Take a deep breath.
Now imagine this united moment: home kitchens, cafés, bistros, all-you-can-eat buffets, school cafeterias, churches, mosques, temples, food trucks, convention centers, the white house, hospitals, fast food restaurants, and food courts at the mall gather all of the leftover food…and dump it.
Flump, crsshh, trasshh!
The headwaters of Food River. Every person in the United States contributes to this monumental feature of our landscape, but not many do what we are about to do next: follow it.
The first droplets quickly become rivulets that condense into larger white and black plastic bags temporarily held in cans in kitchens and behind buildings. As the food eddies begin to swirl, rise, and gain momentum, the surface tension increases, threatening, and occasionally succeeding, to spill over its banks. To avoid a food flood, the swelling leftovers are gathered and dumped into garbage truck basins. Their motors rumble, mechanical arms lift, dump, compact and intensify the food flow.
Now imagine these fleets of garbage trucks passing by your house, 300 every hour, on their way to the transfer station, like they do in the south Bronx. Imagine the sound. The smell. In a matter of days, Food River swiftly roils into mighty rapids, rushing down a cascading ladder of larger and larger containers until it crashes against its final destination, a massive, rotting food wave mixed with other trash, engulfed forever by a landfill where it will finally lay still, stagnant, and belch 15% of the nation’s annual methane emissions into the air.
Unlike other rivers, Food River is under no threat of running dry. It courses through restaurants, houses, and neighborhoods, carrying 38 million tons of food waste to landfills every year. If we convert those 38 million tons into gallons, it would replace all of the water going over Niagara Falls for an entire month. We could survive a trip over the massive food-fall in a dumpster.
Pause your imagination for just a couple more Food River facts. It carries enough uneaten food to feed 190 million people—every day. And even though it consists primarily of food, that food carries water. Twenty-five percent of the freshwater in the United States is used to grow food that never gets eaten.
Ugh, numbers! They tell one kind of story, they quantify ‘how much,’ they get baked into pies and charts, but they do not scrape food into a compost bucket instead of a garbage can. Statistics do not build worm bins. Numbers do not dig a hole in the compost pile, dump leftovers in, and cover it up again. Numbers weigh on us, numb us, are quickly forgotten, like food waste.
But the more we throw away, the less chance we have to begin again. Food River’s current course forfeits the potential life locked up in all that organic matter. A massive amount of useful nutrients that can transform the future of food and soil and bugs and butterflies and humans.
So let’s begin with the end, with what is left, and break down into our elemental parts, our elemental selves, into the dirt and the dust, down and down until our cheeks touch the soil and our noses smell the earth and we can no longer bear to waste it. So far to the end that it becomes the beginning. Soil is food, food is soil. Let’s jumpstart into numberless, new cycles.
The water cycle: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, sublimation.
The soil cycle: food waste collection, decomposition, application, invigoration.
Compost piles are the clouds of the soil cycle.
Leftovers, one of the country’s greatest wastes, is ripe to be one of our greatest natural resources. There is an inexplicable beauty and harmony here. A beautiful equation that simply needs balancing. We need to take these leftovers and deposit them not into the landfill, but back into the soil. We need compost. And to do that, we have to divert the great Food River into our own backyards.
Take a deep breath.
Dinner: made, served, shared, savored, coaxed into a few picky eaters’ mouths, cleared and stacked into plate cairns on the counter. The last thing anyone wants to do now is add more chores. It is done. Scraped. Rinsed. Let the garbage truck take it away and out of reach and sight and smell. Take it away. Take it away and never think of that last bite of bagel with cream cheese, the pickle juice in the empty jar, the crunchy rice or coconut curry beginning to split. Especially not the mildewed dinner roll or long forgotten yogurt with flecks of gray-green mold from the depths of the fridge. These are the leftovers that cannot be fluffed into something new. Leftovers destined for a plastic lined and lidded future. For the great and ever flowing Food River.
Not this time.
This time, dump them, place them, scrape them, scoop them all into a compost bin kept under your sink (or in my case, often on the counter) with glee, curiosity, thankfulness, and maybe a little bit of rebellious flair. Those smelly leftovers have a future now, a mysteriously quiet and captivating journey to new life in your yard or garage or, dare I say it, custom made coffee table that doubles as a worm bin.
Yes! Your leftovers have potential, a purpose, somewhere left to go, something left to do, and it has the power to transform the earth and us at the same time.
This blog explores many ways to divert food’s fluvial course from the headwaters of your plate to the rich compost delta in your backyard.
Let’s make clouds of compost.