EDITORIAL: Got any leftovers?

WHAT ABOUT THE LEFTOVERS? Now that you’ve eaten your fill take a moment to ponder where the not-so-popular items will end up. Favorite foods always accompany family and friends out the door. But what about that relative of a relative who politely agrees to accept the leftover rutabaga? Rutabaga? Aaaack!

You Like Rutabaga?! That’s okay. It’s not vegetables that are at issue here. The question before us is the fate of vegetables or other food items discarded after we humans are done with them. Mostly we toss them in the garbage. But that’s a wasteful way to treat a potentially valuable resource.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates how many tons of food Americans waste annually. By 2018 the number was 60 million tons. In one year. That’s not only wasteful, it’s bad planning. What if climate change leaves us with periods of smaller harvests—in other words, less food to waste?

As individuals there’s only so much we can do to restore the climate to something like the climate we inherited. But there is reason to believe that working together in relatively small groups, we can come up with solutions able to leverage positive changes on an ever wider scale. And while you might not have noticed it, there’s one publicly funded effort like that getting started here in Columbia County.

It’s the pilot food scraps program run by the Columbia County Solid Waste Department and it’s happening at the Copake and Chatham “convenience stations,” where residents who don’t have curbside garbage pick-up can haul their own garbage and recyclables.

The Solid Waste Department runs all eight of the county’s convenience stations. But only the Chatham and Copake sites have special bins for a short list of materials that can easily be composted and a longer list for items that cannot.

What Can be composted are: fruit and vegetable scraps or expired produce; egg shells, coffee grounds. What are Not acceptable at this point are: coffee cups; pasta and grain; meat and bones; food cooked in oil; dairy products; “recyclables”; non-biodegradable waste; bio-plastics.

Solid Waste Department Director Joleen Race says the strict line between what stuff is and what is not acceptable is necessary because the county is working with “a local vendor” to produce compost used to raise local crops. Her department and the residents of Copake and Chatham are what she calls a “closed loop system. But it isn’t quite there yet.

“Ideally we should be self-supporting,” she says, but right now there’s no money in recycling despite all the items residents separate before disposing of their solid waste. “We’re back to paying $80 to $90 per ton” to dispose of waste.

Once it’s bundled into cubes there’s no way to guess how much of the bundled solid waste was marked by the manufacturer or processor as “recyclable.”

Despite the obstacles, Ms. Race remains optimistic about prospects of the food scrap compost project. Right now her department is preparing a new 10-year plan required by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and she’s expecting to upgrade all eight of the convenience stations. She’s also expecting to expand the food scrap compost program to all eight convenience stations.

She needs people who use the other six convenience stations to ask for their own food scrap program, which could open as early as this spring. And if the program is popular it could include food from commercial operations.

Ms. Race knows powerful forces limit her efforts to divert potentially recyclable materials. “We’re like the graveyard for materials,” she says.

Her broader goal is “zero waste” and that tackling that giant means taking on the involves the packaging industry. But she’s ready to start: “If the product doesn’t have an end use, they shouldn’t be manufacturing it.”

So if you live in the Copake or Chatham areas, take some fruit or vegetable scraps, some date-expired produce, some egg shells or some coffee grounds to one of those two convenience stations and toss them into the food scraps compost bin. Could such a small gesture change you and the world? Who knows. But what harm will it do to try?

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