Statistics citing how much food is wasted nationwide are becoming depressingly familiar: According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of all edible food is trashed. But Seattle's waste prevention specialists suspect local eaters might be more receptive to stories about their neighbors buying too much salad dressing.
"It's one thing to hear about studies, but to hear from actual Seattle families is different," says waste prevention planner Carl Woestwin, who's heading up a citywide project to track food waste composition.
From January until March, 150 Seattle families will weigh their food waste and classify it as edible or inedible (the latter category covers apple cores and banana peels.) The findings will provide the foundation for a 2013 food waste prevention campaign.
"There's nothing mysterious about it," Woestwin says. "You put something on the refrigerator shelf, and it migrates to the back of the shelf, and the next time you see it, it's blue."
Currently, the city tallies food waste by selecting trucks on certain garbage collection routes to dump their loads on a facility floor. "There are people who comb through it and count it," Woestwin explains. But the method is imperfect, since it doesn't account for unwanted food sent through garbage disposals or spoiled milk. "If it's liquid, it's already dripped through the truck," Woestwin says.
The counters also don't distinguish edible food waste from inedible food waste. Woestwin was initially tempted to ask volunteers to further specify the components of their waste, but decided the task would prove unwieldy for eaters whose only compensation is a free electronic scale.
"We're going to get people who have to do this 90 times in three months," he says. "Are they going to fish the meat out of stew and weigh it? They're not. They're really not."
Woestwin says he's been careful not to use any "propaganda" in his recruitment efforts, such as the term "preventable food waste," so he doesn't think the weighing process will necessarily shame volunteers into reducing their normal food waste levels. But he concedes that Seattle residents who responded to the note he mailed out with utility bills are likely to have a preexisting interest in the topic.
More than 300 people have already volunteered, so Woestwin's now trying to scare off a few volunteers by describing the expectations in detail.
"Hopefully that will pare it down to the number of scales I can afford to purchase," he says.