Domingo Medina thinks our country’s food waste management system is broken. Armed with a bike and a bucket, he’s beginning to fix it.
Americans waste 40% of food produced annually—that’s an average of about 20 pounds of food, per person, per month that’s not sold, not purchased, or left uneaten. Of those thousands of pounds of wasted food, 97% are headed to a landfill or incinerator. Meanwhile, only 3% are composted and returned to the Earth to replenish the soil and revitalize the food cycle.
To make this number rise in New Haven, Medina founded “Peels and Wheels,” an urban compost project created in conjunction with New Haven Farms. He bikes around the New Haven area collecting food scraps from registered households, brings them to Phoenix Press Farm for composting, and uses the compost to fertilize New Haven farm soil.
Medina realized the need for a program like this in New Haven after discovering that the city had one of the highest incidences of asthma and cancer in the United States. Most New Haven trash is transported to Bridgeport or Hartford to get incinerated, and whatever fumes are emitted from factory smokestacks flow back to the city through the air stream. These pollutants, along with those accumulated over the last century of industrial development and construction of the Route 91 and 95 highway systems, are responsible for the toxic air residents breathe in each day.
The first way to stop this dangerous cycle is to reduce the sheer volume and quantity of food waste we generate. “We’re a wasteful society because we have an abundance,” Medina explains. “There’s no urgency. When you don’t have so much, people tend to save more.” In past decades, families didn’t have access to off-season crops, so people would can food to stock up for the winter. Now, in our globalized trade system, there’s no such thing as “seasonal.” Portions are huge, bulk buying is ubiquitous. Rarely do people feel the need to preserve and conserve food.
Medina likes to think of food waste avoidance as an inverted pyramid. Buy only the food you need, and consume or donate as much of it as you can; if not consumable by humans, give some to animals; and if not consumable by animals, turn scraps into compost so the minerals return to the land. Incineration or landfills are a last — expensive, inefficient, dangerous — resort.
Many people skip right to the bottom of this inverted pyramid, simply because they know nothing about what happens to their trash after it’s collected. “Imagine our trash was not picked up for a year: people start accumulating trash in their house, or in the backyard,” explains Medina. “People would be able to visualize the dimensions of it.” In our current model, however, trash disappears in the back of a truck in the morning, never to be seen again.
“The system is unsustainable,” Medina states, both economically and environmentally— the city of New Haven spends $87.50 per ton to send their trash to landfills, as opposed to $36.80 for recycling.
Composting comes at a price, too, however, which has discouraged some from adopting composting systems in their homes. The “Peels and Wheels” program costs $7.50 per week and $30 per month, to cover labor and operation of the compost facility.
Citizens already pay high taxes for services that include trash collection, says Medina, and don’t want to take on additional expenditures. “But if we are really honest about being sustainable, we have to pay for the true cost of food production and food waste management,” he says. “We pay for water, we pay for electricity…” Why shouldn’t we pay for responsible waste disposal?
So far, though, only 32 households have signed up for the service. The biggest challenge is encouraging more to opt in.
“I don’t call them clients; I call them composters,” Medina says of participants, explaining that the goal is to change people’s mindsets and perceptions, not just their habits. When he first brought his program to a local elementary school, the kids were disgusted. They were forced to fill buckets with lunch scraps and weigh waste, holding their noses and complaining about the smelly corner of their classroom. After a few weeks, however, they were obsessed, and the school adopted the system universally.
Adults are sometimes slower to adapt. “They try to separate themselves from the nastiness of the trash,” Medina explains. “Normally people love to use liners. I don’t use liners.” He pours the food scraps from one bin into another, and leaves the dirty bin behind to be refilled.
“They become closer to what it is—the smell and the messiness,” he says. “They establish a relationship with their food waste so it’s not ugly anymore.”
Each bin holds only 2.4 gallons, forcing composters to actively chop their food into pieces small enough to fit inside, and become aware of how much food they’re wasting. The average household Medina collects from throws away between 8 and 10 pounds per week, but Medina has seen averages as large as 12 pounds — and that’s only from a self-selecting subset of the population that is already committed to sustainability. Multiply those pounds by the number of households in New Haven, most of whom are not composting, and the statistics seem disheartening.
Still, Medina is optimistic about the future. Even by capturing small niches like households and local schools, compost facilities like Medina’s could produce enough compost for urban gardens, trees, parks, and backyards. And in a city like New Haven, with a 10% unemployment rate, the green jobs generated from developing these systems are invaluable.
“If we actually want to deal with environmental issues, social issues, economic issues, then we have to enhance the sustainability of New Haven,” says Medina.
The first step is creating bigger composting facilities, closer to the city — Medina currently has the capacity to manage food scraps from 75 participants, but he has dreams of constructing a mid-size facility that could manage up to 300 tons per year.
For now, Medina is focused on changing the stigmas around food waste, one composter at a time. Sign up for Peels & Wheels here and don’t be afraid to get your hands a little dirty.
Domingo Medina is Compost Manager for New Haven Farms’ Peels & Wheels Compost Program
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New Haven Farms Peels & Wheels Compost Program.“Peels & Wheels” is a neighborhood-scale pilot program that composts household food waste for residents who want to compost but can’t or don’t have the means to do so. Using bikes, bins, and trailers, New Haven Farms pick up your kitchen scraps and other biodegradable materials and take them to the Phoenix Press Farm for composting.
Sign up here