'Just Eat It': Documentary Explores Food Waste From Farm to Fridge
What happens when two filmmakers challenge themselves to survive for six months only on discarded food? You get Just Eat It, a new documentary that explores the food waste issue from the farm all the way to a Vancouver fridge.
In Just Eat It, Director and film subject Grant Baldwin found a swimming pool-sized dumpster filled with discarded hummus.
Debuting at festivals in late April, the film follows Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin’s food waste experiment and features interviews with experts like authors Tristram Stuart and Jonathan Bloom, and Dana Gunders, project scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. What they find is both shocking and hopeful.
This is Vancouver-based couple’s second foray into waste-based projects. For their first film, The Clean Bin Project, they competed with each other to see who could produce the least amount of garbage. We caught up with the filmmakers to learn more about Just Eat It. But first, check out the trailer:
Sustainable America: You had already tackled waste in your first film. What motivated you to look deeper into food waste?
Jenny Rustemeyer: We were doing some school presentations, and we ended up doing a waste audit at one school where you dump out a garbage can and look at all the different categories of recycling and things that shouldn’t have been in the garbage. We saw things like granola bars and pudding cups, and that was really the first time we realized that edible food was going in the garbage. That sparked the initial thought that we should look into food waste a little bit more.
Grant Baldwin: What we were trying to do at that school is say, “Let’s find out what can be composted.” But what we found is that this food hadn’t even got to the stage of being post-consumer. It was still ready to eat, still packaged. We started researching, and waste seemed to be the next food topic. I feel like we’ve had this conversation about organic food for so long, but if the food’s not even eaten, then what’s the point of growing it sustainably?
SA: Why did you challenge yourselves to live off discarded food?
Jen: This was totally Grant’s idea. We like to show the regular person’s side of the story. We thought if there’s 40 percent of food being wasted, we should be able to find some of it and eat it. There’s definitely a stigma around that. We both have day jobs, and I was pretty worried that my boss was going to find out that I was dumpster diving. But if we hadn’t set the rule that we had to eat exclusively rescued food, then I don’t think we would have found as much waste out there.
SA: How did you find the food?
Grant: It started pretty bad. We didn’t really know where to look. We went cold turkey; just quit grocery shopping, basically. We found most places lock up their waste. We would also try to purchase the food where we could from the grocery store that had already pulled it off the shelf, but that only worked a couple times during the whole project. Most places wouldn’t sell it to us.
At farmer’s markets, we were successful in purchasing the ugly stuff left over that people wouldn’t buy for cosmetic reasons. We’d find the majority of the food at wholesalers. Some grocery stores had bins that were open. A couple stores actually had a discount shelf of past-date food, and we were able to buy that.
Jen: Or we’d shop off the cull cart in the produce section. They go through the produce section and pick out the ones that are damaged and put them on the cart to take them into the back. I would just follow that guy around and take what he was taking right off the cart.
SA: So you were still spending some money on food? You were just trying to intercept the food that wasn’t going to be sold?
Grant: There’s a term called freegan that really bothers us because “free” is in the word, meaning you’re trying to live for free. And that really wasn’t the point of this project. We didn’t want to be associated with that, and also we felt like the food is still good, that’s the point. Why can’t we buy it? Though we tried to buy the food, we were pretty much shut down most of the time so we only spent $200 on groceries in six months, and we brought home $20,000 worth.
After just a couple months of dumpster diving, Jen and Grant’s fridge and pantry were so full that they had nowhere to store groceries.
SA: What were some of the more egregious examples of food waste that you found?
Jen: The further we looked up the supply stream, the further the quantities. We started looking at wholesalers, and the scale of food waste there is pretty shocking. Just because it’s all in one spot. For example, one day we found $13,000 worth of organic chocolate bars. Hundreds and hundreds of chocolate bars. Just boxes and boxes. We took as many as we could to save them. The reason that we think they were thrown out is that here in Canada you have to have everything labeled in French and English, and there was no French writing on these packages. They weren’t past date or anything like that. So we ate chocolate daily for a year.
Grant: The next day we found pallets of pickled herring. Our diet wasn’t that great in terms of variety. Sometimes things didn’t really go well together, like chocolate bars and pickled herring, but this is the kind of stuff that’s getting thrown out. We are talking about something that’s been preserved in a jar, and it’s thrown out, or canned foods or cans of soda. Stuff like this that you would expect to find in an earthquake shelter, for example. The stuff you would store. So there’s definitely a disconnect happening between surplus or stuff near date and places that want the food. We know of many places in our town that would’ve taken it, but there’s just no one there to pick it up or make that connection.
SA: Did you ever go hungry?
Grant: No, I gained about 10 pounds. The food was more packaged and processed, so there was a lot of eating foods like that.
Jen: We had friends coming over grocery shopping at our house.
SA: What were some of the more surprising or shocking things you learned about food waste?
Grant: For me, the biggest shock was the whole time I just wanted to point the finger at industry and say look at how bad you guys are, but really a lot of it is consumer-driven—whether it’s at the grocery store where we decide not to buy stuff because it doesn’t look right, or when we actually purchase the food and we don’t eat it in our house. So we do spend a fair amount of the film looking at what we’re doing in our homes because half of the food wasted is wasted by us in our houses and at restaurants. I didn’t realize it was such a high part of it. So we turned the camera on ourselves in that sense and said, OK, this is the easiest fix, what can we do in our house?
SA: What areas do you think have the biggest potential to make an impact on this problem?
Jen: First of all, we always try to remember that businesses and corporations and farmers, they still are individuals, they are people. So if someone gets engaged in their own home about food waste, they might take that to their work as well. I think one of the key areas that could help a lot is around date labeling. People are throwing out food because it’s close to the date or it’s just past the date, and they’re not sure what the date really means. We did a lot of research around that and realized that the dates are really there for peak freshness and not for safety. It’s generally completely fine to eat things past the date, and we need to use our senses a little bit more.
SA: What is your No. 1 tip for reducing food waste at home?
Grant: I made an “eat me first” bin in the fridge. Then I put stuff in there like a half an onion or tomato or a bit of celery. Anything that is going to go bad soon, I put in that bin, and then when I open the fridge I look at it and think, Oh, what can I make out of these items that are on their way out? I think we save quite a bit of food that way. We’re not perfect. We still have some food waste for sure. We do compost anything that we don’t get to, but I think that bin has saved a lot. And it’s a really simple way to curb the fridge waste.
SA: What do you want viewers to come away with from this film?
Grant: Just revalue food and have fun with what’s in your house. When we started, we realized how much food we still had in our pantry and freezer, and it became kind of fun just making meals off of what we already had. After watching this film, I hope that people, when they eat out, will watch that portion or bring the leftovers home and get past the stigma of that.
Jen: I hope that they come away entertained too. It’s a documentary about a serious issue, but it’s actually a pretty fun documentary. The portions with Grant and myself are definitely comic relief to the seriousness of the issue.
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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