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The Language of Waste, Why Food Matters and More (Transcript)

Listen to Darby's episode here.

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Darby Hoover, Senior Resource Specialist, Food & Agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Welcome, Darby and thanks for being on the show today. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, could you please give us a little bit about your background and how you ended up in this fantastic industry?

[00:00:48] Darby Hoover: Yes, absolutely. I got interested in the issue of waste and recycling when I was still in college, at that point, our campus recycling center was student-run, it was before it was part of the Campus Operations and Maintenance, so I and a number of other hippy type students were driving around, broken down flat pads and picking up recycling.

I became very fascinated, not just by the process of doing the recycling and sorting through all of the individual items that people put in cans, whether they were correctly placed or not, but really the idea of waste in general and how that was really to my mind a human-created concept, that you look at nature and you don't see waste per se, everything that dies becomes feedstock for something else.

How did we come up with this situation where we have discards that we can't figure out what to do with, and the best we can do is dig a big hole in the ground and throw them in there? That was where I really started thinking about, "Okay, how do we re-engineer this idea of waste and try to get rid of, not just waste materials themselves, but the processes, concepts, and attitudes that lead us to produce waste in the first place.

[00:02:01] Liz: Right. What a great way to look at that.

[00:02:04] Darby: After that, I spent several years in various nonprofits tackling environmental issues from one angle or another, always coming back to the waste issue is the one that was really intriguing for me. Eventually went to graduate school at UC Berkeley and studied garbage in the energy and resources program, which was a fantastic program.

Then started working as the Executive Director of the Recycled Paper Coalition, which at that time was an organization that was collecting together mostly private sector organizations, but some public sector who exhibit sustained and increasing demand for recycled content paper as a way of closing the recycling loop. Again, it was another advantage point on the whole system of recycling, I found it extremely interesting.

Looking at also how single individuals in large companies could make such a difference, that it doesn't take that much necessarily. Or some company that's immense to do the right thing, sometimes it's just one person or a couple of people who are really considering, what the impacts of their actions are and looking for ways to mitigate those, who can make these big changes.

After that, I came to the Natural Resources Defense Council where I've been for the past 15 years. Variety of issues, all related to waste in some form or another and I'm currently on our Food Waste team.

[00:03:24] Liz: Right. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do at the NRDC? You seem to have your hand in a lot of it.

[00:03:31] Darby: Absolutely. At NRDC I started out by working on what was then our Municipal Solid Waste Project. Even though we were calling it the Solid Waste Project, we were really focused on how to not generate waste in the first place. But in the waste world, that's hard to do, often waste gets segmented off as, "Okay, here's a bunch of stuff that got created from some process and we don't want it anymore, can you waste people figure out what to do with it?"

Often I was getting put into those situations where it was how to manage the existing waste rather than actually looking at how to stop creating it in the first place. When I moved on to our Food Waste team, one of the things that I found really exciting about that is that we were looking at waste, not as something that was a separate consequence of a process that we had to go and manage separately, but as something that essentially was a system's failure.

If there's food waste, that's a problem within the food system, it's not a problem that the waste people get to go solve on the side and nobody else has to think about. That to me is really how you get at the cornerstone of that holy grail of preventing waste from happening in the first place. Rethinking waste is to look at it as a system failure and look at it as an opportunity for adopting new processes, behaviors, policies and programs that will redirect our ideas about what that material is, into recognizing it as something useful that can be repurposed or used for something else.

[00:05:00] Liz: It looks that Food Matters project is comprehensive, doing all that you're saying and more. Could you share more about what that is and how it helps cities and consumers?

[00:05:12] Darby: Absolutely. A couple of years ago in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, we founded a project of our food waste work that we called Food Matters, and that project is really focused on cities and what cities can do to help mitigate or vent wasted food. The reason that we are focused on cities is threefold. First, cities are often the ones who are responsible for dealing with waste, both logistically and financially in the U.S. for handling what happens with municipal waste.

