SDP 2021-2022 Week 8: Waste and Waste Alternatives

For our class this week, we read Andrew Smith’s “The Perfect Storm: A History of Food Waste” and Laura Moreno et al.’s “Researching Food Waste at the Consumer Level.”

We started the class with a discussion of these readings, both of which are from the Routledge Handbook on Food Waste. Anand started off the conversation by pointing out that both readings emphasize the importance of understanding structures, regimes, systems, larger-scale dynamics, and patterns that work at the larger level. While our habitual mode of thinking may be to focus on the individual and ask why we waste food, this mode of thinking brings about a simplistic mentality: “Let’s educate people and things will get better.” But as Greg and Shashawnda also reminded us, we shall not so much look into waste as a lifestyle issue, but aim, instead, to understand what kinds of structures and forces influence habits around waste. One example Greg had shared was about buses. Instead of asking people “Do you like buses?” we should rephrase the question as “Can you access the bus? Is the system set up in a way that you can get somewhere on time?” How we structure our questions will have a tremendous influence on the overall effectiveness of the answers we will receive.

Another point that came up from the readings was the possibility of using research methods as a way to engage people in structural thinking, encouraging them to question these larger-scale dynamics at play. The survey could especially serve to incite some form of transformation in people’s ways of thinking, opening up possibilities for them to become part of the larger zero-waste movement in Baltimore.

Aimee pointed out that access to food waste increases food waste and that we should also be thinking about the food safety aspect, something the readings avoided discussing. Anand reminded us of some of the insights that come out of anthropology in relation to waste. Excess is often celebrated in many cultures. In fact, we ourselves may have a difficult time imagining a ritual or a party where we run out of food - we often set up parties and gatherings to do exactly the reverse. What would it then mean to be attentive to these kinds of very culturally engrained practices? At the same time, a lot of people already recognize that food waste is a problem from morally charged perspectives that are often informed by religious attachments. But there are other kinds of attachments, too, such as the social gratification of hosting a party with plenty of food. So dealing with food waste shall not be a matter of leaning on normative rules, as in “You are bad if you waste food.” Instead, one approach may be to think about people’s different forms of attachments and try to disentangle how they intersect and strategize on how they may be mobilized for the purpose of a zero-waste future in Baltimore.

After this rich discussion, we split into our working groups to discuss strategies for the institution and community parts of our mobilizing efforts. In the institution group, we were joined by Nicole Labruto who filled us in on the faculty-led inter-institutional coalition in Baltimore for promoting zero-waste. Their objective is to create a document that universities can sign onto, a non-legally binding agreement that they (institutions) would support a local compost facility, instead of sending their compost elsewhere for anaerobic digestion. Nicole told us a student-led movement at Hopkins would highly strengthen their demands. Thus our group strategized on the different avenues for mobilization across campuses.

Then we gathered back together as a whole class and shared our strategies. The community group has been working on a survey to conduct in various neighborhoods around Homewood. Anand mentioned that last year’s survey had been quite transformative for the Baltimore Compost Collective. The question of how we define ourselves as a group was raised both within the institution group and in the whole-class discussion. Who are “we”? How will we present ourselves to stakeholders when we approach them? Are we a class at JHU, part of SBCLT, or something else entirely? We decided this is something we wish to discuss with Greg and Shashawnda, and contemplate upon further.

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