Waste Free in JP

…and other general life updates/efforts to create a sustainable life in the city!

It’s been almost exactly a year since I veered (very happily, willingly, and rather desperately) off the path towards medicine and into the world of food.  It’s weird to think that it was only one year ago I had just quit my EMT job, sitting at home and wondering what on earth I would do next.  I still remember the incredible liberation I felt once I realized that my passions for food and sustainability could be more than just hobbies.

It can be easy to forget how much progress I’ve made, but it’s times like these that I’m grateful I keep an obsessively-detailed personal journal full of rambling, half-cursive scribbles where I can be reminded so easily of the journey this past year has been.

Professionally, I launched myself into the world of food waste and have discovered that this is what I want to dedicate my career towards.  That’s no small feat, especially for me!! If you know me at all, you know that I constantly contemplate what I want to do with my life, where I’m headed next, and how I’m going to get there.   A year ago I knew I wanted to do something with food, but had no idea what.  The fact that I have narrowed it down to this one focus area since then is a very big deal for me, and speaks mountains about the progress I’ve made this past year.

My projects involving food sustainability at work are flourishing, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to see such tangible impacts: I see the leftovers, undesirables, soon-to-be-expired or already expired (yet perfectly edible) food that could have been wasted and left to rot in the landfill, and I have comfort in knowing that it’s instead being delivered to someone who needs it and will use it.  All those pounds of delicious fresh pasta, lumpy deformed potatoes, and “expired” chocolate (the idea that chocolate could ever expire is so ridiculous to me) are being eaten and enjoyed, as they were intended.

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An example of our beautiful daily donations!

It was inevitable that something I am so passionate about professionally has started to impact my life outside of work as well.  And this lies within the sustainable world of wasting less…of everything.

A few months back I came across this article about a woman who fit four years of trash into one jar.  FOUR. YEARS.  Think about how much trash you produce in a year, let alone a single week.  If you’re like me when I first read this, I wasn’t actually quite sure how much I produced…but now I was curious.

I took out my phone and started a new note, jotting down any sources of potential waste as I mentally walked through my day.  I already recycle and compost as much as possible, but there were still a few things ending up in the trash that I could easily prevent; things like paper towels, tea bag wrappers, receipts, small things here and there.  It was comforting to see that the list was short, but the few leftovers on the list were a direct and targeted way to show how I could improve even more.

For example, we already have reusable cloth napkins and rags in the kitchen, so was there really any reason for me to use paper towels, other than the fact that they were there, easy to grab, and I was probably just being lazy?  I could buy one of those reusable tea strainers for loose-leaf tea and cut out wrappers entirely, and I’ve already gotten a lot better at saying ‘no receipt, please’ when possible (especially necessary at CVS, sheesh).

Slowly this list has gotten smaller and smaller, and now I find myself incredibly conscious each and every time I go to throw something in the trash.  I just think: does this absolutely need to go here, and if it does, how can I replace it with something that does not?

To me the term ‘waste’ brings to mind the feeling of guilt.  It’s so easy to get caught in a routine, simply because it’s the easy thing to do, and yet you know what you’re doing, as you’re doing it, is unproductive or in this case, bad for the environment.   Even if you’re consciously aware of it, it can be hard to get yourself out of the habit.

Yes, trying to live with zero waste requires some time and attention, but a lot of wasting less comes down to small changes that make it easier for yourself…and for others!  Living with roommates or family members who may/may not be as conscious of the environment has shown me how you can take little steps to make it easy for everyone to contribute…even if they’re not fully aware of it 😉

Composting
One of the best, and easiest, things I’ve done to waste less is by starting to compost – and yes, it is possible, and very easy, to do in the city!  Luckily Boston is pretty environmentally-friendly, especially the neighborhood I live in (pretty proud of the ‘waste free in JP’ title), and so it was easy for me to sign our house up for a compost service.

