Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - Waste = Food

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - Waste = Food

In the second part of this series I will discuss ways of making sustainable, local food affordable. I was hoping to be able to keep this to one post, but as I’m long-winded and tangents always arise that are worth exploring, the second part of the series will come in two posts.

Before we discuss how to make sustainable food affordable, it helps to have a different perspective on our diets and what a sustainable food system is. As I noted in the introduction to this series, much of eating (and living) sustainably is psychological, we must learn to look at our diet in a more holistic manner, but also as just another way we interact with nature on a daily basis. For a long time, we have viewed food (and many other things really) as a distinct set of parts (the ingredients) put together to create the “end product” (the meal), rather than food as a system and our preparation and consumption of it as just one part in the whole cycle. We rarely think of what happens before we obtain our food or when our food goes “away” in our garbage cans, to the landfills, out of us as our “solid waste” (we all know what I’m talking about here, but I’m a lady - hehe) and so on. We rarely stop to think about (or perhaps do not even know) how unheard of this is in the natural world. “Waste” is not an issue in the natural world. “Waste” is food, which is the focus of this post.

I would argue that the term “waste” simply describes improperly used food. Whereas in our societies waste = pollution, in nature waste = food (a concept coined by William McDonough, author of the really good book Cradle to Cradle), and this is one of the reasons that natural systems are able to sustain themselves and rarely experience issues of excess or “pollution” (concentrated, improperly used food). For example, when one plant dies, bacteria, bugs, and other organisms break the plant material down into food for other plants. Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, making it fertile and available for plants and other organisms. Earthworms break down dead material, while also aerating and fertilizing (with their castings) the soil.

The sustainable, waste = food system is a cycle by which nutrients and energy are continually being reshuffled and reconfigured for the best and most efficient use. The healthiest systems are the most diverse, where creatures on every level make remarkably efficient use of the available resources.

Waste and Organic Material

There are some very simple steps to take reduce waste in two fairly obvious areas. The first is to plan, and stick to the plan, as discussed in the previous post. The second is related but worth reasserting: try not to buy more food than you can reasonably eat, that is, unless you have plans for preserving it.

Be realistic about how much produce you can handle as well as how long it will last once you bring it home. When you buy local food, it often doesn’t stay “good” for as long since it wasn’t sprayed with a myriad of gases to extend shelf life and reduce spoilage. So, it works best to go the market or store multiple times a week, if this is an option. Perhaps, if your farmer’s market doesn’t set up shop more than once a week, there is a store in town where you can procure locally grown items. A few minutes spent with Google will generally help you determine the “health food” stores in your area. Call ‘em up and see what you can find. A few minutes talking with a purveyor at the farmer’s market could be even more helpful. Aside from knowing where to seek local goods, they might also have some advice on how to best store and prepare the goods they produce.

Despite our most valiant and creative efforts, there is still an unavoidable amount of organic waste: you can’t eat apple cores and seeds or spoiled veggies, and there is little reason why a meal that didn’t turn out should simply have to end up in the trash. Compost it!

(Now, as I'm sure you are all aware, I eat a mostly vegan diet; animal products are rarely consumed in our home (aside from the occasional egg, or some cheese for Brett), so I’m not sure as to the safety of composting animal ingredients So, I would recommend doing some research before throwing those tired looking steaks in the compost.)

The method of composting I recommend is vermicomposting, or composting with worms. This can be done in small spaces, indoors even, as it does not stink, and is an effective way of reducing your waste because you turn your food scraps into worm food, and the worms turn it into very high quality plant food.

Vermicomposting is a fairly simple method that doesn’t require a whole lot of tending. The “source” for vermicomposting still seems to be the book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof, since it is accessible and suitable for anyone above a 5th grade reading level, you might laugh at this, but complex scientific concepts that can be explained in terms younger people can understand works for me, I’ll take pictures too :-). You can make a composting box (sometimes called a "worm bin") out of a plastic or wood bin, or you can purchase special boxes from selected locations. I would highly recommend looking into this system, especially if you live in an apartment where most of your waste is comprised of food scraps, not yard waste.

Waste and Non-organic Matter

One cannot take a glass jar outside, put it on their garden, and hope to grow food. Some of the things humans create are inappropriate for use as food. So, a good starting point would be to look for goods with the least possible amount of packaging (a quick example would be to choose dried beans over canned). Whatever packaging is necessary works best if it is either reusable or recyclable. #7 plastic, for example, is neither reusable (due to safety concerns) nor recyclable in our area. So, we stay away from it. Strawberry containers are not recyclable here either, but we can take them to the farmers at the market who will reuse them. Be resourceful and creative, and remember reusing always beats recycling.

The list that follows contains some ideas for reusing and is by no means complete. If you have any additional ideas, please leave them in the comment section; we are all here to learn from each other.