Cities are looking around and saying, "Wait, we're spending money on this, we're spending money sending trucks around and sending materials to landfill. Let's think about how to put less into that waste stream, what is it we're wasting most of?" And in the case of most cities, food is either the top item or very close to the top of what materials are getting put into that waste stream that they could be addressed in some other way. Many cities are interested in dealing with those waste costs, logistics and reducing the impact by reducing the amount of materials there. Food is an obvious place to start.

Second, many cities are concerned with managing hunger and alleviating hunger within their boundaries, so looking at opportunities to waste less food, to be more efficient with our food, to make sure that food that is surplus, that is perfectly good, could be redirected to people in need, is something that cities are generally interested. They're interested in looking at how to use the same amount of food to feed more people, which is part of what, of course, we help work on.

Finally, many cities are adopting now some form of sustainability, or zero waste, or other kinds of environmental or, some cases, social goals that in many ways are going to be enhanced by incorporating food and wasted food into that in conversation. Cities are really well-positioned to take this issue on, and many cities realize this to some degree and start with an approach of saying, "Okay, if there's a lot of food in our waste stream, let's start a composting program."

We love that, we love a composting program, we love organics recycling, but what we love even more is trying to direct attention up the food waste hierarchy to say, "Okay, recycling is great for food scraps, but before we get to allocating all the resources towards recycling, let's look at ways to prevent the waste from happening in the first place and let's also look for ways to rescue that circle."

Let's think about it that all together so that you don't just put all of your budget towards the new compost facility or expand our current organics collection or whatever it might be, let's really direct some of those resources terms of both publicity, education outreach, but also really logistically how do we create new systems and really put those strategies in place of prevention and rescue as well as recycling.

[00:08:09] Liz: It seems you have all the bases covered there. Then I know there's just a huge amount of tools on there too, which is super helpful. I'm sure you're seeing great work and progress down there. Is there a certain city that you've rolled this out in and it's had great success?

[00:08:26] Darby: Yes. When we first started thinking about cities as the place where we wanted to focus a lot of our energy, we started in Nashville.

We picked Nashville for several reasons, one of the reasons was that we had some funders who were interested in having us take a look at Nashville, but it also really suited our needs in terms of saying, "Where is a city that we can work and try to come in and find out what's already being done, and enhance the good work that's already there and maybe provide resources to help elevate some of that work into a new arena, to help really create a conversation that may not be happening around wasted food and what that means environmentally, socially, etcetera?"

Also, in Nashville there's so much social capital, there is a lot of growth, there's a lot of energy, you'd see a number of construction cranes around the city. It's a booming city and it's culturally very vibrant, there's a lot of businesses that are located there, and it's also a medium-sized city in the middle of the country that is not San Francisco or New York.

I live in San Francisco, I know perfectly well that if I go around to the rest of the country and I say, "We're doing XYZ in San Francisco, that means you can do it in your city." Most cities don't relate to that, most cities say, "Well, is fine for San Francisco but we're not San Francisco." But I think a lot more people feel like they can relate to Nashville and what Nashville does.

For many reasons, this was very appealing place for us to work. When we came in, we've really started by trying to listen and trying to form relationships, find out what good work was being done there, and there was good work being done there, but there wasn't a whole lot that had been able to be done in the realm of food waste.

There's a fantastic composting facility nearby, there were some amazing folks who had taken it on themselves to do a collection of organic materials from households and from small businesses, but it was not supported by the city in the way that we hoped we might see it develop.

We spent several years on the ground there and we have now formed a partnership with Urban Green Lab, which is an organization that's housed locally, that is taking over our Nashville's food waste initiative, which is perfect. What we wanted to do really was not just come in as NRDC and say, "We have a lot of ideas, implement them. Okay, we're done, see you later."

What we really wanted to do was work with the local people to find out what solutions were appealing to them, what they were already trying, how we could help bolster what they were doing and eventually, pass on the work to a local organization or organizations to continue and morph into whatever it was going to become. We're feeling really happy about the work that we've done there.

