to consider alternative solutions, to help others, to have positive impact. It was just like how farmers helped each other when I was growing up but yet here it was waste that facilitated the creation of community culture. This was a great success but ultimately the digester wasn’t the best answer. But it did get me thinking…why not focus on the top so we can reduce waste before we ever have to deal with it.
This was in 2010. We researched and found a company that provided a waste measurement program. It educated, inspired and incentivized all while providing systems, processes, results and follow-through. We reduced pre-consumer food waste by over 40%, identified financial savings and created some passionate advocates focused on waste reduction. It was a great program that we grew over the years but was only a drop in the bucket.
Fast forward to today. My passion for reducing food waste has grown with each small step. I think concentrating on the development of an integrated system for waste that communicates with all of our management programs and is simple for our onsite food service managers to operate would be a great solution for food waste reduction. If you compliment that technology system and processes with education and incentives we should have a perfect culture of waste. That is the golden ticket right? Or is it? I mean at one point I thought the answer was the digester, then the waste measurement system. There were many other solutions that didn’t even make the cut. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t just one answer but many answers.
We’ll get some things right. Some things we might not get right but we won’t stop trying. I know my grandparents would provide that same advice so I won’t stop trying to take positive action in my community – this Earth. My advice to you is don’t lose sight of what you are trying to achieve and don’t be afraid to try multiple solutions – in your home, your office, your school, your business, your community? Where ever you can make an impact and inspire others to do the same.
Christy Cook is the Director of Sustainability for Sodexo.