At Home ReSource, we talk a lot about the materials economy - the system people created to make and transport material goods. This system is linear, meaning there is a start and an end point; we take resources from the earth, make them into products that are used for a short time, then dispose of them.

In our vision of a just and vibrant world, this system is transformed from the linear “take, make, waste” model to a circular “make, consume, enrich” economy where the value of people, community, and materials are realized.

Though our specialty is building materials, this linear economy describes how our society manages all materials. We would be remiss if we did not also address other common materials in municipal solid waste - plastics, paper, metals, even food.

Food is the most commonly landfilled material in the municipal solid waste stream. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest [carbon-] emitting country in the world.” 

Not only is food and food waste a huge factor in (and solution to!) the climate crisis; as we enter the holiday season, we are reflecting on the significance of food in our holidays and cultural traditions. This month, we want to acknowledge the impact of food and food systems - on our physical, emotional, and cultural wellbeing, as well as on the environmental, social, and economic sectors.

We want to reflect on the role of food in the materials economy, and offer a vision of a circular food economy.

As we’ve written about before, food in landfills is a problem because of the greenhouse gases associated with anaerobic decomposition. Beyond this, waste represents all the up- and mid-stream impacts of resource extraction and consumption - and it is an indication of larger systemic flaws. Waste is not inevitable; it is possible to design waste out of our economic system (by implementing the Zero Waste hierarchy), thereby bringing the value back to people, communities, and materials.

In our current food system, the lifespan of industrially-produced foods follows the materials economy. Simply put, rich, biodiverse land is cleared to grow food that we produce using synthetic, fossil fuel inputs; the food is then packaged and transported throughout the globe, purchased and used by consumers, and whatever goes uneaten and unused (between 30-40% of the food supply, according to the USDA) is disposed of (mostly in landfills). Resources such as land, labor, water, energy, fuel, fertilizers, synthetic preservatives, etc. are used and/or exploited everywhere along this process.

So, how do we transform this wasteful, polluting, unjust system into a sustainable and regenerative one? We can take the same approach as with other materials - we take a hint from nature and redesign the system to be circular instead of linear.

In a just and circular food system, “Food is produced in ways that regenerate nature; food is not lost or wasted; and commonly wasted resources are used productively.” We can follow the food waste reduction hierarchy to reduce at the source, redistribute equitably, reuse whenever possible, and manage residuals in a manner that enriches rather than pollutes. 

This hierarchy can (and must!) be applied at every scale - the individual, community, societal, and global levels. While supporting larger transformative food justice efforts, there are also ways individuals can become empowered to make change in their own lives and communities - such as supporting local foods and farmers, preventing and reducing food waste, and composting.

To learn more about the movement to build sustainable, circular food systems, check out these resources:

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Dec 11 (Sat). Missoula’s WINTER Farmers Market continues in Southgate Mall. Saturdays 9am to 2pm. Until April 23. Also on Wednesdays 4:30- 7pm until Dec 22. See also info on Bozeman winter market and Butte’s winter market. 

Dec 13 (Mon). Five Valleys Audubon’s monthly meeting focused on planning Christmas Bird Count on Dec 18. 7 to 9 pm in UM’s Interdisciplinary Science bldg (110). Masks required. 

Dec 16. Mosey with a Naturalist along Missoula’s Kim Williams Trail. 10am-noon

Dec 18 (Sat). Missoula annual Christmas Bird Count. To help with the field count or feeder watch, contact Larry of Five Valleys Audubon.  406-540-3064

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month breakdown of world day campaigns.