I’ve posted about a couple my pet peeves before, but this one has been brewing on the back burner for awhile. It’s only tangentially related to chickens, but important all the same so I hope you’ll stick with me.
More than half a lifetime ago, I worked as a receiver at a chain department store selling clothes, toiletries, housewares and specialty food items. One of my jobs was to go through the shelves, refrigerators and freezers to remove everything that had reached the best before date and put them in the dumpster. As you can imagine, that meant throwing away all kinds of perfectly edible – and not inexpensive – food into the garbage. It broke my heart, went against the grain of everything I believed in, and I just couldn’t do it.
Each day before my shift ended I packed up imported cheeses, meats, tin goods and biscuits, placed them in a plastic carrier bag and hung them on a hook in the walk-in dumpster. And each evening, I walked around the building, unhooked the bag and took it home. I ate some of it, but gave most of it away to a college retraining program for women, many of them single parents. My employer provided many free lunches for those families without ever knowing it.
Those were the days before the 1994 legislation which allowed for Canadian grocery stores to donate food without fear of liability.
In the early 1990s I worked at a community organization dealing with street-involved youth. We provided several programs involving food, some of which we got as an institutional member from a large food bank. As the staff person involved I was able to choose things from a list and picked them up from a massive downtown warehouse. I was amazed at both the sheer amount of food and the thought that, previously, it all would have been tossed in the garbage.
Verb: use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.
Adjective: material, substance, or by-product eliminated or discarded as no longer useful or required after the completion of a process.
Noun: an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.
I am both a volunteer at, and a recipient of, a food recovery program in my community, Gabriola Island. The local grocery store has partnered with a non-profit to pick up unsold produce, dairy products and bread. In 2018, they diverted 26,000 kgs. of food from the landfill (in a community of 4000 people with one grocery store).
Six days a week it gets sorted by volunteers into three streams: people or animal food and compost. I do the Saturday pick up and take it to my friends, Thomas and Elizabeth, where we also sort it into three streams. They keep the compost, we split the animal food and anyone is welcome to pick up the people food from their front porch. We have advertised via word-of-mouth as well as have a listserv which gets sent out each day with the highlights of what we have available.
We’ve become acutely aware of a few things in our months of sorting. Judging from the labels lots of what we eat is imported, and from far away – Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, California, New Zealand – even things that we could grow here, or at least, closer to here. It’s apparent that we don’t shop and cook with seasonal or local food, but like the convenience of eating what we want, when we want it. The carbon footprint of all that imported food is huge.
When you factor in the cost of growing, transporting, marketing and selling food it makes you wonder what are the true costs of producing food. I routinely pick up 7-9 large totes of food every Saturday. Some of it consists of trimmings (i.e. green onion or celery tops, outer lettuce leaves), but much of it is perfectly edible food. And all of it, just a few short years ago, would have ended up in the landfill. In many places it still does. Apparently, that is the cost of doing business.
When sorting food into the different streams we remove all the packaging. Until you do that week after week with literally thousands of pounds of food you might not be as aware how much of our food is labelled or wrapped with what often gets thrown in the garbage. Fruits and vegetables have plastic stickers that don’t decompose (I know because I’m constantly picking stray ones out of my chicken pen); vegetables are contained in film plastic wrapping, twist ties, elastic bands, plastic clips, mesh netting – all of which have to be removed and disposed of.
My chickens are the happy recipients of salad kits – you know, those salads for busy folks – a plastic box with greens, a plastic fork and condiments such as dried fruit, nuts or seeds, grated cheese, salad dressing – all of them neatly packaged in their own individual plastic wrapping. One salad might include five or six plastic items. What irks me, is even the organic products are presented with the same amount of plastic packaging as the others.
After sorting, I take the totes home to rinse out and return to the grocery store. Then I have the task of sorting through the waste: twist ties and elastic bands get reused and any plastic that can be recycled gets washed and taken to our local recycling centre. If we get a large number of plastic clamshell containers the waste can fill my recycling bin. We spend considerable time and effort just dealing with the packaging and finding ways to reuse or recycle it. Unfortunately lots of it – cutlery, straws, film plastics and labels – ends up in the garbage.
Sometimes the produce is packed in cardboard banana boxes. They can be recycled, but better yet reused. Thomas and Elizabeth use them to store the food recovery items or their kindling. When the boxes start to break down they flatten them and lay them on their garden paths to deter weeds. Over time, they’ll decompose and turn into compost.
We can complain about waste at the corporate level, but most food waste actually happens with the consumer, folks like you and me. How often do you open your vegetable crisper or yoghurt container to discover a science experiment in the making? My parents’ generation made meals based on what was in their cupboard or fridge. We’re more finicky, turning up our noses at leftovers and allowing things to go bad without using them. Chicken keepers can feel a bit less guilty because our birds happily eat up our stale bread, wilting greens and the leftovers we can’t face for the third time.