  • Twist ties from produce or bread bags can be used to tie herbs in a bunch to be dried.
  • Use the back of receipts, junk mailers, flyers, and “mess up” paper from the printer (something didn’t print right, use the back) to make lists.
  • Take your shopping bags, berry containers, and egg cartons to the farmer’s market. Oftentimes, farmers will happily take them for use for their product.
  • Glass jars, such as spaghetti or applesauce jars, peanut butter jars, mayo jars, olive or nut jars can be rinsed in soapy water, their labels removed can be used for other things. Uses we’ve found for glass jars include: storing bulk nuts, seeds, flours, and odds and ends. We even use the appropriately sized ones as drinking glasses. And Heather (from the awesome blog Simple – Green – Frugal) had the excellent suggestion of using peanut butter or mayo sized glass jars to take soup as a lunch to work. They also double as something to safely heat the soup in, as well as a bowl.
  • Containers that starter plants come in or things like cut to size milk cartons make excellent places to start next year’s garden seeds.
  • Old, worn out pantyhose (sadly, I don’t have any), can be used to store onions, as Chile demonstrates here. Actually, just have a look around Chile’s blog, she has a wealth of advice, tips, and alternative uses for materials that would normally end up in the garbage.

Since we’ve been working to reduce our consumption – live more sustainable lives and all that – our trash output has been significantly reduced. Most of what ends up in our trash can these days is food scraps, which not only makes for a very heavy garbage bag, it is also a waste of valuable “plant food in the making”. Our apartment complex has recently come under new management (the old management said we could not vermicompost), so Brett and I are hoping to start making our own plant food soon.

Now that we’ve discussed looking at one’s diet as part of an energy cycle – the idea that all waste should either be food for something else or be put to another use – I will spend the next post discussing how to eat locally and affordably.

'Til next time.


Heather @ SGF said...

Great post! I'd love to hear more about how you dry herbs. I've never done that...

I really struggle with estimating how much I can eat each week. All that food at the market looks so good I hate to pass it up. But I'm getting better. And of course any leftover food at the end of the week gets turned into soup so it's rare I actually toss something.

Other suggestions for re-using items might be:

1) old bread bags are great for storing things in the freezer - I usually double bag the bread bags for extra protection

2) when you finish your box of cereal, take the bag lining out and cut the top and bottom off, then make one slit up the side so that you have one full sheet of wax-like paper. These sheets are great for separating pancakes, bagels, slices of cheese, etc in the freezer for easy single serving withdrawals. Then they wash them back up and you can use them again and again...

3) you aluded to this - I'm currently using old heavy whipping cream containers to grow my herb seedlings. Just wash them and cut them down a bit. As soon as they're big enough to transplant, I'll move them to milk jugs (I don't have any pots). Just cut the top of the plastic milk jug off and drill a couple holes in the bottom.

Can't wait to read Part II!

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Heather - Thank you!

Drying herbs is quite easy. Just rinse them off and let them dry thouroughly. Then tie them together in a bundle with a twist tie, rubber band, a piece of string, whatever, and hang them upside down in a cool dry place. In a couple of weeks, you'll have dried herbs. And you'll know if they aren't good. I've tried to dry cilantro when it was too humid and it got smelly, can't dry things out in the open anymore, it's too hot for that, gotta do it in the closet now.

It's hard, I have trouble too, and I don't mind having leftovers, so long as it is something that will keep like beets, onions, garlic, that kind of thing I'm alright with some excess. It has taken me a long time, and I honestly just limit the amount of money I take with me to the market or I'd end up coming home with 10 cases of peaches I didn't know what to do with, 'cause, well they look so good!

That's such an awesome idea salvaging your leftovers with soup, I guess you can throw whatever you have in there? Do you just spice it up depending on what goes in?

Awesome suggestions, I really like the cereal box one, I think I'll start doing that with my granola bar boxes as well. One of these days I'll have to learn how to make homemade granola bars.

Do you think Tetra Pak boxes would be safe to start seedlings in? We buy almond milk on a fairly regular basis and the only way we've found to get it is in Tetra Pak boxes, I hate to just toss them, that's what we've been doing and I feel quite guilty.

I was wondering if I could grow full size bean plants in milk jugs!

Heather @ SGF said...

Thanks for the tips on drying herbs! I'll do that. Then you just keep them in ziplocks? Can you freeze them?

Ahh! I do the same thing with my money at the market. I take so much out of my wallet and walk around with it. I have extra tucked away in my wallet (just in case), but I usually only allow myself to spend what I have in my hand. It works!

