A few weeks ago my partner-in-muse Deb and I welcomed Spencer Michels and his crew from the PBS NewsHour to our house. To be more specific, to our kitchen. The reason we got to scramble eggs in front of a television camera was that they were doing a segment about San Francisco’s nation-leading composting program and were looking for residents to demonstrate how it works in practice.
Yup, we got to reuse our Yes on Prop 37 signs as sun blocker! Jason, the PBS cameraman with Cat Wise and Spencer Michels.
Why us? A while ago I wrote an article for Alternet entitled Where No City Has Gone Before: San Francisco Will Be World’s First Zero-Waste Town by 2020 that went pretty deep into the history, mechanics and culture of San Francisco’s municipal recycling and composting efforts. (I’ve also written about the tremendous potential of urban compost to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere). When NewsHour producer Cat Wise called me she said she’d really enjoyed the piece (especially the line “trips to cities without composting bins feel like visits to strange planets in distant galaxies”), and so she asked if they could come by my place to film the everyday composting routines in a San Francisco household.
Well, when PBS asks to come to take a look at your compost bin, you don’t say no. “Plus,” I was chuckling to myself as I hung up the phone, “they couldn’t have come across a geekier and more committed composting team than Deb and me.”
On Friday, the segment entitled San Francisco on Track to Become Zero Waste City aired, between a piece on Mali and Shields & Brooks (with the awesome “…speaking of garbage” lead-in). Deb and I appear at about 2:10, but it’s worth watching the whole piece.
As they spent almost 2 hours filming and talking to us, a lot of questions we were asked and things we said didn’t make the final cut. So below, some more photos of the day, along with some thoughts on one particularly strange question.
PBS NewsHour in the Kitchen, January 8, 2013
When the doorbell rang at 9am, we didn’t quite know what and who to expect, but compost and recycling bins full and cutting boards out, we were ready for whatever was going to happen. A couple hours later, we had whipped up a scrambled egg breakfast, tossed a bunch of egg shells, onion scraps and tea bags in our compost, and taken a trip downstairs to our green bin.
We also chatted with Spencer Michels about composting and why we do what we do. Being the docu-nerds that we are, we couldn’t help but do our own little photo shoot of the event.
Deb looking out at Spencer, Jason, and Cat from where she prefers to be: behind her trusted old Nikon.
All in all, Spencer and his crew were delightful and we gave them plenty of material to work with for the 55 seconds we got in a 9-minute segment that took them to Slanted Door restaurant, Recology’s SF transfer station, recycling, and composting facilities, Mayor Ed Lee’s office, and skeptical curmudgeon Quentin Kopp’s office. Kopp is a former CA legislator and the official doubter who thinks that the city is exaggerating how much waste they’re actually diverting. While Mayor Lee and Recology CEO Mike Sangiacomo got to defend the city’s official 80% diversion rate in the final cut, Spencer asked me the same question how I knew whether this figure was actually true.
My answer was that while I had no reason to believe that Recology and the City were breaking all kinds of CA laws and standards by cooking the books, it really seems silly to haggle over numbers here. Whether we are at 70 or 80 percent, what matters to me is that we’re moving in the right direction, and I can see that with my own eyes every day. (and yes, there are still plastic bags around even after the ban went into effect a few months ago, but it takes more than a few months to eliminate an entire generational culture). And as far as the claim of being the nation-leading city, even if SF were at 60% we’d be well ahead of most other cities.
There simply is no other urban composting program as comprehensive as San Francisco’s, but really, I’d be happy if there were. It would actually be way awesome if we were Numero 132 in the U.S., because it would mean our national composting rate would be far above the current measly 3%. What a lot of these doubters don’t get is that the numbers are there much more to inspire others than to be pitted against each other. City officials from all over the world are visiting to learn how SF did it, just as SF officials are traveling to cities like Amsterdam to learn more about bicycle infrastructure.
Cities are ground zero in the fight against climate change and they’ve long realized that we’re all in this one together. So if one city does something really well, then it’s great to point that out, so others can get inspired and learn. Yes, a little competition between cities is healthy, but everyone I’ve met who is serious about this knows that we’re all really pulling on the same strings here.
There was another question, however, that struck me during our interview as rather odd. I didn’t know at the time whether it or our responses to it would make the final cut (it didn’t), but it made me think about the perceptions and culture surrounding environmental issues in this country. In fact, if you will indulge me for a couple of paragraphs, the question raised an even bigger question in my mind regarding the western industrial mindset about who we humans are and what our place is on this planet.
Big drum roll .:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:. here it is:
Spencer: “Are you a fanatic?”
I think it was one of his prepared questions, and perhaps not completely out of context after we had just demonstrated the extra thought we put into sending close to nothing we consume to landfill. It’s probably also one of those questions that journalists ask to challenge their subjects, stir up controversy, and provoke an emotional response.
