Thursday, March 24, 2011

Refuse: A Tale of Two Cities... ok, one's a town...

Mom's garbage set up - black is garbage
I'm always amazed when I visit Seattle how far ahead they are of my local area in reducing waste. When we first moved to Germany, we were stunned to find a trash can about half the size of our old one, and dumbfounded to learn it was picked up bi-weekly. We are a small family of three and were relatively conscientious, we thought, about recycling, reusing, and our consumption. We usually didn't fill our 32-gallon can in Maryland, but certainly we more than filled it over a two week period. Now we were being challenged, nay limited, to produce half that amount of garbage. We asked others, how do you manage it? Easy. You drive your garbage to the military base and dump it into one of the many many giant dumpsters. So, we did that a few times. Generally, those giant dumpsters themselves were overflowing, bags left on the ground beside them along with all sorts of assorted junk items. Without a junk yard, I guess this was it. But we really weren't keen on driving garbage ten miles to dump it. So, we settled into the local ways and began reducing our refuse. By the time we left Germany, we rarely filled our bi-weekly smaller can. A triumph.

People frequently ask my husband and I what is the most dramatic difference between our time in Germany and returning home to Maryland. There are a lot of things, but invariably we say: the garbage. We returned home as leaner, meaner garbage producers and have stayed that way. By composting, we were able to reduce our stateside waste tremendously. By consuming local foods, we avoid all the packaging that comes from buying prepared foods and other products. It's amazing how it adds up. Our neighbors, on the other hand, seem to be running a junk yard. Indeed, we have no idea how they produce so much waste. We have nine homes on our little road, so we don't know which neighbors in particular are dumping the most garbage. It is definitely multiple homes. But, it's shocking. If I remember, I'll add a photo later to this post. The garbage is picked up every week and the massive number of bags that are set out on the curb together is stunning.

I think they must have all lobbied against the "pay by the bag" bill that was being debated when we returned to Maryland. Currently our waste gets shipped to Virginia to be dumped. Kinda sad, I know.  The increasing costs of gas and probably Virginians objecting to other States waste has led to steadily rising bills for the town. So, it was proposed in 2008 that the Town move to a pay as you go system. I think you got some number of 32-gallon bags a year allotted free and then you could purchase additional bags for $2.50/each. Something like that. The Town had calculated recycling adoption rates at about 35% in the town. So there certainly is a lot of trimming to be done to the piles that get trucked to our southern neighbor.  Residents were up in arms. The measure failed to pass. The town management warned that eventually something would have to give. Most people view tomorrow as another day: today, pick up my damn garbage. There is another campaign to increase recycling adoption through single stream recycling. So, we'll see what the future holds.

In the meantime, in Seattle, residents are given recycling bins, food and yard waste bins, and garbage. The photo above is my mother's setup. Can you believe how small that garbage bin is? It's 10 gallons, apparently. Looks like 2 gallons to me. All of these are picked up weekly. In the food and yard waste bin you can put all food items of any kind, including their compostable (like cardboard) containers. There are special plastic bags you can use that are compostable, so you can store your food waste in them and then toss the bag in for cleanliness. The city already provides compost containers for residents to use on their own property, but now they run a giant compost system for the County. You pay depending on what size containers you want, so you can indeed choose a 32-gallon container, and you can choose smaller yard waste and recycling bins.

In the restaurants here they also have mandatory composting. As you finish your meal at a local fish-n-chips place near my mom's house, your greeted with three bins at the tray disposal. The small containers for tartar sauce are dumped into food waste, the bigger coleslaw container goes to recycling, including the coleslaw, and only the plastic utensils, straws and a few other things head to trash. An array of photos on each bin gives you a visual guide to somewhat complex disposal rules. The food containers are mostly composted. It's really very impressive.

I suppose the only real difficulty here is that it's an entire change in perspective. You have to change  the way you handle your waste, keeping in mind what goes where. That's a social change that seems a long way from a community with a 35% adoption rate of recycling.

Though Seattle's system may sound complex, it's in the spirit of simple living - and this post is part of Simple Lives Thursday at Sustainable Eats. And speaking of simple things, here's some simple pleasures from my mom's garden. Spring has sprung in Seattle and she's got a grand array of tiny flowers blooming everywhere.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Real Food in the Ill-Equipped Kitchen

Mom's kitchen
I am in Seattle for three weeks helping my mother in her recovery from open heart surgery. We got her home from the hospital Monday afternoon, and I knew the main thing she needed was uninterrupted sleep and good food. Eating at this point was/is still exercise, so things that are chewy, like meats, were out the question. Even pasta was too much work and then she wouldn't eat enough to get any calories. So, soup it was. My cookbooks are all at home, of course, but I figured that if I googled a recipe with a book title someone, somewhere would have posted it online. Sure enough. Yesterday I went seeking this wonderful squash soup made simply with squash, apples, onions, and a hearty amount of ginger from Simply in Season. I found it on The Local Cook, a blog I already read.