Since Nashville, for the past couple of years we've also been working with Denver and Baltimore, really closely partner with the city staff and a slightly different model from our Nashville work. We've been able to help embed city staff in each of those cities, who work in a dedicated way on the issue of food waste, we've been able to help convene meetings among different city staff, from mayor's offices, public works offices, recycling staff and folks working on food policy and get everybody in the same room so that everybody sees that they're working towards the same collective goal.

I think even just getting people in the same room talking to each other helps people feel, "Okay, I see the bigger picture of what we're doing and how it fits in, maybe somebody from the Public Works Department can offer a waste audit to somebody who's pondering launching a restaurant challenge from another department in the city." And so forth. There are practical benefits to working together, including making sure that we're devoting the right amount of resources to each of those different areas.

We're really excited about the work that we've been doing there and I'll give you a little teaser, which is that the next phase of our work involves looking at how to scale some of that work out to a regional approach. Some of the cities where we've been working, maybe there's an opportunity to work with neighboring cities to try to export those learnings from the cities that have already been able to make some headway and share that with neighboring cities who may be able to also share some of their learnings, etcetera.

[00:12:35] Liz: What a great idea, I can't wait to hear how that goes, you have to keep us posted.

[00:12:40] Darby: We can't wait either, we're just getting started with the visioning and scoping on this, so we're excited to eventually tell you that story.

[00:12:49] Liz: Good. Okay, great and good luck.

[00:12:52] Darby: Thank you.

[00:12:55] Liz: Darby, I heard you speak at Waste Expo last year and in prior years as well, but last year I noticed that the attendees were really drawn to your- I'm using air quotes here, "Words matters narratives." And then you spoke about the importance of how we actually talk about waste and food waste. I thought that was such a fantastic perspective, can you tell our listeners the gist of what you mean and the importance of language around waste and food waste especially?

[00:13:26] Darby: Sure. This interest that I have in how we talk about and conceptualized waste, I really started developing in graduate school. In graduate school I did a master's thesis on essentially metaphors and garbage, how we talk about garbage, and how the ways that we talk about garbage influenced how we treat garbage.

We have these predominant metaphors that we use when we talk about garbage, throwing something away is a metaphor, you don't throw garbage away, where is away? There isn't any away. But you throw it away from your immediate sphere so that you feel you're no longer connected to it. That has not just a linguistic or conceptual impact, that actually has an impact on what happens to that material that you threw away.

This is not just about an individual, this is about a company or a city, we think that if we put something in the right bin and it leaves the sphere that we're in, we've done the right thing, we can stop worrying about it. But what we're seeing now is the consequence of that way of thinking, and that way of speaking and conceptualizing about our waste materials, what we're seeing now is in our recycling system in the U.S., we have a problem, we developed a system that was based on quantity and not quality.

We developed a system that was based on, "There's a good away and there's a bad away." The bad away is you throw something away and it goes into a hole in the ground, everybody knows that's bad. There's a good way, you just put it in this other bin that has a different color, the same material, don't think about the quantities or types of materials that you're consuming, just put it in the good away bin and then you can feel virtuous and you've done the right thing.

To some degree, that's good, to some degree that has meant that people get more familiar with the concept of recycling, they think a little bit about what they're putting in which bin, but they're not really thinking about the consequences of their consumption, they're not thinking about what happened after that bin goes somewhere.

We set up a system that way designed to get a quantity of materials that would then go out of the landfill, that would go away from the bad away into the good away. What we didn't think about is where is it going instead and how do we design our systems to maximize the utility of that feedstock for new processes?

We should have had our eye on the paper mills, using recovered paper on the other kinds of manufacturing facilities that are going to use those recovered materials and asked ourselves, what do those manufacturing facilities in need for us to do to collect those materials in a way that they're usable? We didn't do that when we designed our system, we maximized dissipation.

Now we're in a situation where the increasing quantity and complexity of materials that we're putting in the recycling bin, in the good away bin, means that it's harder and harder to separate things out, and for a while, we could package everything up and send it to China and China would sort it out for us. China has now unsurprisingly said, "We're not going to take all of your garbage along with your recyclables, so you got to do better." We didn't design our systems to automatically do better, so we're struggling.

