The ULS Report TM

Helping people Use Less Stuff by conserving
resources and reducing waste.

September-October 1997
Volume 4, Number 5


A Fruitful Approach to Food Waste

Maybe you've heard that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recently declared war on food waste -- and none too soon, if you ask us. American households are responsible for 14 million tons, or 28 billion pounds, of food waste per year. That's 280 pounds of food per household tossed into the trash annually.

Problem is, it doesn't stop there. A great deal of additional food is thrown away before it even gets to our homes. Because of our passion for the perfect fruit, much of the less visually appealing stuff is simply left to rot. Besides quality, there's also quantity. Subsidies on certain foodstuffs cause farmers to grow more than what's needed, leading to the storage and eventual disposal of unconsumed agricultural products.

In all cases, the true wastes go deeper than the food. There's the water, fertilizer and pesticide used to grow it, and the fuel used to transport it. In fact, from a life cycle view, waste from food production is probably far more significant than waste from food packaging.

The good news is, it really doesn't have to be this way. The even better news is that keeping excess greens, grains and gouda out of the trash is simple to do and will keep extra green in your pocket, too. Here's how:

Before you shop...

  1. Go through your pantry, fridge and freezer. Check what's on hand and also check the dates and condition of leftovers so that you know what's about to expire or spoil.

  2. Use this information to make a weekly meal plan based upon what you already have, with emphasis on using the most perishable items. Make a list of what you don't have at home to complete meals, and buy from the list.

  3. Not sure what to do with some of the stuff? Consult a cook book. An excellent choice is The Use-It-Up Cookbook, A Guide For Minimizing Food Waste. To order, call Lois Hillard at 612-378-9697. It's $12.95 postpaid.

At the store...

  1. Buy from the list, and stick to it.

  2. Avoid sales on produce if the food is very ripe and you're not prepared to eat it right away. You'll end up tossing much of it.

  3. Don't make impulse purchases of items that you don't use regularly. They might spoil before you ever get to them.

  4. Stick to what your family will eat. Garbage Project studies have shown that experimentation usually leads to fermentation -- kids especially don't like to deviate too far from the tried and true.

  5. Shop after you've eaten. You really do buy less.

Preparing, Serving and Storing

  1. Prepare only what you need for this meal. Break down unused meats into smaller, easy-to-use quantities. Wrap, label and place in the freezer.

  2. Serve smaller portions. Let people take seconds, rather than overfilling their plates.

  3. Pack up leftovers in tight containers. Label with the day served and type of food.

  4. Store leftovers and other perishables in the front of the fridge or freezer, so they can be easily seen.

  5. Compost any remaining fruits and vegetables.

Remember what grandma said: Waste not, want not. Bon appetit!

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Ask Bill & Bob

The last few issues have really seemed to get some people thinking, or at least reacting. We thought we'd share and answer the two related questions that were asked most frequently by readers.

You stated in the July-August, 1997 issue that burning one gallon of gasoline produces over 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. A gallon of gas weighs only about 8 pounds, so how can this be?

The answer, my friends, is literally blowin' in the wind. When gasoline is burned, the reaction causes the carbon in the gas to react chemically with oxygen in the air, creating carbon dioxide. Here's the math, simplified, but still accurate:

Most of the weight of gasoline, about six pounds per gallon, is carbon. In carbon dioxide, which consists of one carbon atom and two heavier oxygen atoms, the carbon accounts for roughly 27 percent of the total weight. This means that oxygen accounts for the other 73 percent, which would be 16 pounds. Thus, the total weight of the carbon dioxide produced is 22 pounds. (Thanks go to Bruce Nordman of the U.S. Department of Energy for help with this answer.)

Now, it should be easy to see why excess carbon dioxide production is of such concern to climatologists, ecologists, and environmentalists. Burning carbon-based fuels (wood, oil, gas, coal, etc.) not only pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it takes oxygen out of the air in order to do it!

Why are we worried about carbon dioxide, when we humans account for such a small percentage of its total global production?

First, we know that in the last 100 years, when man began fossil fuel use and mechanized deforestation, global mean temperatures have risen slightly, about one degree Fahrenheit. There is good reason to believe that there is a relationship between the related increase in CO2 production and this temperature increase.

Second, the fact that we only contribute small quantities may be all that's necessary to create imbalances in the world's climates and ecosystems. Remember, a few additional grains of sand can start a landslide, just as one straw can break the proverbial camel's back.

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Canadian Study Confirms ULS Message

A recently released report from the Institute of Policy Analysis at the University of Toronto has reached many of the same conclusions that we have been discussing here in The ULS Report. The study, titled Packaging Waste Reduction in Canada: An Assessment of Policies, Markets and Myths, examined changes in waste levels for soft drink containers. Many of the findings are of value regardless of where one lives:

There's another important point buried in these facts. Reducing and recycling work best when they work together. Remember, the original phrase was reduce, reuse and recycle, not "or" recycle! We need to do it all to be successful. To get a copy of the study, call Professor Michael Hare at 416-978-4349.

