Breaking the bad habit of food waste: We are the problem

Today, when we hear about the environmental atrocities such as global warming, animal extinction, coral reef destruction, air pollution, loss of natural resources (the list can go on and on) we tend to pin the cause on big businesses, corporations, and nations. It’s easy to feel detached from the responsibility to treat the earth with respect or to adopt sustainable practices because, to be honest, what good is it going to do for one person to recycle or quit driving their car to work? What sort of impact is that going to make if big businesses are still pumping tons and tons of CO2 into the air daily? Yet I contest that it’s exactly this sort of attitude which is the most destructive force, not big businesses. And when it comes to human consumption, especially food, it gets even more personal.

Food is a contentious subject [i]. In the past few years there’s been a huge food fight going on in our culture [i] and much of it stems from our bad habits as Americans of eating too much, buying too much, throwing away too much, and demanding foods that simply don’t make sense for human wellness, not to mention the health of our environment. Part of the problem is that we humans have lost touch with where our food comes from and where it ought to go. What do I mean by this? Well, let me show you some statistics first.

Mairin 1Americans are extremely wasteful, especially when it comes to food. As a country, we produce twice as much food as we need. We toss away 40% of all our edible food. That’s 33 million tons of food, or about 600 pounds of food per person, which equals $165 billion worth of food each year, or, $1350 worth of food annually for the average U.S. family. We like to eat, but unfortunately, we’re pretty bad at doing this well and it has a HUGE negative impact on our nation, both environmentally and economically.

Mairin 2As a student here at UST, I was curious to see what sort of food consumption and waste habits students have on campus, and what better way to check this out than to visit the dining services staff of the View in the Anderson Student Center? So, I sat down with four lead staff and I interviewed them about UST food preparation and food waste. I was impressed with the View’s sustainability initiatives and surprised at who seems to be behind it. Many of these initiatives have not been put into action due to pressure from UST student consumers, but rather from the student workers inside dining services who see firsthand the massive amount of food and water waste each day. Here’s some of what I learned from my visit:

  • Mairin 3UST Dining Services has been recycling food waste for 20 years, with all post-prep food waste going to feed pigs at Barthold Farms in Minnesota
  • The View serves about 2500 meals a day and typically fills about 8 garbage bins full of food waste each day
  • When the View goes tray-less, there is 38% less food waste and only 5 bins end up filled by the end of the day. This reduces the total food waste by nearly 500 lbs. and saves 1,100 gallons of fresh water in one day.

Not only does dining services care about food waste, but they also take recycling very seriously, having adopted practices for recycling all the cardboard, shrink wrap, tin cans, bottles, and even frying oil (which gets sent off to be made into biofuel). Overall, it’s safe to say that UST’s dining services is green “and getting greener.”

So, good job UST! You’re so green and you feed pigs with our food waste before it hits the dump, you make sure our oil becomes biofuel, you recycle stuff! I give you a gold star!

Or maybe not… Just last week, after attending a meeting at the library, I unintentionally took a glance at the contents of one of the waste bins and was shocked to see a couple containers holding half-eaten sandwiches and entirely uneaten buns and packages of butter! Another day later that week I glanced in the waste bin on the main floor of OEC building and saw another half-eaten beautiful croissant sandwich still in its container. Tragedy of tragedy! I wanted to reach right in there. Peeking into garbage cans on campus has become a strange new hobby of mine, and what I’ve seen has proven to be very revealing about the personal consumptive habits of UST students (and staff).

The food waste I saw in all these garbage cans helped me to realize that the problem of food waste isn’t solely in the institution, but in the individual. We students have terrible habits of consumption, and relying on dining services to be “green” and sustainable is not enough. Because if a person is still eating like an idiot and fostering bad habits of waste and materialism, all efforts for sustainability on the global scale really do mean nothing if our hearts aren’t in it. We need to allow ourselves to be converted into better consumers by changing the way we think and cutting the habits that lead to unnecessary waste [i]. If sustainability is going to work, we need to approach it holistically, namely, with our whole selves: heart, mind, and body.

Over the past few weeks of studying the economics of growth and the environment, I’ve noticed that a lot of the bad impacts (both globally and personally) have a lot to do not only with education and awareness, but also attitude and motivation. There was a study done in England a few years ago that surveyed 1600 residents in Devon to find out what keeps people from embracing the changes we’ve been talking about these many weeks. What they came up with was that we need to #1, change the way we’re talking about it (the language that we’re using) and #2, it needs to be a holistic lifestyle change in order to truly be effective.

I’ve come to see that this sort of lifestyle change needs better motivation than doom and gloom. It needs to be personal. So, where to start? Without sounding too preachy, here are some things to think about. Perhaps some of us might already consider ourselves pretty good at being concerned advocates for the environment… but is it a lifestyle yet? There are some things you CAN live without, and things you MUST live without. Here are some suggestions:

  • Compost (all those nutrient food scraps belong in the ground, not the garbage dump, so  keep a pail in the kitchen and regularly empty it into you outdoor compost bin)
  • Grow Food (all you need is a bit of earth, tomato seeds, water, sunlight, and presto! you have a tomato! Or many tomatoes…)
  • Can and Preserve (a skill I have yet to learn from my mother, but one worth the hard work! Learn how to can and preserve the goods that you’ve grown)Mairin 4
  • Transportation (walk, ride, carpool, take the bus, it’s easy- and getting easier- to get around without a personal vehicle in the city)
  • Clothing (simplicity. Do you really need that 5th pair of jeans? Try shopping at Goodwill next time, or save up to purchase quality clothing rather than a large quantity of clothing)
  • Leisure and Entertainment: unplug (rather than keeping the TV and computer on 24/7 for entertainment, go to the movies, read a book, play your clarinet, throw a Frisbee, fly a kite, use your imagination… there are so many things to do that don’t require energy)

Building good habits and nixing bad habits. It’s not easy to change, and I’m not saying that everyone should do all things all at once. Perhaps if we were able to commit to one change at a time, it will slowly build to a new way of life, a new “normal”. Which brings me to another thought: I’m beginning to see that the psychology of all this might be a matter of virtue and vice; perhaps the green movement and my Catholic faith have something in common [i]. Both call for a radical change (aka, conversion) in lifestyle, a complete 180 that employs our hearts, minds, and physical bodies; both advocate establishing a more right relationship with the natural world [i]. Therefore, I believe there is great wisdom in choosing a holistic lifestyle of sustainability, not for the far-off and incomprehensible benefit of future generations, but for the here, now, this. For the sake of a better life now which will inevitably mean a better life for your sons and daughters in the future.

Mairin 5I hope you are able to feel some optimism here too; though the negative impact of our global consumptive habits is daunting, there is an even greater value and merit in the individual effort to make personal lifestyle changes which, when collectively embraced, will change the world for the better. And with that, consider the words of Wendell Berry, American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer:

                                            “We have the world to live in on the condition                                                                                            that we will take good care of it.                                                                                                          And to take good care of it,                                                                                                                       we have to know it.                                                                                                                            And to know it and                                                                                                                      to be willing to take care of it,                                                          we have to love it.”

[i] [ii] Thompson, Dr. Christopher. Class Lecture. Paths, Expressions and Practices of Catholic Spirituality. University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. 27 February 2014.

I0819340About the author: Mairin Bierer is a senior Catholic Studies major and Art History minor at the University of St. Thomas


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One Response to Breaking the bad habit of food waste: We are the problem

  1. Pingback: The End of Growth? Perspectives from an Aquinas Honors seminar | Sustain

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