The treasure in the garbage can

April 14, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS

I remember the first wave of guerrilla Dumpster divers. They wanted to feed the hungry of Baltimore, and they detested the practice of supermarkets throwing away so much food. So they raided Dumpsters on behalf of needy men, women and children who turned up at the city's soup kitchens, shelters and charitable pantries looking for food.

Now comes a new kind of Dumpster diver: They scavenge through the American food chain on behalf of the planet - and their backyard gardens.

Lizz King is one such Dumpster diver. She dives to make compost.

She grew up in Baltimore and now resides in West Virginia. She has a favorite target: a local supermarket that has a Dumpster without a trash compacting system. She raids it three times a week to pick up garbage for her compost heap. She carts home rotting fruits and vegetables, a lot of it still in the crates in which it was shipped.

"I've been interested in Dumpsters even from the time I was a little kid," King says. "I've been interested in where food comes from and where it goes for a long time."

And her parents were part of the Baltimore community garden scene in the 1980s.

Now King is doing her thing in her backyard in West Virginia.

"I want to grow my own food," she says.

She's started a garden and a compost pile. Yesterday, she was planting onion sets when I got her on the phone. King hopes to have her garden in full swing this summer, providing her and her boyfriend with enough food to make a difference in their household budget and, of course, reduce their carbon footprint. She'll continue the Dumpster diving to get organic matter - "No meats or dairy" - for her compost pile until someone tells her to stop.

And even after someone tells her to stop.

I'm not about to dive Dumpsters looking for rotten romaine - though I'd be tempted if no one was looking - but I like the attitude and the logic.

King might be, as she says, "one of those free-thinking goofballs," but she has a great point. We waste tons of food in this country, a lot of it convertible to organic use.

There's plenty we could do to save the planet and make our lives - and the lives of our kids - more sustainable. If you haven't thought about this stuff in recent months - how we live, the natural resources we use and waste - then you haven't been paying attention, and you certainly haven't been thinking.

With good reason, the experts tell us the Great Recession of 2009 is different from all the others we've seen, and it's certainly expected to be one of the longest in the nation's history. The recession, the rising costs of energy and the palpable sense that endless growth can't be sustained should have us all reassessing how we live, what we expect and how we might contribute to a better future.

People seem to be wising up to some of those old-fashioned ideas that once seemed too quaint or time-consuming for most of us to even consider.

Like saving pennies. Like clipping coupons. Like making sure what we buy has true value. Like planting a tree. (Arbor Day is in 10 days.)

Or like gardening and growing your own.

How about slowing everything down this year and carving out a space in the backyard for a patch of organically grown vegetables? How about some lettuce and tomatoes, at least? How about a couple of rows of peppers? Why not give it a try?

Or, at least, hit the farmers' markets, and buy local.

"Maybe it's taken the economic crisis to get people to change their habits," Lizz King says. "But whatever the reason, it's a good thing."

I'm thinking as we're talking and wondering: Why don't supermarkets start their own compost piles out back and sell it? Certainly there must be a secondary market for garbage.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, the Metro Vancouver authority recently voted to open two plants to turn waste from local homes, supermarkets and restaurants into compost and biofuel. According to a report in the Richmond Review in Richmond, B.C., it's hoped that the plants will produce biodiesel to power buses or other municipal vehicles.

In Massachusetts, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Massachusetts Food Association established a program that "encourages supermarkets to develop sustainable programs for recycling and reusing organics and other materials."

Baltimore's new sustainability master plan, approved last month by the City Council, calls for an expansion of "composting opportunities" by creating public-private partnerships to get household and commercial food waste into a composting stream to the greatest extent possible.

That's good thinking, and here's hoping for robust follow-through. Imagine a Baltimore with 200,000 backyard gardens - or vacant lots turned into community gardens - and each of them stocked rich with compost from a dozen local heaps built off the waste from households, restaurants and supermarkets. Every taxpaying household would be entitled to, say, 200 free pounds of the stuff a year. No Dumpster diving necessary.

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