Part of what I think we need to do is really examine the ways that our words and our attitudes lead to these kinds of systems. Recycling is a metaphor, the chasing arrows symbol is a metaphor, it implies that if you put something into a system, there's an infinite loop where it becomes that same material, and then you can put it back in the bin and it becomes that same material. That's the subconscious implication of those chasing arrow symbols.

We know that entropy exists, material flow is going to come out of that, especially if there's contamination a lot of materials are going to flow out of those chasing arrows. Where are those new resources coming from? We've got to go extract new virgin resources to make those manufactured materials because we didn't figure out a better way to recycle, to keep things in that circular economy.

Which again, is that circle metaphor. We, I think, need to think about the kinds of words that we use, ways that we talk about and hence think about the waste that we produce. Even think about the word waste. Again, if there isn't any waste in nature, why are we assuming waste is something that's given in a human process? We can redesign our systems so that that is eliminated or at least reduced.

[00:17:39] Liz: Right. Such a great point. Do you see that happening anytime soon, Darby? In terms of educating consumers and the road ahead, how do we do that? How do we change that narrative?

[00:17:53] Darby: I think everybody has a part to play. Consumers have a role to play, governments have a role to play, corporations have a role to play, we all need to be moving towards figuring out how to solve this and not put the burden on any one of those entities.

We need to pass policies that put more responsibility on producers for being able to manage the materials that producers introduce to commerce that eventually end up in the waste stream. Much of the world has producer responsibility policies, I think we really need to be taking a better look at how to work within the U.S. to implement that kind of policy in a way that enhances, others that impedes, commerce and our recycling system.

Producers have to play a bigger role in thinking about what materials are even introduced as packages and products in the first place. Consumers have to play a bigger role in thinking about what their expectations are about products and packages.

In food waste, what we see with that is a trend toward buying what's sometimes we call, "Imperfect produce." We see that as an example of, "Okay, some banana may look weird in terms of what you're used to, it might be not as the same curvature that you've encountered for most of your life. It's a banana, it tastes like a banana, performs all the functions of a banana in your cereal and wherever else you're wanting your banana, but that doesn't mean that we need to downgrade that." Although it is downgraded by purchasers, we can still figure out ways to say, "This food is perfectly good, let's eat it."

I think there's also a tension between keeping our economy going and trying to slow down purchasing, which is really one of the main ways to decrease what goes into our waste stream is figure out how to refurbish, reuse, repurpose materials and items that we already have.

Figuring out ways to really think about before you put something in a bin, whether it's, "The good bin or the bad bin." With air quotes around all of that, then think about whether you need to throw it away at all, is there some way that this could be useful. That's a role consumers can play as well. I think we all have to be working together to try to solve this with an eye toward reduction, and not just an eye toward recycling.

[00:20:10] Liz: Yes, great advice, that's so true. Speaking of reduction and dealing with what's already in the stream, what do you think lies ahead with packaging? Are there creative sustainable solutions out there that are ready for the masses yet? What else can be done?

[00:20:28] Darby: I've been working on waste issues in one way or another for over 30 years. Right now, I'm seeing much more public interest in the issue of packaging that I think I've ever seen. That to me is encouraging. I do think it's important to pass legislations restricting the distribution of straws, restricting the distribution of plastic bags, polystyrene foam and the other kinds of materials that are items that get singled out.

That obviously is not how we're going to solve the big problem ultimately, is by taking off little pieces and banning this product or that material and so forth, that alone is not going to create the solution, but it absolutely leads toward the solution by helping shift public awareness around consumption. Do I need a straw? If you need a straw, then one should be available for you, but many of us do not need a straw and we'll just take one automatically if it's offered.

