by Brianne Brigmann
Imagine the North Fork and its bounty of farm-fresh produce, local wines, and distinguished restaurants. Now imagine even more bountiful harvests, and restaurants with tastier, more nourishing ingredients. Imagine a more profitable economy, where what is now costly and harmful waste is instead a valuable and sought-after resource. The North Fork has the potential to be a sustainable, circular society, and we can find the solution in our trash bags.
Achieving this future is, theoretically, straightforward. Composting food waste increases organic matter in soil, promoting circulation and distribution of nutrients that plants need. Food quality depends on soil quality, soil quality on organic matter, and organic matter on decomposed plants or animals.
Where can we find enough plants and animals ready for the decomposition process to nourish the soil on local farms? We should look to the places where much of the produce is going: our local restaurants.
Restaurant waste: the industry’s smelly secret
Restaurants produce lots of waste. In 2018, the EPA estimated that restaurants and food services generated 17.1 million tons of wasted food, more than half of which was landfilled.
When I started working in restaurants, I got up-close and personal with this horrifying statistic. Bags consisting solely of scraps go straight to the dumpster without a second thought. In this scenario, not only does no one reap the benefits of composting food waste, but this bag goes on to contribute to the warming of our crisis-stricken planet.
While composting promotes sustainable agriculture by minimizing need for fertilizers and irrigation, preventing erosion, and protecting water quality, landfilled food waste undergoes anaerobic digestion, emitting methane in the process.
I have long wanted to start a composting initiative at the restaurants I worked at, but it never seemed plausible. How would we collect food waste? Where would I bring it? How would I get it there? Even if I found answers to the technical questions, could I persuade my coworkers to change their waste disposal habits? I was doubtful.
It wasn’t until I started working at Lucharito’s Burrito Bar that I was reinspired to act. I expressed my idealist dream of restaurants sustainably disposing of food waste to my manager, Devin, who encouraged me to research ways to implement a composting program at Burrito Bar.
While researching, I discovered North Fork Environmental Council. As environmental stewards of our community, they seemed potentially helpful in my goal to get the restaurant composting. I could not have been more right.
I gained contact with Mark and Mary, who orchestrated a residential food waste program last year. We were all very excited to take our composting experience to the next level.
After receiving the OK from my boss (shoutout to Marc LaMaina for caring about sustainability) and several weeks of benchmarking volume, we found a place to take our food waste: Treiber Farm in Southold. (Thank you, Peter Treiber!)
For two months, I have collected and delivered Burrito Bar’s food waste to Treiber, where it is composted and used to promote the health and abundance of their produce.
The good, the bad, and the sticky
Encouraging my coworkers to use the buckets for food waste was challenging, but several weeks of watching me dig through trash bins after lettuce scraps helped break in the new habit. Eventually our prep, Jorge, said to me, “it’s so easy—I just put it right there,” gesturing to the bucket next to him. That sentiment gave me hope. Habits are difficult to break but not impossible, and Jorge’s words reminded me that change is the most difficult part. If we can endure the inconvenience of change, we achieve the convenience of possibility.
Still, one significant (and sticky) roadblock hinders the practicality of establishing similar initiatives elsewhere: my natural enemy, the produce sticker.
Asking everyone to throw their food scraps into buckets is within toleration; requesting they remove adhesive stickers from an item that will be discarded is not.
Instead, I empty the contents of the buckets onto a tarp in my driveway and peel stickers off avocado peels before delivering them to Treiber. It’s an unsustainable practice for a sustainable cause—I’m probably the only person crazy enough to do it, meaning we need to find a better solution for stickers before expanding to other restaurants.
As discouraging as those stickers are, I am certain we will find a solution. Project Drawdown highlights the impact community efforts can have on climate change, and the North Fork community is a vibrant, idea-driven group. If we work together on this issue, we can promote the health and wealth of our farms, businesses, and local and global environments alike.
Mark, Mary, and I are now “matchmakers:” we want to hear from local restaurants and farms looking to pair up as we expand our pilot Green to Gold program. Interested? Simply email us at Mary.DrawdownEastEnd@gmail.com.
Brianne Briggmann is a Mattituck native and SUNY Geneseo alumna. She’s a lifelong home-composter, local restaurant worker, and relentless idealist. Her passions include literature, hiking, sustainability, and tacos.
Climate Local Now is a partnership between the East End Beacon and Drawdown East End, whose mission is to inspire local solutions to reverse global warming. | DrawdownEastEnd.org