I guess you could view the word “fanatic” in the most beneficial light as someone who is really enthusiastic about something, which Deb and I are: We love to compost because it’s fun, it keeps our kitchen clean, it helps our city achieve its zero waste goal, keeps CO2 emitting methane out of the landfill, and just generally closes a natural cycle.
The other, probably more culturally prominent and more likely implication of the word is that you’re a nut job.
Deb’s response to this totally unexpected curve ball of a question, naturally, was to burst out in laughter at the not-so-subtle insinuation, followed by a disarmingly innocent and utterly adorable “Yes!” It was such a charming and unrehearsed moment that had it been included, viewers would have immediately gotten that this is a passionate and caring woman on a mission to set a positive example, not a fringe loony with a creepy obsession.
“Hey, it’s Spencer Michels at my desk!” Deb being adorable.
Since Spencer addressed the question to Deb, I had a quick moment to think about it, to let everything I wrote in this last paragraph scroll by me and come up with a proper response. Being asked whether you’re a fanatic is one of those questions that immediately puts you on defense, a bit like the “when did you stop beating your wife?” proposition. So I knew I had to get off this question’s narrow turf and broaden the playing field if I wanted to stand any chance at not looking like a fool.
While I may not live the most conventional life in the 9-5, white picket fence, two cars, two kids sort of way, I’ve always considered myself to be pretty level-headed, open-minded, and relatively free of dogmatic tendencies. I’m pretty passionate about certain aspects of life, like nourishing good friendships, being creative, lifting people up, or treading lightly, but I’ve always stayed away from the kind of personal, cultural, or religious worship of pop stars, gurus, or belief systems that are usually associated with fanaticism. The idea of identifying myself as a compost fanatic just didn’t quite fit, considering how mundane and non-radical it all feels to me.
In fact, it occurred to me that not composting has got to be one of the most radical and crazy things we’ve ever come up with. Go back a hundred years, before garbage disposals and chemical fertilizers, and you’ll find that through most of human history — since the advent of agriculture — people relied on organic waste from horse poop to veggie trimmings for their soil nutrients.
You don’t even have to time travel — just visit any number of countries in the world right now and find that composting is the most normal thing on Earth. I’m particularly reminded of my time in India where the sight of cows in the streets converting palm leaves used as lunch plates into valuable fertilizer is as common as the smell of perfume in a shopping mall. But you don’t even have to travel that far: across the US there are millions of people with gardens who save their sloppy seconds to grow food with.
And yet, in the United States we manage to throw 97% of our precious food scraps into landfills. Sure, it’s a bit different in a modern American city with few back yards and no cows in the street, but if cities can figure out composting systems that work within their community and get the nutrient-rich and carbon-absorbing fertilizer to the surrounding farms and back onto our dinner tables, is it crazy to want to do the best you can to support it and pitch in?
Personally, I think it’s totally and utterly crazy not to.
Does this guy look like a fanatic? Photo by Debra Baida.
With that in mind, I started to chime in as soon as the laughter ringing through our kitchen from Deb’s response had subsided.
I don’t remember the exact words I used but what I tried to convey was that this short window in human history where we’re consuming exponentially more than we’re putting back in is truly extraordinary, exceptional, and temporary. Just because a couple of generations of people have lived utterly wasteful and unsustainable lives long enough to create a majority myth of mindless consumerism doesn’t mean that it is actually based in any kind of long-term reality as regards the carrying capacity of planet Earth.
While the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality of a throw-away society facilitated by the temporary availability of cheap fossil fuels is understandable in the context of the relative abundance of resources and space up until a few decades ago, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for even the most naive denizens to ignore the now visible reality that an ever growing human population consuming ever more and faster is pushing up against the earth’s limits.
So am I the one who is crazy for being excited about an opportunity to reduce my ecological footprint and be a little more in sync with the earth’s natural flow?
Am I going over the deep end for digging my city’s composting efforts and doing my part to take it as far as we can together?
Is it extreme for me to bring my own beautiful canvas shopping bags to the store and be happy about San Francisco’s pioneering plastic bag ban that will keep millions of these single-use petroleum-based convenience products out of the ocean?
Is it fanatical to want to live within the planet’s shrinking means, considering that I am sharing it with 7 billion others who all want their children to have a slice of the pie?
Or could it be that, just maybe, it’s those who continue to believe that there’s an “away” when they toss the things they’re done using who are living in a fantasy world?
I, for one, don’t mind pulling my weight. Call me crazy.
“Look, it’s just like a trash can, only green!”
So thank you Spencer & friends for coming to our house to talk trash. I hope PBS and other media will keep reporting on this important issue. There is so much food (and compost) for thought here for all of us, and the more questions we ask about this the more normal it’ll soon feel for all of us to live in a (close to) zero waste world.