Introducing the idea of choice and the idea of actually being conscious when making that choice is a really critical one in the consumer aspect of this. I think that's actually where it starts, because the main solution we already have for packaging is to have less of it. We already know how to do this, we're seeing zero-waste stores pop up, and back in the '80s those were just co-op stores and other stores that sold a lot of stuff in bulk, where you could bring your own container and it wasn't that big of a deal, but it's being reintroduced now that idea of the zero-waste store.

We're also seeing systems like Loop, where a bunch of companies are getting together to offer reusable packaging and a pilot program to the customers who then eat their ice cream or consume whatever product it is, and then put the packaging out for collection. Also, not a brand-new model, many of us actually remember having a milk delivery service where you put your bottles back on the porch. None of these things are brand new, but we need to reinvent them for how people operate now.

Taking advantage of things. We now have so many cars that are repurposed on the road for delivering people, delivering food, and delivering other items that there's now a whole service economy built around the idea of people driving their private vehicles to shuttle people or goods from one place to another, that is an opportunity.

It's an opportunity for enhancing food rescue where maybe some of those cars can be used to deliver food safely from one place to another, and it's an opportunity for maybe maximizing how we deliver goods that can be then picked up, the packages that can be reused can be picked up. I think there's ways that we can look at our current systems and say, "Do you know what? This is right for some of these old solutions, repackaged to work in today's world." That's where I would start.

[00:23:25] Liz: Okay, that sounds like a great place to start. You've been quoted in the mainstream media talking about the sneaky plastics that are hidden in beauty products and other products that we may not be aware of. Is there a better way to educate ourselves on those types of things as well?

[00:23:43] Darby: That's always such a tricky issue, people ask me a lot of the time, "How do I know which product is better?" Even starting with the old paper bag versus plastic bag question, people will agonize about those personal choices. I think it's wonderful for people to think about it, the agonizing is perhaps, a little farther than I'm hoping people will go, but I do want people to figure out where and how they can make choices.

Learning to read labels on personal care products is important and looking up what words signified that something might be made of little pieces of plastic, so that you know that you're not flushing little pieces of plastic down the drain where they will get into different water systems, that's important but it can be hard to do.

One thing I really think consumers need to do is, if it's too hard to figure out the information, if you're looking at a package and you don't understand it, you don't understand the label, you don't understand what contents are in it, you don't understand what the packaging is made of as well as the product itself, then reach out to the company and let them know that you like their product, but you really want to know this about the product and you really want them to make it a little clearer to consumers.

These days there are way more ways to reach out to companies than there used to be, we used to tell people to write companies a letter or a postcard, now you can tweet at a company and chances are somebody at the company is going to see that and that may get lodged somewhere because it's much more publicly visible. I think the companies feel more of the own is on them to respond, so people are getting responses to their tweets to companies asking for things. Create email campaigns or cyber campaigns if you want to, to reach out companies and let people know that consumers really care. I think that's important to do.

When I'm talking to folks about how to make decisions when they shop, I ask them to just think about some basic criteria. Whenever you're shopping for something, you think, "Okay, how much does this cost? Is it going to meet my needs? Do I like how it performs or how it looks?" I'm not in any way suggesting you need to get rid of those primary questions about whether something that you buy is going to work for you.

I would suggest that you just add another factor which is, "How does this impact the environment? What do I know about that? Does the item or the package have recycled content? Is it recyclable or compostable? Is it made from renewable materials? What are included in the ingredients? Is there any plastic or anything I'm concerned about personally that might be toxic?"

Just ask yourself those questions, see how much of that you can figure out. Can I reduce the amount of packaging I use? How durable is this item? Will it last a long enough that I don't have to throw it away in the next few months? If it's a non-disposable item. Do I need a disposable item? If I'm buying a disposable item or is there a durable item that would take the place of that disposable item. Just think about those questions about anything that you buy.

I think that makes it a little simpler than saying, "Okay, for this product, you got to look for this thing, and for this product, you have to look for this thing," But consumers need help, they need help from the companies to be clearer and more transparent about what goes into their products and packages.

[00:26:52] Liz: Definitely. To your point, I think raising the awareness on the consumer end, and just all of us being more conscious of what we're buying, reading labels and considering the questions you posed will be super helpful.

