WASHINGTON — "In this world," Benjamin Franklin once said, "nothing is certain but death and taxes."
Face it, human beings are trash machines--incapable of consuming anything without creating a pile of garbage seemingly twice the volume of the product. The United States now produces more than 400,000 tons of trash a day and space is running out--landfills are overflowing, waterways are clogged and beaches are becoming lethal playgrounds.
In 1986, the total solid waste in this country added up to 160 million tons--a full 8% of which came directly from the kitchen as food waste. There are 16,400 landfills nationally, half of which are expected to close by the year 2000.
The one landfill that serves the District of Columbia and suburban Virginia is expected to be completely filled in the year 2003. The landfill for Montgomery County, Md., will be filled in this May. (A new application has been submitted to extend capacity until 2004.)
How can you help break the wave of trash?
According to Eric A. Goldstein, senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, three steps can be taken to substantially alleviate food-generated garbage.
How to Make Compost
First, he says, "to take a nice hunk out of the problem, people should set up composting programs in their back yards." Composting, the degradation process brought about by bacteria and fungus organisms, can effectively turn organic kitchen and garden refuse into a moist black soil conditioner. And, even apartment dwellers with balconies can compost, according to Pegi Ballister-Howells of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension for Middlesex County, Va.
To start composting, the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service suggests laying small twigs or chopped corn stalks down first to aid in aeration and drainage. Then, add both garden (yard waste accounts for a full 18% of landfill mass) and kitchen refuse such as husks, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells and canning wastes. Next, add a layer of a nitrogen-rich material such as fresh manure or fresh grass clippings, hay or green weeds (you can buy synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the form of blood meal or cottonseed meal). Do not add meat--it will attract rodents. Water the pile to keep the contents moist. If you smell a strong whiff of ammonia, the pile is either too tightly packed or too wet. Turn the heap, add some coarser material for aeration and start over. Every three or four weeks, fork over the pile, pushing outside material to the inside so that everything breaks down.
As for the apartment method, here's how: Take a black (color is important because it absorbs heat) plastic bag, fill it three-quarters full with cooking and plant refuse (again only vegetable refuse; meat products could attract rodents), add a nitrogen product and fill with water (it will not decompose if dry). Set out on the balcony--it needs the sunlight--and poke holes in the bag to let the water drain out. "Every once in a while," suggests Ballister-Howells, "when you walk past, you can give the bag a kick, it moves things around and aerates it." If the bag loses its oxygen, she says, anaerobic bacteria will flourish and things will begin to get smelly.
A second trash-reducing idea, according to Goldstein, is to be sensitive to waste in your shopping decisions. According to a report by Worldwatch Institute, an independent non-profit research organization, packaging accounts for about 30% of the weight and 50% of the volume of household waste.
"The packaging explosion has gone too far," says Goldstein. "We don't need to wrap something in one layer, then rewrap in a bigger layer, and then put it in a plastic bag--this is an area where consumers can make a big difference." The amount of packaging for food doubled, even tripled, after World War II, says Goldstein. In 1958, the per-capita consumption of packaging material in New York State was 404 pounds per year. By 1986, it had risen to 800 pounds. "Advertisers and marketing experts have assumed, and in some cases it's true, that packaging sells." So make sure, he says, that you're buying for the product, not the package.
One obvious answer, says Goldstein, is bulk-food shopping. It not only benefits the consumer in price reduction and the environment in waste reduction, he says, it also benefits the producers themselves in overhead reduction--they spend less on packaging, they lose less in the profit corner. "When I'm in the market," says Goldstein, the bulk-food aisle is "the most heavily populated aisle--as the 1990s approach that will be an important trend emerging."
According to a May 1987 article in Supermarket Business News, bulk food is, in fact, declining, as many supermarkets cut back on the number of items available or cut out the program completely. Safeway, which started its bulk-food program in 1983, sees no great increase or decrease in the number of people who shop from the bins. It has what Ann Cockrell of Safeway calls a stabilized customer base.