How the zero-waste movement is changing how we buy, eat & live

Reducing the waste produced by our households, and the waste generated on our behalf by manufacturers and retailers due to the products we buy and use, is an essential aspect of living lighter on the planet. Waste is a huge issue, and while some of it can be re-used (composting food scraps and yard waste, recycling containers, etc.), many of the items we regularly purchase come in excess packaging that is often non-recyclable/reusable.

And even if we feel good about our own current choices, say choosing glass bottles over other containers because they’re recyclable, the local solid waste system (read: trash/recycling infrastructure) could stop accepting it, which automatically turns that ‘recyclable’ choice into a landfill item. Seriously. It happened to us this year, when our local landfill operator notified us that because of the high costs of transporting it out of town to a glass recycling facility, no glass will be accepted for recycling – only for landfilling. That changed our habits, and made it even clearer that reducing the waste that willingly bring into our homes by our purchases is the key element in shrinking our family’s eco-footprint.

The following is a piece about the zero-waste movement, and how it is beginning to change things, from the manufacturer all the way to the consumer.

How the zero-waste movement is changing the way we live

I was 21 and on a clandestine rescue mission. Objective: Get chocolate. Target: The dumpster next to a local chocolate factory. Come nightfall, my college friends and I snuck to the dumpster. Inside, we discovered mounds of dark chocolate glistening in the moonlight—massive slabs that appeared to be fresh off the conveyor belt, studded with dried raspberries and chopped almonds.

We shoved as much as we could carry into a bag and drove off. We tentatively took small bites, after carefully inspecting for rogue debris, and found that it was just as delicious as the brand’s pricey wrapped bars.

A surplus of scary stats

Unfortunately, this discarded chocolate I “rescued” in college is not an outlier. A 2013 report by the World Resources Institute, for instance, estimates that one out of every four calories from food grown for humans in the world is not ultimately consumed. And out of this statistic, Americans are some of the worst culprits. In the United States, a whopping 40% of food is thrown away—nearly 20 pounds of food waste per person every month.

These are frightening numbers, considering one in six Americans lives in a food-insecure household, and food production requires so much energy, agricultural chemicals and water. Comedian and social commentator John Oliver said it best on his show Last Week Tonight: “When we waste food, we’re wasting all the labor and natural resources that went into making it. It seems especially unwise that farmers are pumping water into food that ends up being used as a garnish for landfills.” When you throw out an apple, for example, you’re also throwing out the 17 gallons of water it took to grow it. This is even more concerning when it comes to produce such as artichokes, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, garlic, cauliflower and almonds that are primarily produced in California, a state gripped in a four-year drought.

Enter the zero-waste movement

These disturbing statistics are not going unnoticed. A growing number of natural enthusiasts are taking note of the zero-waste movement, led by people who strive to minimize food, clothing and household purchases and prioritize products with compostable or reusable packaging—or no packaging at all.

Books, blogs and Pinterest boards about reducing waste boast increasingly large audiences. While shoppers have for many years cared about whether their chocolate or coffee was sourced consciously—a value that fuels certification labels like Fair Trade USA and the Rainforest Alliance—now they scrutinize what will happen after the food is purchased. How can they get the most out of the food? And where does the packaging end up?

“The time is right to talk about food waste because multiple things are happening at the same time,” says Jen Rustemeyer, producer of the food waste documentary Just Eat It. “The cost of food is going up, the number of hungry people is going up, population is increasing and there is awareness of the pressures food growing puts on our limited land and water resources.”

To combat food waste—and the excess packaging and trash associated with it—those who follow a zero-waste lifestyle aim to maximize the use of the food they buy or grow and to keep household items (think cleaning bottles, paper towels and plastic wrap) out of landfills, too.

