Finding Joy in the Zero Waste Journey

Emma Farr, Board Member
Zero waste isn’t where I’m at yet, but that doesn’t matter. I can still feel good about the steps that I am taking without feeling guilty that I’m not there yet. In fact, I should feel good that I’m making progress with a bigger goal in mind. One common misconception is that zero waste is an all-or-nothing situation. In reality, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even cutting back in one area at a time can make a difference and build a framework for more sustainable living. For me, the first step was awareness. I started observing the amount of waste that was everywhere around me.
Before I started working in the catering industry for Utah Food Services 11 years ago, food waste wasn’t really something that I thought frequently about. Fast forward to today and it’s something that I don’t only think about, but has become an integrated part of my daily routine. The only reason food waste was even on my radar was due to the work of Utah Food Services Facilities Director, Doug Curry, who has been integrating sustainability practices into operations since he was hired in 1994. When I asked Doug about why Utah Food Services has been so invested in sustainable practices, he noted, “from day one, our owner has encouraged me to simply ‘do the right thing.’ and that’s honestly what I have been striving for.” Actively working toward upholding the overarching mission of the company has provided a base for building relationships in the community rooted in “doing the right thing.” Working alongside Doug and seeing the steps he takes toward quantifying what he sees as “the right thing” via setting a zero food waste goal has inspired me personally and professionally to do the same.
A goal of “zero waste” is easily overwhelming, and I constantly need to remind myself that baby steps in the right direction still add up in the long run and make a difference. So where did I start? Well, according to the USDA, food waste in the United States is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply, which corresponds to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of waste annually. This statistic seemed crazy to me and it got me wondering how I could translate Doug’s sustainable business model into my personal life.
Here’s what I ended up laying out for myself:
Doug’s model for Food Waste:
Plan Ahead
Feed People
Green Waste
Record and Revise
How I translated that into my personal life:
Shopping lists and reality checks: I noticed that my buying behaviors fluctuate based on my hunger levels. Not only do I buy healthier stuff when I have a full belly, but I also buy less of it. I also started questioning things that I would purchase; the idealized version of myself who has the time to prepare squash for dinner quickly vanished after a quick and honest reality check. I put the vegetables that needed extra preparation back on the shelves.
Making friends: This was another area I needed to start being more intentional about. I needed to be very aware of how much I could eat because I challenged myself to clear my plate every time. I found myself holding back when I was extra hungry after realizing I had a tendency to fill my plate too full. As for using the things in my pantry, I had to get in the habit of “first in, first out” while paying attention to the things ready to go bad. If I wasn’t going to have time to eat something before it went bad, I needed to get it to someone who would use it, ASAP.
Green waste: I started a compost pile. Surprisingly, this was the easiest part for me. I’m not a gardener, but I talked to my neighbor and he agreed to utilize my compost if I collected it. There is also a plethora of information on the web about how to compost if you don’t have a neighbor. The key here is to start talking to people to see how they strategize.
Keep a Journal and Revise: This part was the hardest for me. Much like food journals, there has been a significant learning curve for me. I started by documenting everything: use-by dates, dates items were purchased, etc., but this was too much! I ended up simply keeping a record of the things that I wasn’t using. I made myself a three-strike rule. If something doesn’t get used three times, it’s out! (or off of my list)
Living a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a goal that needs a foundation and a blueprint to succeed. Although it may seem like an impossible goal, breaking it down into phases for yourself will help build a foundation for success!