My mother lives alone in a vibrant city. She loves good high quality food, Real Food we might say, but being alone and in a tiny place, her own cooking is simple and she often eats out. In Seattle, eating out doesn't mean Applebees, though I'm sure they exist here. She eats very well at family owned businesses normally, but now she's not able to do that for some time. Preparing to come out here, I figured I could make her a lot of great food, store stuff for when I'm gone and she still can't do much by herself. I knew her kitchen was tiny, but I had no idea how limited her basic kitchen tools were. In all the times I've visited her over eight years or so, I'm not sure we've cooked in the kitchen.

I'm used to a fairly large kitchen. Her entire home is less than 800 sq feet, so the kitchen is more like a NYC galley kitchen. I remember in graduate school visiting someone in the city and finding that their kitchen was this remarkable sliding door, fold-out contraption that was literally in the entry hall. In my mom's home, the entire workspace is this two feet long piece of counter next to the sink. 

In any case, I set about preparing the squash soup yesterday. A large butternut, two large onions, ginger, and two apples. You also need chicken broth, which I had made in her one large pot a few nights before. I discovered she has no large bowls. No mixing bowls, nothing, at least that I could find. And just the one gallon pot. So I set about this elaborate maneuver of straining the broth using a colander that had too many holes over a variety of small bowls. At least half the broth made it to the floor, I think, but eventually I had a pot for the soup and enough broth to make it.

Then the fun really started. There are a multitude of very small, very cheap (meaning high-likelihood of cutting yourself) knives, but not much else. No chef's knife. She has her father's carving knife and bread knife. he died in 1952. A paring knife, and a short-bladed serrated knife. At first I found no peeler, later I found a peeler that was too dull to peel. This recipe requires peeling and cubing the squash. Joys. And I thought chopping the onion and apple were going to be hard. they were. Having hacked all the skin off the squash with a paring knife, I was left perplexed about how to cut this huge thing. The only option was the bread knife. Hey, it worked, and, surprisingly, it actually worked well.

These were the knives I had to work with

An hour later, we had supper and, in spite of all the limitations, it still tasted great. I topped it with a big dollop of chevre cheese to add creaminess and extra calories for her. Fabulous. Having said that, I think I'm likely to buy a chef's knife during my stay.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday and Simple Lives Thursday - two great sources for other blogs on related topics.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Disney's Sustainable Farming Research

We had a wonderful long weekend at Disney World recently. During the zip zip touring of the parks amidst throngs of strangers out for President's Day weekend, we enjoyed a leisurely boat tour through Epcot's Living with the Land attraction. I recalled that we had seen some of Disney's hydroponics research during our last visit in 2003, but I couldn't remember the details. They really do a nice job of focusing on key reasons for sustainable farming, while staying true to their animatronics approach to entertainment. The boat ride takes you through some very-Disney like scenery and a voice over that gives a very moderate message: "we had amazing advances in productivity in farming, but didn't understand the consequences of those advances... now we have to rethink things."  It occurs to me that this is probably pretty effective at engaging people, rather than putting them on the defensive.

Then you turn a corner into a very non-Disney-like greenhouse and aquaculture area. Disney is researching Integrate Pest Management (IPM) methods and hydroponics to increase yields of plants while reducing dependencies on chemical fertilizers and insecticides. They are also growing lesser known plants to see how they adapt to the climate and might be further used. They highlighted a tomato tree, though I'm not quite sure what it really is.. it did look like a tree. In any case, the tomato tree has lasted up to 18 months in their greenhouse and produced a massive number of tomatoes. They demonstrated a mixed hydroponic and aquaculture system using cilantro growing over tilapia.

They talked about the research being done in conjunction with the USDA, and from a little Internet searching, it looks like the University of Florida is also involved. Their gardens cover about 2 acres and they use the produce in some of their restaurants. They said they also farm 55,000 lbs of fish each year, which are also served at the restaurants.

It's great to see large companies like Disney using the power of their platform to advocate for their environment. At Epcot, there is this exhibit and others that focus on sustainable energy production, generally with a pretty even presentation (imho). The Animal Kingdom, naturally, focused on endangered animals and protecting their environs. With tens of thousands of visitors daily, I imagine the message gets through to at least a few new people each day.... particularly to a few kids, to whom it matters most. I'd love to hear from anyone who has done the full greenhouse and garden tour. I'm curious to understand better what they really are concentrating on and whether their actions match their tour boat.

This post is part of the Real Food Wednesday blog roll at Kelly The Kitchen Kop.  Check it out for recipes and various lessons in the hunt for Real Food across the globe.