Dish Truck, a Personal Story

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Tompkins Weekly       12-6-16

By Joey Gates

In 1981, I got my first paying job in 8th grade as the school cafeteria dishwasher’s assistant.

The school served lunch on real (melamine) trays and we used metal silverware. It was a fast-paced gig in that the trays, which were emptied further up the line would come off the conveyer belt, get sprayed down, stacked and then loaded into racks and pushed into the machine. Garbage was minimal, but that was to change. Schools, and society as a whole would transition to greater dependency on disposable dishware. I was blessed to travel widely as a young adult and witnessed the effects of this shift, and the exponential increase in garbage creation.

This ultimately led to my inspiration to gather a group and start Dish Truck. The reasons for operating Dish Truck are multi-fold; the practicality of needing to mitigate waste, the protection of ecosystem health, and the realities of environmental justice issues are just a few. Here is a bit of background of what inspires.

In 1989, I moved to Seoul, South Korea, to work with as a linguist and liaison between the U.S. and Korean governments. As I prepared to fly home for vacation, a friend asked me if I had seen the man-made island of garbage not far from the airport. I made sure to look as we took off and sure enough, there it was. It was striking to think that this island was the by-product of our lives and was of no use to any other part of an ecosystem. Years later we would hear about the Pacific Garbage Patch swirling in the currents in the middle of the ocean, harming aquatic life down to a cellular level.

dish-truck-dish-stationThe issue of garbage or municipal solid waste is not just isolated to the Pacific Rim. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2014 we generated just over 285 million tons of garbage, up from 88.1 tons in 1960. It is not just our increased population leading to that growth, our per capita rate of has climbed from 2.68 pounds per day per person to 4.4 pounds, peaking at 4.7 pounds in the year 2000.

Here in the Ithaca area, it is easy to see weekly, if not daily, where a large amount of garbage is created when attending any of our many lovely public events. Particularly since the discontinued acceptance of to-go ware by Tompkins County Solid Waste for composting, there has been a measured increase of trash produced at local festivals and farmers markets due to the use of disposable dishware.

A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council on quick service restaurants published in 2014 revealed that daily garbage output from these businesses had a large impact on waste streams – up to 49 percent of street litter in the San Francisco Bay area. According to the report, “Of the 1 million tons of plastic cups and plates generated annually, the EPA says recovery is “negligible.” Imagine if that could be avoided.

Through the generosity of several grants, including the Sustainable Tompkins Neighborhood Mini-Grant program, the Dish Truck board and crew has rolled out a soft launch of our services. Over the past year, the Dish Truck board and crew has secured a commercial kitchen, purchased our initial dish inventory, and provided dishes for events ranging from a private picnic to a two day conference which included five meals for around 100 people per seating.

On a Sunday afternoon, as I stood next to the dishwasher listening to it hum and churn, I was transported back to being that geeky kid, hustling to get those dishes clean. I smiled at the new purpose I had for being in that kitchen.

Which leads us to today – the Dish Truck team. While there may not be many who aspire to grow up to be dishwashers, this is exactly where we will be and what we will do. And last week we received a hero’s welcome – the time is here for this to happen.

 Joey Gates is the proprietor of Solar Systems Unlimited and the project coordinator for Dish Truck.

Photo of Dish Truck dish station provided by Joey Gates.

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