[00:27:06] Darby: I know it's overwhelming, it can feel very overwhelming, that's why I think the companies really have to help with being clearer and more direct with their communications.

[00:26:17] Liz: Definitely. Darby, what were some of the coolest programs you helped implement in the sports and entertainment world? It looks like you worked on some pretty interesting ones from the Academy Awards to Major League Baseball, would love to hear a little bit about that.

[00:27:35] Darby: Absolutely. We had at NRDC for about 10 years a sports and entertainment greening program. This came about because we had the opportunity to talk early on with folks like Major League Baseball and learned that there were teams and venues that were interested in doing environmentally progressive work. They wanted some advice on where to start.

Our idea was, "Well, where we probably want to start is at the top. What we want is for the commissioner-" Who was at that time Bud Selig of Major League Baseball, "-to say this is an important issue for the entire league and we want everybody to be working on it." We were fortunate enough to get that buy-in and to have the announcement from the commissioner's office and later were able to get similar announcements from the commissioner's offices of other major league sports in the U.S.

That work to me was a really fabulous way to do environmental advocacy because [unintelligible 00:28:43] in particular is a place where people relax, and it's a spirit of play, not work. You're bringing environmental messages to people in a way that feels like playing, not work. Most of the time we put out environmental messages and we say, "You have to do this, you have to do that, the world is ending, yada, yada."

People feel burdened and they feel, "This is a chore, I got to do this". But if instead, their favorite athlete is telling them to throw this item in the right recycling bin just like they're going to baseball across the plate or whatever it is, it brings a different tone to the messaging, one which really helps us reach fans.

That was really one of the key impact of the work is, is that it was three folds, that we were working to improve on the ground how energy was provided, how waste was managed, how products were purchased and water efficiency, energy efficiency, many different aspects of the operations of a particular sports venue. At the same time, you're able to reach upward to the supply chain and signal to suppliers, "We'd like antibiotic-free hot dogs."

"We would like products that are made from recycled content. We would like a compostable food service ware." That's a signal up the supply chain to say, "This is something that's now of interest." Not just to one venue, but because we were working with entire leagues, but signaling that this is something the sports industry is really interested in.

Then also, the third leg of that work is reaching out to fans and getting that opportunity to that fan education, even if it's just, "Look they've got a waste station that's got a compost bin, a recycling bin and no landfill bin because in fact nothing sold in this stadium is really destined for landfill, it's all compostable or recyclable." Those changes and that way to influence culture was very exciting to me.

Then we were also lucky enough to work with Emmy Awards, the Grammys, Broadway and other folks in the entertainment industry to help them, again, as not just individual events or facilities, but really a way of changing culture. For example, when we were working with the Academy Awards, we helped figure out if there was a way to shift the generators. I think at that time we were looking at different biofuel generators and whether it was possible to shift it to biofuel.

That generator company supplied all the productions in Hollywood, or a majority of productions in Hollywood, so by making that available to one event once a year, we opened up a market segment for all of Hollywood that may not have been there if we hadn't been working with that particular company. Again, very visible institutions and events I think can really help shift people are perceiving the importance of this work and the significance of this work.

I'm really happy that all of the different organizations that we worked with adopted these initiatives so enthusiastically, we created a Green Sports Alliance, which exists and is expanded and grown into a massive fantastic organization today. We've worked with all these other organizations that kept their initiatives going, so this is really something that we found truly exciting and fun to work on.

[00:32:15] Liz: I like that. The results are astounding, great job, that's amazing.

[00:32:20] Darby: It's amazing what you can do when you work with an entire industry and something becomes part of that culture of the industry. I think that is a critical part of the shift. What you don't want is to say, "Let's work with this company even if it's a huge company."

Even though I said earlier, sometimes the power of one single champion can really shift what happens in a company, it has to shift in a way where it becomes part of that company's culture, otherwise, when that person leaves, that company may or may not continue doing whatever that person had instigated.