The soup has been wonderful at keeping waste at bay. I first started making it to try to get through the winter on the all local diet. I couldn't figure out what else to do with cabbage, onions, and potatoes and many weeks, that was all there was at the winter market. Basically I just chopped whatever veggies I had and threw in some salt, pepper and olive oil. As I've gotten better at soup making, I now also save veggie juice from steaming veggies or boiling potatoes as stock and now use local herbs from the market as well. Just whatever sounds good gets chopped and dumped in. Guaranteed to be the best soup you ever had whether simple or complex. I couldn't believe it when I first realized I could actually make soup - GOOD soup! I'll never buy canned again. In fact, I'm getting a pressure canner now so that I don't have to take up the space in my freezer with extra soup :)

The Tetra Paks should be fine for seedlings. Just cut it down a bit and wash it our really well. It should be fine. Just transplant to a bigger pot when they are mature enough. As far as bean plants, I don't know. I'm not sure how big they get. I would think they would be too root bound in a milk jug, but I'm not sure.

Anyone out there grown beans before? We need your advice... how much room (and depth) do they need?

Chile said...

Jennifer, I'm so glad you're doing this series!

For a little introduction on composting animal products, see my review of the book Humanure. There's also a link in that post to the author's website and free book download.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Heather - Honestly, they don't usually last around my house long enough to have to do any long-term storage. But once they are dry, you can crumble the herbs between your fingers and put them in spice jars, as you would store any other dried spice.

Haha, glad to know I'm not the only one. It feels really good buying local produce, supporting local farmer's, good farming practices, that kind of thing, but it's easy to go overboard.

It DOES work. :-)

I bet there isn't much at your winter market. We (sadly) don't even have one. But we have a couple of local grocers, they will probably be limited to the types of foods you got too.

Thanks for the tips with soup, sometimes the simplest things are the best ones aren't they?

If you get a pressure canner, you'll have to document your experiences.

Awesome, thank you for the tip about the Tetra Pak, Brett was really excited at the thought.

I wasn't sure about beans either, when looking at stuff about indoor container gardens a lot of people had their beans in milk jugs but they could have been just getting started that way.

Chile - Thank you so much! I'm so happy you have a blog, I'm not sure you know how much advice, tips, hints, and humor you have given us who are trying to find our way to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Thanks for the link.

Any meat eaters out there who want to compost your animal products, do check out the link Chile provided.

LK said...

Wow great post! I always love learning about "green" tips, and I'm always trying to be more "green".

Here's a suggestions for reuse:

(Soy) Yogurt containers use for storing paper clips or rubber bands or nails.

Thanks for the great tips!

Bianca said...

This reminds me that I really need to start composting. I've been saying I'm going to do it for over a year now. But I've been lazy!

Melissa said...

and when the paper is really all used up, the worms will eat it! Egg cartons too, if you don't have a farmer to give them to. The only thing is you don't want to give worms really glossy or excessively colored paper (chemicals and all).

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!

A tip for using the "scraps" of veggies if you don't compost--you can throw the ends of things, mushroom stems, etc. in a freezer bag in the freezer and save them to make vegetable stock. Once you have a bag full, just add water, spices, and simmer away for a few hours. Then strain and you have homemade veggie stock!

You can also use the cardboard from boxes (like cereal boxes etc.) like you suggested using the back of paper. Just cut it up into manageable sized pieces and use for notes/lists/whatever.


Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

LK - Thank you. It's great that you are working towards a more sustainable life!

That's a great idea with the yogurt containers, I'll have to do that myself.

Bianca - You should! It's a bit of a pain to get them started, I understand, but once you get it done, you'll be so happy you did.

Melissa - GREAT IDEA! If the paper isn't glossy or super colorful, after you've written your lists on them, you might as well turn your paper into plant food!

Courtney - Thank you.

That is another great idea, something I should have been doing all this time I haven't been able to vermicompost! I'll have to try that out.

So very true, you don't have to limit your "list paper" to just receipts and junk mail. Anything that can be cut to size and written on would work great!

vegan addict said...


You continue to amaze me with each new post! You really ought to write a book full of all the useful/insightful information and discussions you generate. I too, have primarily food scrap waste in my kitchen, and it quickly begins to smell and get heavy in the garbage can. I tried biodegradable bags, but by the time I was ready to take the trash out, the bag had begun biodegrading already! It was a mess. Any suggestions?

Like Heather who commented above, I also take the liners out of my cereal boxes and use them as she does! It's amazing how much we can reuse. I love it.

Always looking forward to your next post... Take care!

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Vegan Addict - Thank you very much for your kind words. I've always enjoyed writing and it is nice to know that I can at least get a coherent thought out. Perhaps someday I will write a book, I am really long-winded, so watch out!

About your trash: I would approach this one of two ways. First, you could start a small vermicompost box. They don't have to be large, they do not smell, if you use a lid, the worms will not get out, and you would also have plant food. Otherwise, my suggestion would be to (sadly) use regular trash bags, and perhaps a smaller can. If you can find small biodegradable bags those would likely work too. But my suggestion would be to get a smaller can and take it out more often, that way it doesn't get too heavy or stink. It's not ideal, as the bags are made out of plastic, but if you aren't taking out your trash very much, I think it would be fine. I hope this helps at least a little.

That was a great suggestion, one that I am going to start doing myself.

Thank you!