Beyond Compostables: The Dish Truck

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Tompkins Weekly 10-5-15

By Joey Diana Gates

In Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical, “Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home,” he recounts how each year, hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated. “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth.” The following is a look at some of the issues surrounding one of the largest components of personal garbage and attempts to ameliorate, and then will propose a solution.  One thing we all buy on a regular basis is food. In the land of sometimes weekly festivals, we often buy food to go.  Food packaging generates significant amounts of waste. Locally we are blessed to have widespread attention to the issue of garbage and solid waste. Tompkins County Solid Waste, the E-Use and Re-Use Centers, and others offer many ways for us to capture, divert and redirect much of our disposables.  Overall though, as a society we live in what the pope labels, “the throwaway culture.”

I recently sat in in a meeting listening to some leading local activists complain about how hard it is to make institutional change. As I glanced around, I saw disposable mugs around the table. When I pointed this out, the answer, was a chorus, of “Oh, these are compostable.” While that in and of itself is commendable, and is a welcome change from Styrofoam, compostability is just one aspect of the life-cycle analysis. I spoke to fellow sustainability minded friend about this, and when I asked him why he thinks even those who care deeply about sustainability not seem to even want to carry commuter mugs, he pointed out that given other ways one can significantly lower their environmental footprint, such as adopting a vegan diet, remembering to bring a commuter mug vs. getting a disposable(biodegradable/recyclable) cup can be a smaller priority. I point out the environmentalists not to find shortcomings, but to show one of the many ways even we are entrenched in our habits of convenience.

Compostables still perpetuate the mindset of the throw way culture, and if we look at a full life cycle analysis, we see that there is still an industrial process that brought this cup to the table. If you have seen “The Story of Stuff,” you might remember what Annie Leonard told about how for every pound of consumer product manufactured, there are anywhere from 4-7 pounds of through put.  Before something even gets into our hands, garbage is made.  Couple that with packaging and then trucking the cup from the factory to the store, to the consumer, and then back out to the commercial composting site and we see a wider picture of the environmental impacts and costs.  Again, composting what once would have sat in a landfill for 50 plus years without biodegrading, is a step, it should be seen as a transitionary step.  We need to change the way we look at things.

Ray Anderson, in his book, “A Mid-Course Correction,” writes of coming terms with the environmental destruction that his product, industrial carpeting, was wreaking. In looking at the lifecycle analysis of resource extraction, manufacturing, shipping and ultimate disposal he began to see that he should view the flooring he sold in terms of a service rather than a product. This radically changed the way he did business. In our instance here, the product that we really are after is the pad thai, potato pancake or hot chocolate. The cups and bowls provides the mechanism or service of delivering foods and beverages to us.

As consumers, many of us carry commuter mugs and enjoy the benefits of a discount at places like CTB and Gimme!. And a small minority of us go another step and carry commuter dishes for getting food. I have seen beautiful wooden bowls, fold out chopsticks, and in my instance, a tiffin.  These also, while great, have their drawbacks particularly from the user perspective.  If you are packing to head out for a festival for instance, they take up space and are one more to thing carry around. If you’re a typical music-loving Ithacan, they are not fun to dance with. Also, once your dishes are dirty, there is no supporting infrastructure to wash them for re-use for that local, organic ice cream later on. I have been the one washing my tiffin out at a water fountain or worse, in the ladies room.

Is providing the service the responsibility of food vendors?  Right now we experience a linear transaction – food, out the door, in a disposable.  As a past food vendor, I and two other Market vendors, strived to serve our food on durable plates, cups, bowls etc., but with all the other work it takes to bring food to a festival, or Farmers’ Market, having to haul and wash more buckets of dishes at the end of the day was a labor of love. So another question arises, how can we get the service of having the hand crafted beautiful food products delivered to our bellies in a more sustainable and convenient way? Two words; Dish Truck.  A rolling dishwashing service providing durable dishes off of which to eat. This of course raises many questions, like who do the dishes belong to? Logistical considerations include questions such as who pays for the service, what capacity is needed, how to engineer building such a truck and much more. Clearly this will take a variety of knowledge and skills to make happen.

Imagine if you will, that you are at one of our lovely area festivals.  The Gun Poets are done playing and you go get something to eat.  After you enjoy your meal under the State Theatre marquis, you take your plate over to a truck where they wash it or, in other words, dispose of it for you.  It’s a bio-diesel truck with a solar hot water heater on the top and the dish water (which can be gray water) gets run into a John Todd style, living machine filtration system.  Compostables are here, hopefully to stay, but having a dish truck will make them part of a wider menu of sustainable food delivery options. This is how we can move forward, and I am looking to build teams to help envision and make it happen. If you are interested in joining a team to brainstorm on, design and bring the Dish Truck to life, email me at or ring (607) 387-7799. Imagine the piles of waste that will dwindle and being a part of the next solution to pollution.



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