You've got to make sure that even if you have one champion or one instigator in an organization, it's got to become institutionalized in some way for it to persist because nobody last at a company for all eternity, have got to make sure that we create systems that last longer than people.

[00:33:08] Liz: True. You mentioned earlier too -and we have to note that- it's so encouraging to see such a sharp focus on food reduction and food waste these days, it really has tipped into mass media, mass interest and the consumer awareness that has never been higher. What do you think is next as we figure this all out?

[00:33:33] Darby: Well, first I'm excited about that because I think NRDC has played a significant role in that awareness, put out the report Wasted in 2012 and updated it in 2017. I think that was one of the first places that many people learned that up to 40% of our food is going to waste in this country. That is not just galvanizing, but comprehensible. I think it's hard sometimes to understand the impacts of energy efficiency or carbon because we don't see them, we don't touch them in the same way that we touch food, we interact with food every day.

Everybody interacts with food at some point and everyone has had the experience of watching something in the refrigerator become moldy or thinking, "I really should eat that kale, but I don't actually like kale, I just bought it because I wanted to feel like I was [inaudible 00:34:22] healthy food and I don't want it, so I'm not going to eat it, and then when it goes bad, I'll throw it out". Everybody's had an experience that they can relate to about food going to waste and we all understand that food is meant to be eaten.

Especially, when you pair up to 40% of food is going to waste in this country with the statistic, that one in eight or one in nine Americans is food insecure, that at some point they don't know where the next meal is coming from. It's obscene, it seems something that's really wrong and that people get is really wrong on a visceral level. Each person can do something about this problem, each person can tackle the issue of wasted food in their own household and each organization can look at it ways to waste less food.

I think raising that kind of awareness and seeing what happens was indeed the first step. For us, the next step is -and this is why we're working in cities- the next step is really getting this institutionalized. Once we've got the awareness and people understand that it's the problem and they understand that there are solutions and think about ways to direct their actions to help prevent wasting food, we need to make sure that there are also supportive policies and programs at the city level, at the state level, at the corporate level, everywhere people go, so that it makes it easier for people.

If you go to a restaurant maybe there's different choices of portion sizes. If you go to the grocery store, maybe they actually let some of the produce in the bins run down to a lower level before they restock, so the ones on the bottom get purchased. Maybe there are ways that we can all work together with these attitudes about, "Dating food is important, not wasting food is important", so that we really get there. I think that's happening, I think people are paying attention, I think people are going to look at the resources on our SaveTheFood.com webpage to learn how to waste less food. I think people are starting to figure it out.

[00:36:24] Liz: I think so too. We applaud your work, the work that you guys have done there at NRDC to really make this rise to the top of the awareness spectrum beyond just the industry, because that really helps.

[00:36:40] Darby: Thank you.

[00:36:41] Liz: I know you mentioned the fact that one person can do so much and don't discount the individual contribution overall, what advice would you have to people actually entering the world of waste recycling and organics? Is there any particular advice you would have for them to really make the most of this point in time in such an exciting industry right now?

[00:37:07] Darby: I think for me, it really is about keeping your eye on the prize, keeping your eye on where we want to go and always keeping that big picture in mind. For me, the big picture is, "We don't waste", waste is an anomaly rather than a given, that we have designed our processes and products to where they don't have to go often to a hole in the ground because we can't figure out what else to do with them. That's my prize, I want to get to where we are not even thinking about waste as something that is part of our daily lives.

That to me influences how I do environmental advocacy, how I do policy advocacy, etcetera, and thinking about ways of designing our systems that lead toward that eventual goal. For me, that means things like, "Let's not continue to promote more single-stream recycling if that's what's getting us in trouble. Let's figure out how to go back to some separated streams", or, "Let's figure out how to reduce the complexity of the materials in our waste stream or whatever it is". Figuring out what niche appeals to you.

