About The Food Waste Known As Diversion

Photograph by Grant Cornett

As still life compositions go, the photo to the right is classic in style and weirdly perfect for the essay it accompanies.  Helen Rosner frequently writes about food, including a review that convinced me to watch The Bear, and this is the best of her work that I have read:

The Promises of the Home “Composting” Machine

A new crop of techy appliances wants to help fight the food-waste crisis. How virtuous should we feel using them?

In the course of a week, my kitchen produces a shocking quantity of what we might think of as edible trash: apple peels, garlic nubs, a bit of gristle from a steak, Dorito dust, tea bags, the iron-hard heel of a loaf of bread that’s been sitting out overnight. The meat scraps I feed to my dog. The bones and vegetable scraps I store in the freezer in gallon-size ziplock bags and periodically bung into a pot and simmer into stock. But even then, once the stock is made, and the chicken bones or onion ends are leached of all their flavor, I’m left again with edible trash—only now it’s soggy. And then there are the times when the strawberries aren’t sealed right and become fuzzy with mold, or the delivery sandwich turns out to be gross, or the refrigerator’s compressor breaks and somehow we don’t notice, or I’m just exhausted and overwhelmed and want everything gone.

I hate putting food into the trash, because food that goes into the trash is bound for a landfill, and landfills—dense, lightless, airless mountains of waste—are the worst possible place that food can go. In that nightmarish, anaerobic environment, organic matter produces the greenhouse gas methane with terrifying efficiency. Globally, landfills are the third-greatest human source of methane emissions, just behind the fossil-fuel industry and factory livestock farming. How much food we waste, and what we do with it, is both an urgent issue and—like so many facets of the climate crisis—one that feels entirely remote in the day-to-day. A large portion of organic matter in landfills (forty per cent by one E.P.A. estimate) comes from households, so on this front, at least, our individual choices do matter—even when it feels overwhelmingly as if they don’t. Obviously, we should buy less, and we should eat more of what we buy; the weekly package of baby spinach that turns to goo in the crisper drawer benefits neither self nor planet. Cookbooks dedicated to minimizing food waste are a good place to find tidy strategies for salvage and reuse: puree the spinach glop into a green soup, for example, or take root-vegetable peelings, toss them in a bit of oil and salt, and roast at four hundred for twenty minutes to make superbly crispy little snacks. (“The Everlasting Meal Cookbook,” by Tamar Adler, is chock-full of smart ideas like these.) Pulverizing eggshells into powder for a homemade calcium supplement? Brilliant, babe. Go with God.

But, lately, I’ve been thinking about what food-waste people call diversion, which encompasses all the places we can send scraps besides the large intestine and the landfill. It’s a mistake to think that anything not eaten is necessarily wasted, that consumption is the only valid form of use. Take composting, for example: you really don’t need to torture yourself by making and eating and claiming to enjoy a bitter carrot-top pesto if the carrot tops can simply be flung into a thoughtfully maintained organic-matter pile and, with time, be converted into fuel for further carrots, whose bitter tops you yet again will not feel obligated to eat. Admittedly, it’s work: there’s a lot more to converting unwanted vegetable matter into nutrient-rich fertilizer than just making a big heap and walking away. (This is, more or less, exactly how to make a landfill.) It makes sense that compost is the provenance of the gardener: in a way, it is its own category of cultivation, requiring care and consideration, a proper balance of dry and wet matter, regular aeration, attentive temperature control, and season-spanning patience.

For those who lack the space, the time, or the diligence to do such things, solutions must be found elsewhere—for instance, in a slew of new (and newish) consumer appliances that promise to help reduce food waste and its impact. One such appliance is the FoodCycler ($399.95), which is distributed in the U.S. by Vitamix, the same folks who make extremely expensive and effective blenders. It is hulkingly large, like a night-black bread machine. The Lomi ($449, or $359 plus a twenty-dollar-per-month accessory subscription), manufactured by a company that also produces bioplastics, is satin white and curvy, with the countertop footprint of an upright stand mixer. Both the FoodCycler and the Lomi are very heavy. (The two machines were recently provided to me as samples, without cost.) The function of each is mostly the same: a user fills a provided bucket with food scraps, inserts it into the machine, sets a lid in place, and presses a Power button. Then the machine spends several hours using heat and abrasion to grind down and dehydrate the food scraps. The end result will vary in color and texture based on the raw materials you started with, but it always comes out looking pretty much like dirt.

The first day that I had the Lomi, I happened to come into possession of a somewhat ridiculous quantity of leeks. In the interest of science, I cut off their fibrous, dark-green tops (which I’d normally save for stock) and stuffed the machine’s bin up to the fill line. The Lomi has three modes, one of them meant for conserving microbes for eventual composting (it runs for a long time, at low heat), and another for breaking down bioplastics (it runs for a medium-long time, at high heat). I processed the leeks on the third mode, “eco-express,” to which the machine is preset; it runs fast and hot. Five hours later, what had started out as a football-size clump of dense vegetable matter had turned into about a half cup of dark-brown, crumbly dust that smelled faintly—though unmistakably—of burned onions. It was thrilling. I had made—well, not compost, exactly, but something that was much smaller and easier to dispose of than what it had originally been…

Read the whole essay here.

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