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Taking Advantage of the Law

By Dr. William L. Rathje

When you fall for stereotypes, surprises are inevitable. Consider the example of the magazine photographer who was sent into the wilds of Australia's Great Western Desert to find and photograph "natural man" -- simple hunter-gatherers who would represent early stages in human evolution. When at last he happened upon a group of naked aborigines carrying a few simple tools as they trotted along an arroyo bank, he took out his camera. He was shocked when the aborigines used perfect English to decline to be photographed. It seems these back-to-nature enthusiasts were "weekend abs," most of whom worked weekdays at a nearby U.S. satellite tracking station.

These weekend abs are a prime example of what cultural anthropologist Elman Service called the Law of Evolutionary Potential. Simply stated, it is the story of the modernizing world -- those who are technologically the most deprived can quickly catch up with and even surpass those who are today's technology titans. For example, while it took inventions galore, gradual improvements and thousands of years to change from wooden clubs to today's high-powered firearms, it took one of the weekend abs just a few hours to purchase and learn to effectively fire the 45 automatic he carried along with his digging stick. We humans can learn from the past successes and failures of others and do not have to repeat the latter.

I learned that edifying lesson again recently when I spent some time in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Of course I wanted to see their garbage and landfills close-up and become familiar with the ways that Brazilians manage their solid wastes. I don't know exactly what I expected, but Sao Paolo is one of the world's largest cities, and the perception in the U.S. is that large cities have less than state-of-the-art landfills. New York City's Fresh Kills is a good example. Garbage was placed in a tidal marsh when Fresh Kills was opened in 1948 -- there were no impermeable liners to put down and no one had yet realized the value of doing so. Given that Sao Paolo is an old city with a population twice that of New York, I expected a similar landfill creating similar problems.

Imagine my surprise when my first glimpse of Banderantes Landfill, Sao Paolo's biggest, included methane vents, a lattice of leachate collection systems, and the latest high-tech membrane lining in currently active cells! The Brazilians had applied Dr. Service's law, leapfrogging way past Fresh Kills, having learned from New York's mistakes.

An even bigger and more pleasant surprise awaited me when I went to meet the students and staff from the Universidade de Sao Paolo and other academic institutions. In their own words, they are concentrating on "waste minimization" programs. Sure, recycling is important, but it seems that these educators have done their homework and learned from the lessons of others: they are concentrating their efforts where they will do the most good -- by first learning to USE LESS STUFF.

Of course, what comes around goes around. Cycles in history keep going faster all the time. Maybe it is already time for us to take a leap forward and build on Sao Paolo's learning! Happily, no matter how far behind, anybody can take advantage of the Law of Evolutionary Potential and put waste minimization/source reduction where it belongs -- at the head of the class.

Dr. William L. Rathje is Professor of Archaeology at The University of Arizona and Director of The Garbage Project. The Project studies contemporary cultures by digging up their landfills and examining the resulting debris.

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Coming Attractions

ULS Report editor Bob Lilienfeld has been appointed Director of the University of Michigan's Center for Informed Decision Making, or CIDM. As part of Michigan's Corporate Environmental Management Program, CIDM will be an Internet-based site designed to provide the tools and information people need to make more informed decisions regarding environmental, health and safety issues. The site is in its formative stages. If you have Internet access and would like to critique some of the initial work done to date, call Bob at 313-668-1690.

One more piece of good news. Bob and technical advisor Dr. William Rathje are collaborating on a book tentatively titled (what else?) Use Less Stuff, to be published by Random House in late 1998.

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Reduction RoundupTM

Gas Attack. Fruits and vegetables naturally release ethylene gas, a substance that regulates ripening. In the crisper drawer, the gas builds up and actually accelerates ripening, thus increasing spoilage and waste. A new product called Extra Life is a small green plastic disc that you drop in the crisper drawer. The product contains an ingredient that neutralizes ethylene gas, so that produce stays fresher longer. Contact David Scott, (303)232-3870.

Cool Fuel. Engineers at the University of Washington have created what they say is a vehicle that's cleaner and safer to operate than gas or electric-powered cars. The "smogmobile" runs on liquid nitrogen, generating no harmful emissions like gas engines do, with none of the toxic components found in the batteries of electric vehicles. (But what about emissions caused by the power generation needed to produce all that liquid nitrogen?) Contact Professor Abe Hertzberg at 206-543-6321.

Greening the Garden State. New Jersey's new Office of Sustainability is launching a "Green Growth" initiative to encourage environmentally oriented businesses to locate or expand in that state. The office will work to promote sustainable businesses by providing grants, low-interest loans and technical assistance.

Using More Stuff. Coca-Cola is testing a new "contour can" that achieves the famous swirl effect seen on their glass bottles. The problem is, the new cans weigh two grams more than the old ones. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that a national roll-out would lead to the use of an additional 32 million pounds of aluminum, and calls the plan "an affront to the recycling ethic." Not to mention the reduction ethic!

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The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to

Snail mail address: P.O. Box 130116, Ann Arbor, MI 48113
Phone: 313-668-1690
Fax: 313-930-0506

Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje

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Copyright 1997 Partners for Environmental Progress

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