I heard something interesting the other day, it was along the lines of the, "What color is my parachute way of thinking?" and then often many of us are told, "Find your passion. Find your passion and work on something that you feel passionate about and then you'll be satisfied and fulfilled". Well, many of us don't know what we feel passionate about, many of us aren't sure that we feel passionate about something. But what I have found and what I have read in this article that I thought was really good advice was, "You don't have to know what you're passionate about, find something that's interesting to you and pursue the line of something that's intriguing, that you're curious about. Go down that road and see where it leads you."

That I think is a way for us to stay engaged, and that will often lead to developing a passion for something, just because you've learned enough about it and you've gotten involved enough with it, that it's now something that you feel, "Okay, this is really important and I'm really glad I'm engaged with that". For me, that's the kind of goal. We want people to be engaged with the work and find it interesting and compelling because that's the only way we're going to keep doing the work. You have to figure out what about it that is fascinating to you.

[00:39:21] Liz: Right, that's great advice. Really, for this industry or any industry.

[00:39:27] Darby: Yes, I would think so. I've just watched too many folks, some of whom are my peers so we've been at this for a while, I've watched too many folks struggle with the idea that, "Well, I'm not passionate in my job, am I doing it wrong?", to which my answer would be, "No, of course not, everybody's got to work in different ways for different reasons", and if you're lucky enough to find something that's interesting to you, then I think that's the jackpot.

[00:39:52] Liz: Definitely, I love that. What keeps you busy outside of work?

[00:39:57] Darby: Well, going home and sorting through my various bins of course, agonizing over everything I throw away. But other than that, I really enjoy trying to get outside as much as I can. I live in the city and even in the city, I think figuring out the pockets of nature that I can appreciate. I appreciate flowers being grown in somebody's yard and really trying to do mini versions of what I think the Japanese would have a word for that means, "Forest bathing". Just doing little ways of letting myself recharge which often has to do with nature.

Getting outside and moving my body and having nature be something that inspires me is something that I think is really important for probably everybody, to some degree. Certainly is a way that I recharge. I also love to read fiction, I love to- yes, then hang out with friends, basically try to live a fairly low-key life.

[00:40:53] Liz: That's great, good for you. That sounds great. I can tell by listening to you and what I've seen at your sessions at Waste Expo, you're very well-read, so if you have any book recommendations, we'd love to hear those. What are you reading right now?

[00:41:08] Darby: Excellent. Let's see, what was the most recent books that I was just wanting to get back to? Well, I'm right now actually reading an issue of ZYZZYVA, which is a San Francisco publication that has local art, local artists, local poets and writers and so forth.

There's also a fantastic addition of McSweeney's that has just come out recently, that was done in partnership with NRDC, I don't know if you've heard about this but it's a climate collaboration, it's one of the regular McSweeney's issues. The storytellers in McSweeney's worked with particular experts at NRDC to develop stories that have to do with how climate change will affect us in 20 years from now.

The stories really revolve around a particular, "Here's the impact of the coral reef, here's a city that has flooded, etcetera". They're very compelling, they're written by fiction writers, so that they're very readable, exciting, and have character development and all that good stuff. But they're also really visioning of what's going to happen to us in just 20 years if we don't change the path we're on. That's one of the things I'm finding really compelling right now.

[00:42:28] Liz: That sounds it, I will check it out for sure. Darby, how can listeners hear more from you and more from NRDC?

[00:42:37] Darby: Well, check out NRDC's webpage, that's probably the best way to find out what we're up to. You'll get a series of stories, blogs, reports and, like you mentioned, a bunch of the different tools that we've created recently on how to implement policies and programs that relate to food waste, in particular. I think that's probably the best way to keep up with our work.

[00:43:00] Liz: That sounds great. Well, thank you so much for this Darby, this has been so insightful and fun, I look forward to seeing you at Waste Expo in May.

[00:43:08] Darby: [unintelligible 00:43:08]. Thank you so much for the opportunity, and I look forward to seeing you too.

[00:43:12] Liz: All right. Thanks, Darby, have a great day.

[00:43:14] Darby: All right. Thank you, you too. Bye-bye.

[music] 

 

 

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