Zero Waste Q&A: Where Does Zero Waste Start?

Q: However you’re categorizing zero waste, if you buy something at the store, say a pack of yogurt, how do you factor that in to your calculation? Do you research the manufacturing process of everything? Or do you consider the starting point your fridge? Do you have a reliable website to look up the waste of various store-bought foods?

A: (Too little time to read? Skip to the bottom for the summary). This question is easiest to answer with the “know your farmer” bumper sticker. If you buy your food at a farmer’s market, you know where your food is coming from. You can also engage the farmer in conversation to find out how she grows her food, whether she is organic (many farmers use organic practices but cannot afford to get USDA certified), how much waste she produces, etc. Then, after polling all of the farmers at the market, you can choose the one who seems to produce the least amount of waste or use the best growing practices. You can also be your own farmer and grow some of your own produce, given time, money, and space.

But, of course, it can never be that simple. Some food isn’t available locally or is only available seasonally – most farmer’s markets in the northeast only happen during late spring to early fall – and we all have lives to live and people to feed, and most of the time our shopping is done in supermarkets. It is a perk of industrialized society that we have this much food at our doorstep, but it is also a curse because we no longer have the luxury of knowing exactly where our food comes from.

I have always defined zero waste in my brain as something that I am responsible for, which would make my fridge the starting point. It is far easier for me to control how much waste I produce than it is to know how much waste lies in the wake of whatever I’m buying.

That being said, I like to be conscious of where food comes from. For example, I am more likely to buy Backyard Farms tomatoes because they are grown in greenhouses in Maine all year long (and because they’re actually red, not beige-pink, so I guess this isn’t the best example), or I will go for the celery that is labeled “grown in the USA” rather than the celery that says it’s from Mexico (no offense Mexico, you’re just really far away). In Maine, there are “Get real, get Maine” stickers on everything that is from the state of Maine, which makes choosing local alternatives quite easy. For example, Ray’s Mustard comes in a glass jar and is made in Maine, which makes it a far better choice than, say, the Hannaford brand, which has unknown origin and comes in a plastic bottle.

I tend to focus on whether a product is local because it’s the easiest property to know about a food item, and the amount of fuel used to transport something local is much, much smaller than, say, the fuel it takes to fly an avocado to Maine from South America (mea culpa). But none of this really answers the question; if you buy a 6 oz container of Stonyfield Farm yogurt because it’s organic and tasty and has a happy cow on the label, what are you really buying?

I decided to try to do some sleuthing on their website, which greets you with the phrase “Obsessively Organic” and invites you to find out why. You then meet Jaques, a blueberry, one of the 1/3 of all of their blueberries that are “hand-picked” in Quebec (where do the other 2/3 come from?). Then, you find out that “banana trees are actually really big herbs” and there is a picture of people lugging bags of bananas (where?). Well okay then! Onwards! Now we learn about the difference between organic and natural (huh?), or, in other words, how they got their USDA certification.We learn that they use 6 million pounds of organic fruits in their yogurt (where does all this fruit come from?!). We learn that they like ladybugs (aww!) – cool, natural pest control! We learn that “organic cows” and “natural cows” have different diets and living situations, and the “organic cows” are bright and happy. A picture of a cow and a girl kissing teaches us that cows need “hugs, not drugs,” etc, etc. Then, at the bottom, we find what we really came for:

We learn that Stonyfield Farms yogurt:

  • Rides the rails (trains > trucks in fuel efficiency)
  • Uses smaller cups and foil lids, all recyclable, as well as plant-based plastics for the multi-packs. Apparently the foil lids alone use 16% less energy, 13% less water, and 6% less solid waste (than what?)
  • Has a 90% recycling rate in their production process and intends to hit “zero waste” with nothing ending up in landfills or incinerators (but still recycling)

Of course, anything found on a product’s website must be taken with a grain of salt, because obviously they aren’t going to tell you that they enslave adorable children to peel bananas in Ghana or run over 3 puppies for ever 100 yogurts they make – that isn’t going to sell yogurt. However, it is good to know that they are at least taking steps with the goal of becoming 100% zero waste.