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Bootstrap Compost was born in Jamaica Plain, and you can find their white vans driving around the city, picking up small white compost buckets off doorsteps in the Greater Boston area.  We signed up for a bimonthly service which is plenty for our household of 4, and comes down to only $6 a person per month.  Over the course of two weeks our bucket compiles our fruit and veggie trimmings, eggshells, teabags, coffee grounds, even meat and dairy leftovers.  It’s strangely satisfying to watch it fill up, and we joke about feeding it like it’s our own pet…weird, I know.  It can be impractical to start your own compost pile in your backyard if you live in the city (hello rats), so this is a great alternative that makes the whole process incredibly easy: just leave it on your doorstep, and a new empty bucket magically takes its place.

Some other great sources for composting in Boston:

Plus, a cool server to find compost pickups anywhere in the country!

How to easily maximize the use of your compost bin: keep it in your kitchen where it’s visible and staring you in the face as you make your meals.  Some compost bins aren’t sealed tightly enough and can smell, but get yourself a bucket with a solid lid and you won’t even notice it is there.  As I’m cooking I like to set another bowl on the table to collect all the scraps and trimmings, so that it’s as easy as opening the lid and dumping the bowl when you’re done.  If your housemates are contributing to the cost, they’ll hopefully be more motivated to actually use it!

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Keep an empty bowl nearby as you cook to collect scraps

Another added benefit: composting combined with recycling results in less smelly trash (no more food scraps sitting there for weeks), less trash overall (aka fewer trips lugging heavy trash bags out to the dumpster), and fewer trash bags used (aka less money spent on new bags, and less trash bags in the trash).  It’s such an easy way to get started and has so many positive downstream effects on the path of wasting less, of everything.

Recycling
I had a not-so-proud moment a few months back that consisted of a rather furious, rage-filled morning of fishing take-out containers, solo cups, and paper plates from our overflowing trash bin leftover from a party at our house the night before.  These were all perfectly recyclable items, so yes, I went through the trash.  It can be frustrating to live with others who aren’t as conscious about these habits, but like I said:  there are ways to make things easier for everyone.

For example, in my own household I noticed that a lot of our toiletries were ending up in the bathroom trash bin, mostly because we didn’t have a recycling bin there.  Even something as small as the trip to the bin downstairs can result in unnecessary waste.  So I put one of our spare Trader Joe’s paper bags next to the garbage to collect toilet paper rolls, shampoo and toothpaste bottles, etc. and voila, one more hurdle defeated, however small. 

Luckily recycling has become pretty commonplace; wouldn’t it be great if composting were next?

Being smart in the market and creative in the kitchen
The best way to cut down on food waste specifically is to avoid creating excess in the first place.  This comes down to only buying what you need, when you need it.  The Eat Local Challenge revealed a lot about my shopping habits, and one of my takeaways was to stop buying too many fresh items in one trip.  I’ve realized that, just based on my habits, I prefer making one meal at a time rather than meal planning, and things tend to go bad before I can use them all if I buy too much at once.

This can be really hard for me as I walk through the store with this or that recipe popping up in my mind, and being confronted with so many delicious fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads, EVERYTHING that I want to try.  But I’ve started going into the store with the mindset: what do I want to make for dinner tonight and tomorrow, not for the entire week?  At least for me it’s luckily not necessary to think this far in advance, and I’ve found that I’m able to use more and waste less when I shop this way.

It also comes down to purchasing items that have little to no packaging, or items that have recyclable/compostable packaging when possible.  I’ve stopped using those little plastic bags for produce and just put them right in the cart – it will give you more motivation to give them a nice scrub before eating.   I also love, love that Boston has finally banned the use of plastic bags – yay, pretty reusable grocery bags!

When you get home and start cooking, try to use as much of the ingredient as possible, and if you can, create something new from scraps or trimmings.  This can actually be a lot of fun: it causes you to be creative and rethink some of your favorite dishes.  Pesto has become a common trend as a way of using bits of greens and herbs (carrot-top pesto and kale pesto are some of my favorites), but something even more obvious is using stale bread to make breadcrumbs, bread pudding, or thicken soup.

