Freegans and Grease Thieves
As I mentioned in my last post, some adventurous New Yorkers are starting composting bins in their apartments. They’re putting them in closets, under sinks and tables, in bathrooms, even living rooms.
Since I don’t see myself ever setting up a composting bin in my apartment, I started doing the next best thing: I’ve been dropping off my food scraps at a collection site. All my food refuse – from eggshells and tea bags to orange peels and stalks of kale – now go into a plastic bag I keep in the freezer. At the end of the week, I drop it off at the farmers market, where it then goes to a composting facility at the Lower East Side Ecology Center in Manhattan.
However much I drop off – it’s at least two pounds – it’s that much waste that I’m keeping from the landfill and redirecting into something useful. The Lower East Side Ecology Center collects about 60 tons of organic material a year and produces about 15 tons of compost. The “paydirt”—as the Center calls it – is used to beautify parks and community gardens.
A no brainer, wouldn’t you say? It’s much better to have 15 tons of compost to enrich gardens than to have 60 tons of festering food trash. With all of America’s food waste, the environmental impact of more composting could be significant. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that consumers, restaurants, and supermarkets and other food retailers lost about 27% of the country’s edible food supply, a whopping 96 billion pounds of food. Most of the food loss – 26 percent – occurred in people’s homes and in restaurants and other food establishments.
No one understands this better than freegans, a group that attempts to live off the things others throw into the trash. They go through the nation’s dumpsters in search of still edible food — unsold produce and bread at the supermarket for example — and other things, like clothes, furniture and electronics. The “dumpster divers” do so for environmental and economic reasons, not because they need to. Freegans avoid buying anything so as not to support what they see as an evil, rotten-to-the-core capitalist economic system. “As freegans,” they write on their Web site, “we forage instead of buying to avoid being wasteful consumers.” They also seek to reduce the waste going to landfills and incinerators, which they note “are disproportionately situated within poor, non-white neighborhoods, where they cause elevated levels of cancer and asthma.”
They’re a passionate bunch for sure. I’m not ready to sort through the trash bins of say the Garden of Eden, a high-end grocery store in Manhattan described in the freegan dumpster directory as “one of the best diving sites in the city”, but I do understand the freegan line of thinking and the point they’re trying to make.
Others are cashing in – literally – on America’s food waste. Ever hear of a “grease thief,” the latest arrival on the crime scene? These individuals slip into the backs of fast-food chains and other eating establishments to “steal” fryer grease, a suddenly valuable commodity sought by people wishing to convert it into biofuel. As Susan Saulny explains in a recent New York Time article, grease is traded on the commodities markets, and it’s fetching in the ballpark of 33 cents a pound.
Neither money nor noble principles would persuade me to “dumpster dive” for food scraps or hunt for grease. But I am willing to take responsibility for my own food waste. I’ll continue dropping off my frozen scraps at the farmers market, where I go weekly anyway. I’ll do my part, while freegans and grease thieves do theirs.