June 19, 2016
We’ve been on a run of blogs focused on food waste. The topic can’t help but bring up memories of my Nana, an obsessively frugal woman whose closets always contained at least fifty rolls of toilet paper purchased with triple coupon savings at her neighborhood Publix supermarket. Although she never did, I imagine my Nana saying things like this: “When I go to restaurant, I hate to waste the water that they’ve insisted on bringing me, despite the fact that I’ve ordered something else to drink, too. So I ask for a to-go cup so that I don’t have to waste that water. I’ll take it with me. Except that they invariably insist on bringing me another cup of water in a brand new to-go cup. So I have to tell them, ‘No, I wanted that water. Now I have even more water to carry around with me until I get thirsty so I don’t have to feel like I’m wasting stuff.”
Then I’m imagining a plumber telling my Nana, that she needs to spend about four thousand dollars on the pipes in her kitchen because she has been so frugal in saving every last of water that might have gone swirling down the drain that her pipes have gotten clogged up with some kind of sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union. In actual real life fact my Nana did have to have a functionally new dishwasher replaced after a decade of non-use (so she could save on both electricity and water) because the rubberized seals had dried out from lack of use. So in my imagination her economy with water has not actually been an economy in the larger sense, and even if she hasn’t been wasting her water all these years, the plumber is telling her that she is now actually going to waste some money (not to mention time and presence of mind) paying to have the sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union removed from the infrastructure of her otherwise efficient modern ranch home.
Which brings us back to the ontological point at issue: what makes something waste, in the first place? I think that both my Nana (notice how she’s replaced the pointy headed intellectuals in my earlier blogs?) and the plumber agree that waste is expending something that did not need to be expended. The difference seems to be that my Nana is placing her chips on a precious natural resource while the plumber has a laser-beam focus on dollars and sense. Err, cents, I mean. (Freudian slip, there, n’est pas?) Not that he minds the fact that my Nana is spending $4000 on a plumbing repair, mind you, but he does consider this to be a wasteful expenditure in some yet to be identified sense. What is that sense? That’s question that should be bothering us, not to mention the question of whether there is any hope that the plumber and my grandmother could ever come to an agreement on the issue.
And maybe they just can’t and maybe there is some deep truth about waste to be revealed in that circumstance. I’m resisting the thought that waste is all in the eye of the beholder. After all my Nana, the plumber and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already circled the wagons around this theme of food waste, so doesn’t there have to be something more to it than the difference between strawberry and vanilla? I think there is. Nevertheless I am coming around to the idea that there might be some deep moral commitments—like the commitment to nature vs. the commitment to money—that are going to reverberate through anyone’s decision making about whether a given thing you’re doing at any random moment is frugal, wasteful for none-of-the-above. I think that coming to any kind of community based action plan on limiting food waste is going to require us to sit down together and hash some of that out.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University