In the last year or so, I’ve noticed that some brands of chicken feed bags are now made of plastic. I’m sure they are more durable and waterproof than paper, but I’ve never had an issue with the old style and I refuse to buy them. It’s great that folks are repurposing the feed bags by making shopping bags and aprons or using them to store manure, but the vast majority of those bags end up in the ground.
A Note About Plastic Recyclables
I live in a small community (pop. 4000) where we have curb side pick-up for recyclables twice a month and a recycling centre and ReStore, open twice a week. In 2018, the recycling centre handled over 8000 kgs/18,000 lbs of plastic, not to mention tons of paper, metal, electronics, paint and car batteries. I had a chat with one of the staff and want to share two take-aways:
Myth #1: I always thought the triangular symbol with a number in the middle referred to the different types of recyclables. Turns out I have been duped. That symbol is used by the plastics industry to identify polymer content in the product and has nothing to do with whether it can, or will, be recycled.
Myth #2: Just because your dispose of your recyclables in the recommended way (curbside bin, return to a recycling centre) does not mean that they will be recycled. In fact, much of it will not be recycled due to logistics and expense.
#1, the highest grade is most likely to be made into more #1 plastic products and textiles like polar fleece. #2 is widely recycled by melting it down into plastic pellets for future use. #4 (film plastics) can be made into plastic wood and #3, #5-7 are often not recycled, but burned in waste to energy projects.
It’s easy to look around and think that our problems are insurmountable. They may be vast and complicated, but we can all do things that have an impact at the local level. The old motto ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ has now been expanded to include ‘Rethink, Refuse, Repair and Repurpose’.
Do we need all the stuff we have? As I get older my expenditures are more often equated with hours of work. Do I want that item which represents half a day’s pay? The answer is increasingly ‘no’. I’m a big proponent of freecycling and have been on the receiving end of loads of freebies in my chicken endeavours: building materials, first aid supplies, waterers and feeders, crates and even birds.
There are things that all of us can do, big and small, each and every day to reduce the impact we have on the planet:
- Avoid single use items – plastic bags, straws, take-out containers, paper coffee cups, plastic lunch bags.
- Buy what you need, eat what you have & compost what your chickens won’t eat.
- Use more sustainable items whenever you can. I never use the Keurig machine at work, instead opting for the conventional coffee maker, unbleached filters and my own ceramic mug.
- Fill a reusable water bottle from your tap instead of buying bottled water.
- Use a travel mug for take-out coffee.
- I use rechargeable batteries in my computer’s cordless mouse and keyboard, my camera, Christmas lights, emergency flashlights and even my chickens’ automatic door opener. I was fortunate to find a recharger and a dozen batteries – all still good – in the free pile at a garage sale.
- Switch over to longer-lasting light bulbs.
- Replace dryer sheets with reusable wool balls.
- Repurpose silica gel packs: put them anywhere where you’re trying to avoid moisture (i.e. with old photos, with your tools, rice or sugar, and drying out your wet cell phone).
- Twice a year my community hosts a Fix-It Fair where volunteers offer to repair computers, lamps, vacuum cleaners and other household items. I’ve taken my weed whacker there – twice – and extended its life, while saving me the hassle and money of trying to find someone to repair it.
- Choose items with less packaging. Talk to your store manager about reducing their packaging.
- Buy second-hand.
- Organize a clothing swap with friends and family.
- Use net bags for bulk items and reusable bags instead of taking plastic carrier bags from the store.
- Divert what you can from the landfill.
- Give items you no longer need to friends, family, charities or non-profit organizations.
- Set up a Little Free Library to circulate books once you’re read them.
- Recycle your paper, plastics, glass and tins. If you don’t have a recycling program in your community lobby your local government to implement one.
- Find ways to reduce waste in your workplace. I take home the shredded paper to use in chicken transport boxes (I tried using it as bedding in the coop, but found my birds ate it). I also take home our compostables (coffee grounds/filters/paper cups, napkins, fruit peels) and put them in my roadside green bin for weekly pick up.
- Arrange with a local restaurant to pick up their spent coffee grounds and vegetable peelings for your compost or animals.
- Contact your local grocery stores and organize your own food recovery program.
Some of these actions might seem like a drop in the bucket, but they represent incremental shifts in attitude. When I was a kid we spit our gum in the street and tossed candy wrappers on the ground. I don’t, we don’t, do that anymore. We all have the power to influence our small circle: friends, family, co-workers and the community we live in. We also have a responsibility to use the power of our votes and influence change at the at both the local and larger level. Whatever you choose to do all your actions for progressive change are a move in the right direction.