Speaking of soup: I can’t think of a better vehicle for food scraps.  The other day I was roasting some asparagus when soup came to mind.  We typically chop off the bottom 1/4 of asparagus due to its tough structure, but there’s still so much wonderful flavor trapped in those stems.  I added them to a pot along with some chicken broth, a chopped white onion, some peeled carrots (along with their peels), and simmered it all away with some thyme.  While the stems and carrot peels ended up in the compost at the end, their flavor was extracted up until the very end and added a whole other level to the broth.  I was beyond grateful to have it in my freezer a few weeks later when I came down with the stomach bug and needed some nutritious broth ASAP (it cured me, I swear).

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Veggie scraps make an amazing, flavorful broth

While we’re on the subject of soup, never ever throw away those leftover parmesan rinds.  Store them in your freezer and the next time you’re making a broth, throw them in to add delicious, cheesy, savory flavor…they’re gold.

These are just some little tricks that I’ve started to use in my kitchen to prevent food waste, and I’m learning more every day as I experiment with new ingredients.  The next time you go to throw out some food scraps, challenge yourself to think if you can reinvent them.  If banana peels can be made into chutney, anything is possible!!

Food waste, at the level it is at today, is a modern phenomenon.  Some of the most traditional recipes were made out of necessity, using only what was leftover in an attempt to preserve the last bits, really as a way to survive on what was left.

Preventing food waste comes down to treating an ingredient with respect.  Chef Massimo Bottura says that “by making resourceful even something that we usually throw away, you’re making visible the invisible.” When you utilize an ingredient from beginning to end, you pay homage to the land, animals, and people that invested their time and energy in its creation.  While a ripe, crisp apple or an aged piece of cheese may seem like a simple and trivial thing, in reality that piece of food took a lot of time and energy to create: from the warm sun that helped it grow, to the grass that fed the cow’s whose milk created that creamy flavorful cheese.  It’s our job to pay respect to these natural processes by paying attention to how we use our food, and to make sure that we’re using it to the fullest.

So I mentioned I wanted to waste less of everything.  So far I’ve just mentioned physical items, but I’ll briefly mention something I want to waste less of that isn’t as tangible.

From a more personal standpoint, I want to waste less time.  Especially with the weather lately (i.e. the sun long since set by the time I get out of work, the frigid cold that makes my hair freeze and my shoulders tighten), I want nothing more than to snuggle up inside and watch TV.  I love me a good Netflix-binge once in a while, but I’m also constantly aware of the hours better spent doing something else.  I could be reading all those beautiful cookbooks I own or walking to the library to immerse myself in some good fiction, breaking out my guitar and working on building those calluses on my fingers, or doing anything else that requires a little more stimulation than zoning out in front of a screen.  I could be writing more on this blog!  This particular post has been on my mind for months now, and I’m just now getting myself to finally sit down and write.

Sometimes it can take a lot of effort to get myself to do the things I’m actually passionate about, or that I want to get better at.  It’s easier to do the things we’re used to or more comfortable doing (like plopping down in front of the TV, or throwing the take-out container in the trash rather than rinsing it out and putting it in the recycling bin), but that doesn’t mean we should keep doing these things.  It’s just about being more conscious, and thinking, “Is what I’m doing productive and good (for myself, others, and the environment)?”

Living sustainably is all about making small changes.  The easier you make it for yourself and others, the more it will occur.

And who knows when your habits will rub off on others!  Case in point: I was so proud to wake up Christmas morning and see that my mom had made her own reusable bags for our presents (using adorable festive prints, thanks Joann Fabrics).  And I’m happy to say that my our compost bin is now full thanks to my roommates.

Who knows if I’ll ever get down to a mason jar’s-worth of trash, but I can try 🙂

What do you think you’re wasting in your daily routine?  Try making your own list, whether it consists of items that are physical, abstract, or both.  I’d love to hear from you all about your own journeys and suggestions on the path to zero-waste!

For those of you from Boston, have you come across any zero-waste stores or businesses?

 

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