One Zero Waste Challenge asks participants to fit all of their trash for a 24-hour period into a mason jar. Other challenges are way more extreme, urging participants to fit all their trash for an entire year into a mason jar. “The majority of our trash by weight is from packaging, with food scraps and yard trimmings each adding about 13 percent in weight to the garbage can,” writes zero-waster Amy Korst, author of The Zero-Waste Lifestyle (Ten Speed, 2012).

A handful of manufacturers have caught the vision, finding good uses for food that would normally be wasted and offering products that use compostable packages over merely recyclable ones (which often eventually end up in landfills).

Take ReGrained, for example, a small but growing San Francisco brand that formulates nutrition bars out of leftover, spent grain from local craft breweries. “The amount of grain used to brew is staggering … then you start thinking about the agriculture supply chain, malting and distribution and all the water and resources that went into getting the grain to the brewery in the first place,” explains ReGrained cofounder Dan Kurzrock. “With this in mind, recovering and upcycling the grain creates shared value on multiple levels—I see ReGrained as a hybrid between a sustainable food and resource management company.” Although tasty bars intended for convenient, take-along nutrition already saturate natural store shelves, ReGrained (with its cheeky tagline “Eat Beer”) appeals to those who understand the prevalence of food waste—even if they don’t strictly identify with the zero-waste movement.

The founders of LOLIWARE—which makes edible, flavored cups made out of vegan gelatin, perfect for replacing those ubiquitous red-plastic party cups—aim to reduce plastic in waste streams. “Some people may not know, but there are about 70 million tons of plastic waste that enter the landfill every year,” says cofounder Chelsea Briganti. “It’s our mission to hopefully replace a percentage of that.” Aside from being a novel product for people to drink their cocktails (and eat them too), Loliware also ameliorates fears of BPA-toxicity from conventional cups.

ReGrained and Loliware are two extreme examples of products that nudge the dial on waste reduction. But other natural companies are also incorporating zero-waste manufacturing principles into their products to build identity as a waste-less brand. Justin’s nut butter, for example, recently launched a pretzel and nut butter Snack Pack made from 100-percent post-consumer PET plastic derived mostly from water bottles. Although the product still contains plastic, such gains can measurably reduce food waste. (Compare this to Starbucks’ better-than-nothing but paltry 10-percent post-consumer paper-fiber cup.)

Retailers on food waste

The food-waste crisis has inspired many retailers to get involved, as well. Efforts include coaxing shoppers to buy slightly imperfect produce, partaking in food rescue programs and educating customers on the magnitude of food waste.

A growing number of retailers are promoting so-called “ugly” fruits and vegetables to their shoppers at reduced prices. Intermarche, the third-largest supermarket in France, received global recognition and praise for its campaign titled “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables.” By cleverly merchandising disfigured fruits and vegetables (think twisted carrots, bulbous potatoes and misshapen apples), Intermarche increased store traffic by 24 percent and sold an average of 1.2 tons of “ugly” produce per store in the first two days of the campaign. The verdict is in: People love buying silly-looking produce.

Food-waste activist Jordan Figueiredo agrees. Intermarche’s campaign inspired him to launch the Instagram and Twitter handle @UglyFruitAndVeg, which quickly amassed thousands of followers keen on scrolling through images of irregular fruits and veggies. “Once people learn a bit about the issue, they’re immediately onboard with doing whatever we can do to end this senseless waste,” says Figueiredo. He stresses that retailers especially can create change because they control the standard for what gets wasted. “Ask your grocers what they’re doing to stop massive food waste,” he recommends. Natural retailers, in particular, are passionate about environmentally friendly business practices, but shopper pressure can further encourage grocers to take even more steps to reduce food waste, such as composting, selling post-peak produce at discount, donating would-be food waste to a local food bank and using imperfectly shaped produce for juices, smoothies and sandwiches. Trust us, less-than-perfect produce still tastes great!

So, go ahead: Talk to your local grocers, buy innovative minimal-waste products, make the most of the products you buy and get (zero) wasted.

Originally published on Delicious Living by Jenna Blumenfeld

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