Diverting 320,000 Pounds of Food Scraps by Bike!

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“Check, please!” We certainly have all been there. Leaning back against our chair, stuffed to the gills with the best food we have had in a really long time. We silently observe as our plates are whisked away by attentive wait staff, still decorated with leftover sauce we did not use, the lone cherry tomato from our salad, the rosemary that topped our steak, and the now-cold selection of vegetables we did not quite have the desire to taste. We do not really think much about the food we leave behind anymore. The decades old idea “Clean Your Plate” has all but vanished from our enforced social expectations. If we do not want to eat it, we will not. Anyways, who cares about that skin you left behind from your baked potato or the tough stringy bits, rinds, and peels from your favorite fruits, it is just trash… right?

It may not seem like discarding unwanted food from time-to-time would have much of an impact. It’s a rather routine act to scrape your plate after a meal or to push aside food that you have no desire to eat. However, if we were to start becoming mindful of our trash habits, we would realize rather quickly that most of us, unless we have put forth a considerable effort to change it, are producing hundreds of pounds of food waste in as little as a few months. Between the cooking experiments gone wrong, the unidentifiable ancient leftovers from the back of the fridge, and the food we decided we had no appetite for anymore, our trash cans are full of food by the time the garbage man returns. Restaurants and food markets are the absolute worst offenders, responsible for tossing hundreds of pounds of uneaten, just-expired, bruised, and otherwise unwanted food, sometimes in a single day! In New York City alone, over a third of the waste sent to landfill is compostable! We as a society have sent massive amounts of decomposing organic material straight to landfill and so it never gets a chance to go back to the Earth. This is where BK Rot comes in. 

Established in 2013, this teen-lead organization had a simple goal – collect and compost Brooklyn, New York’s food waste. Using only bicycles for transportation, the employees of the company go around the city gathering food waste from their partner companies and organizations. Currently, the small company processes over 15,000 pounds of discarded food that is collected from almost 20 companies as well as local residents; this organic waste is then taken to their outdoor composting site where it is sorted, chopped up, and turned into small bags of compost soil and then sold back to the community to help fund their operations. This tiny, but mighty organization has made incredible progress in the time that the company has been in existence. So far, it has diverted almost a million pounds of food waste from landfill and turned this material into over 400 thousand pounds of fertile soil. To top it all off, BK Rot did it all without producing tons of carbon dioxide or other damaging emissions like most industrial facilities.

From the get-go, this company has been focused on being completely sustainable and even as a fledgling operation, operated using only a bike, a trailer, and $300 fund from a GoFundMe collection to draw from. The ambitious program has since turned into a successful sustainable company that is not only good for the environment, but makes big strides for all of their stakeholders. This company itself is run by and employs predominantly young people of color, offering all who work there a liveable wage. As of 2021, they have paid $210,000 in wages to young workers, which serves to provide many struggling young adults and students with a stable, meaningful income at a time when decent wages are a luxury, not a right. This uplifting work is also available in the part of the city that experiences high youth unemployment rates, particularly within the communities of color boosting the ability of locals to find work. 

Beyond helping their workers generate an income and a livelihood, the company also enriches the lives of anyone involved with the food refuse collection and compost programs. The BK Rot operation positively impacts the community members by finding a practical use for traditionally discarded lunches (and breakfasts and dinners) and providing a locally-sourced, ethically produced, and sustainably distributed product in return. The young workers and volunteers that put in manual labor and time to process the food are afforded the incredible opportunity to be surrounded by positive, similarly-minded role models while developing a variety of social and physical skills like composting, as well as organization-specific competencies, like management, business finances, and public outreach. The heads of the programs admit they learn just as much from their young workers about the world around them. It’s simultaneously a chance for all the staff and volunteers to be outdoors and there’s the added bonus of getting in regular physical exercise due to the intensive nature of their work. This is the place to be for workers that want to spend their time building community, honing useful skills, and improving their city and the planet. 

So back to that earlier question… 

Who cares about that piece of food you left behind on your plate? BK Rot cares! You should too!

This article was written by Sydney Lindquist.

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Thank you to Guerrilla Foundation for funding this video of solutions.

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