A quick survey of some other common food companies – Frito Lay, Heinz, etc. – shows that most food companies have a “Sustainability” tab where they show you how much they have reduced their waste and what they are doing to help save the earth. Luckily, the world is realizing that more and more people are demanding that companies clean up their act, and whether it’s legislated, the companies think it will sell products, or the companies actually care about mama earth, we seem to be moving in the right general direction with those.

This kind of research, however, is limited for the companies that have websites, and usually if you are going zero waste you are not going to be buying chips, since those bags are landfill-bound. What you are buying are grains, vegetables, beans, and other products that have no label or brand associated with them, and preliminary digging into our local grocery stores (Hannaford and the Natural Living Center) as well as good ‘ol Google produces no useful information. So what do you do about that? I have no good answer.

So, given all of this information, here is my summary of how to approach this:

  • Know your farmer: Attend farmer’s markets, buy local as much as possible, grow some of your own food
  • Research what you can: Pay attention to news about food companies, look at the websites of packaged products that you purchase, ask your grocer, pay attention to food labels (particularly those on produce), know which foods can and can’t be grown sustainably
  • Control your own waste: When it all comes down to it, the person that you can trust the most to reduce your waste is yourself – do everything that you can to cut down your own footprint, and hopefully everybody else will start to follow your example!

2 thoughts on “Zero Waste Q&A: Where Does Zero Waste Start?

  1. Thanks Lauren for your thoughts on this!

    This has been on my mind recently. I have to start off with saying that I believe food (along with assorted packaging) and other household products should be viewed as separate waste-reduction issues. I believe it’s much easier to be a low-waste consumer when it comes to what we eat. As you mentioned, having local farms or reliable grocery stores and using your own storage can have a big impact on one’s personal waste footprint.

    As far as the other items we consume at the household level I still think that it’s important to take waste into consideration. However I can’t help thinking: how does my household waste really compare to the manufacturing waste?

    I tend to think that waste minimization at the industry level (resource optimization, reusing the material discarded in the process, improving the process and recycling) and reducing transportation fuel will have a larger impact on our waste than anything the consumer can do on their own. (Except encouraging people to extend the useable life of products and not always upgrading to the newest phone.)

    As ethical spending becomes increasingly trendy it’s too easy for companies to slap a ‘green’ slogan on the packaging and for people to buy in without knowing the story behind the label. It’s too bad that third-party reviews of the industrial process aren’t readily available.

    The LEED Accreditation program is a great example of this. While it has become increasingly popular for clients to insist on LEED silver or higher buildings, many of the architects and structural engineers I work with don’t buy in to the points system. While LEED encourages diverting waste and using recycled products, it does not discourage using imported low carbon materials when comparable, but moderately higher carbon, materials are available locally. Also, my personal gripe about LEED is that all the points are based on design and not building operation. But that’s a whole other story.

    The same is true on the food side of the issue. I’ve spoken with several farmers in my area of Maine that shun the USDA Organic label for one reason or another yet meet every standard I have for healthy food.

    Interesting study on changing ethical purchases:

    • Amen to all of this. It is so hard to be an “informed consumer” today, because companies are now aware that things with a “green” label can be more expensive and sell better – it appeals to our guilty conscience – and yet the “greenness” of a product is often somewhat vague. For example, I fail to see how “biodegradable” substitutes for things like trash bags, diapers, and plastic cutlery are green, since they will end up in an anoxic environment and will not really degrade.

      Your LEED certification comments really resonate with me, too. I suspect LEED has more to do with tax breaks than actual environmental friendliness, and while I enjoy that places are being encouraged to convert to dual-flush systems (although our LEED-certified rec center is an example of dual-flush gone wrong – they installed them upside down so people who don’t think about it will end up using more water ), I think we should be moving more towards full greywater systems. They might take more planning, but places like Arizona that are running out of water should have those EVERYWHERE, and from my time spent there I can tell you that very few places have greywater (some do, though, which is a start). Any environmental building certification should definitely take construction, material source, etc. into account, which is something that I think we, as engineers, need to push for (although, since we’re young, chances are nobody will listen to us yet…).

      The USDA organic label, like you said, is also just one of those marketing things. This is a great graphic on who owns organic food companies:

      Thank you for your thoughtful response, Sara! I love that infographic that you posted. I’ll have to spend some good time with it!

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