What if you knew you could heal the world by throwing your food away — in the right place?
It’s now possible for synagogues and temples in about 30 of America’s larger urban areas to recycle and compost most, if not all, of the food and packaging materials they generate. This means they can create no-waste simchot (celebrations), which satisfies those key Jewish environmental principles, ba’al tashchit (“don’t waste”) and tikkun olam (heal the earth).
For most of human history, we have been grinding up the earth’s resources and throwing them into garbage dumps. It’s all simply explained in Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.com). EPA waste statistics show that almost 80 percent of what we send to landfills as “garbage” shouldn’t be going there at all. Most, according to its 2007 report (www.epa.gov/waste/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw07-fs.pdf) can still be recycled and re-used: Glass (5.3 percent), metals (8.2 percent), plastics (12 percent), organics (31 percent — 12.5 percent food scraps, 12.8 percent yard trimmings, and 5.6 percent wood), and paper (33 percent). It leaves policymakers asking themselves, “Why are we building and maintaining giant, expensive landfills, when only 20 percent of what our citizens throw away belongs there?”
Good question. It’s more expensive to invest in waste than to divert it for recycling and composting.
For all other species on earth, waste is food. For humans, it’s unusable and usually dangerous. In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonnough and Michael Braungart eloquently call for us to redesign everything, and make it safe, long-lasting and recyclable. The EPA says we have made progress: Americans now recycle about 33 percent of municipal solid waste, up from less than 10 percent in 1980, and we’ve cut waste to landfills from 89 percent in 1980 to 54 percent now. But we can do better.
Much of what ends up in the garbage today is food, the number two item in most Jewish celebrations. While America’s organic waste recycling programs now capture about 64 percent of our landscape waste, they get less than 3 percent of our food scraps.
The advantage of diverting food into the organic waste stream go beyond ba’al tashchit and tikkun olam. Within 90 days, the waste is transformed into compost, which we can use to grow new food and landscapes. But more than that, it saves money. To encourage recycling and composting, cities and towns charge lower collection fees for them than for garbage. And since at least half of the waste usually generated by any Jewish house of worship is food-related, we’re looking at significant annual savings for the congregation.
How to get your synagogue or temple connected to organic waste collection? Check Biocycle’s “Find a Composter” listings (www.findacomposter.com). If yours is one of the lucky localities, ask your local waste management department how your congregation can participate.
I initiated our Potluck Project at Kol HaNeshamah five years ago, when I learned that the City of Seattle would pick up food and organic waste from our building. We already recycled glass, paper, metal and plastic. Now, we could divert food scraps, paper and biodegradable serving ware, stained pizza boxes and other food-related goods and packaging from the garbage.
The next steps I recommend:
1. Get your board, Tikkun Olam or Social Action committee, and congregants educated and involved.
2. Find places (a) near the kitchen where organic waste, recyclables and garbage can be collected, and (b) outside, where trucks can pick them up.
3. Instruct your janitor, who will handle (a) lining the collection, and (b) cleanup and movement of full bags to outside containers.
4. Inform and instruct your caterers and other food service suppliers of your no-waste protocol.
5. Deputize high school and adult congregants as shomrei adamah (guardians of the Earth) to help guide diners in where to discard their organics, recyclables and garbage.
6. Supply your kitchen with the necessary biodegradable or permanent plates, cups, napkins, and cutlery, and biodegradable liner bags for waste cans, and
7. Announce your new no-waste plan before meals begin, in your newsletter, and in event planning packets for upcoming simchot.
KHN shares space with the Alki United Church of Christ, and gets more than twice the bang for our buck, as the preschool, garden club and other organizations that meet in the UCC building also participate in the no-waste foodservice program. Our single action ripples far beyond our single congregation. Seattle’s Temple Beth Am and Hillel at the University of Washington have also gone no-waste, as have a small number of congregations in the Midwest and Northeast.
But we expect that number to grow. My Grandma Sonia used to say, “Ess gesunt!” (“Eat for your health!”) She’d probably be happy to learn that we could all eat for the earth’s health, too.