“What a shame that these utensils are going to be thrown away,” remarked my father after finishing up a plate of tasty masala dosa that was just made and served fresh from a food stall. We’re at Union Market, a recently gentrified warehouse-turned-covered market in the industrial eastern outskirts of Washington D.C.
Nearby, a historically African-American neighborhood with streets of narrow row-houses are slowly, but surely, being bought up and renovated by a younger generation of white families. The house facades are painted attractive colors, a sign of the character shift that is underway as the more affluent newcomers raise housing values. With progressive ideals of community, livability, and walkability they eschew the automobile-bound, ex-urban and suburban majority-white enclaves where they were raised. They recognize that their parents’ lifestyles–and the 20th century design of American cities and infrastructure that created and bolstered it–assumed endless fossil-fuel consumption. It has driven the planet to climatic and existential crisis. Their own lives express new values; more public transportation to reduce their fossil fuel consumption; more recycling at home; more community; more farmer’s markets; and everyday walking contact with people than suburbia ever afforded.
As a gathering spot, Union Market appeals to their sensibilities. These new consumers eat dosas, tacos, smoked salmon bagels, croissants, empanadas, oysters, crepes, and pho, other like their parents did baloni sandwiches and hot dogs. But their progressive ideals lack a fundamental value about consumption that–through intentional marketing, messaging, and cultural inertia–still pervades the American psyche: they lack a self-consciousness about hyper-consumption.
When my Dad pointed out that these once-used utensils and the still-intact, firmly-constructed dining plate were going to waste, I immediately felt a twinge of pained recognition for his truth. Daily a voluminous amount of such ‘waste’ is generated by the numerous food stalls here, perfectly good cutlery that could be rinsed and reused a few more times at least. The contrasts he has witnessed in his life give him perspective: things could be so different, we could live with so much less (and waste less).
When he was growing up in India, food to go was deftly tied into rectangular sections of banana leaf, and then double wrapped with actual old newspaper. It wasn’t entirely leak proof but it was impermeable, at least for a little while. We might have used a crudely-fashioned wooden spoon. We chuckled about food spills but it wasn’t the end of the world. Plastic waste was not as sorely visible in India as it is now, all over the city, in gutters, on train tracks, around the bushes, a phenomenon that ballooned starting in the mid-to-late 1990s when the Indian economy opened up to free-trade.
It rather hurts, I thought, to have a conscience. To take half a minute to remember that this plastic cutlery was going to be jumbled with thousands of other such pieces and hauled to some landfill, where it would lie inert and unnatural, never biodegrading back into good soil felt rather sickening. It disappears in a quick second, out of my hands, into a waste-stream but it never disappears off Mother Earth’s cancerous landfill-sores which we keep feeding, only to make it blister and grow more putrid and fatal.
The advertising industry has seduced us into believing that we need chemical disinfectants, disposable napkins, one-time use cutlery to protect human health. Yet, on the flip side, using these disposable artefacts with so much fossil-fuel expenditure built-in already into their production and transportation and packaging, is harming the health of the mother of all beings, earth herself. It feels sickening to live as though we are the only beings that matter on this planet.
How wantonly cruel we are for consumptions that provide us convenience and pleasure that last all of a second. How willfully blindly we are to the choking impact of our “stuff” on every other being with whom we share this precious planet.
Contrast Consumption with Gift
In contrast to our consumption model, all around us are incredible gifts of life that we receive without even asking: air to breathe and to make wind, water that provides life, top soil, the amazing sunlight that sets up photosynthesis, the tiny insects and birds that pollinate plants so they grow food. Yet, our culture has trained us to live in a manner that is oblivious to and ungrateful for these gifts of life. We would be thought of as odd for recalling and considering these basic but enormous gifts as “riches”.
We selfishly carry on as though we are the only existence that counts on the planet. It’s as if we have hardened a wall around us, so we cannot admit to ourselves that other creatures on earth are not ‘beings’ like us, filled with spirit, intelligence, love, family, and associations. My father’s humble moment of notice of how we would add to the miserable treatment of the earth by tossing away our perfectly-good used cutlery, made me ashamed for participating in this throw-away lifestyle and disposable mindset, without thinking of the “next steps” as the earth receives our garbage.
I suggested to him that I believed the cutlery was biodegradable and I would put it in the right waste-stream. There had to be a saving grace here right? Surely I could produce some compost from this cutlery? I was partially right. The foodstall had provided what appeared to be biodegradable cutlery. But there was no separate collection for organic and biodegradable waste. I had to dump it in the regular trash because the fancy “artisanal foods” Union Market doesn’t organize or contract out separate food and biodegradable waste collection.
We desperately need more such moments of recognition. We need to have flashes of memory and awakening about what we are doing on a daily basis in terms of consumption and wasting. We need to notice that our momentary consumption has a cost. As a matter of principle, I believe that by being mindful, we can reduce the harm we wreck on the planet as a result of our modern lives.
By remembering the gift of food each time we eat, we honor every energy and intelligent process that plants and water and sunlight have gifted us. By receiving food as a gift, we wouldn’t grab more and more of it until there was no more, instead we would say thank you and appreciate it. We wouldn’t take more than we need. We wouldn’t waste more than we ought to. By modifying our thinking at each step, our behaviors would be more careful to mitigate the thoughtless harm we do to the planet.
As I found out, it’s more complicated than being mindful. We are cogs in the wheel in vast networks of technology, infrastructure and market forces. If Union Market doesn’t provide separate recycling and separate food waste collection, it makes it so much harder to do the right thing. I felt pretty helpless having to toss single-use cutlery, that albeit was ingeniously crafted to be biodegradable, straight into a waste receptacle intended for the landfill. The technology for making compost out of cutlery exists. Yet it relies completley on the human being, conscience, right thinking, values, and a mindset that respects and wants to protect Mother Nature.
It would take someone of conscience and persistence in the management of Union Market to insist on separate waste collection, to go the extra mile to make this market environmentally less harmful. It would take a decision maker who will go to bat for the environment, insist on the little extra monthly cost for waste hauling. It would takes someone who recognizes that the health and protection of Mother Earth is as valuable as the hygiene of all the human consumers who frolic and feast off Mother Earth at the market.
Technology in and of itself is useless without the right human thought, without the right values, and without a culture that places emphasis on the spirit of recognizing other creatures of the earth as equally vital and alive and worthy of protection as humans themselves.
Union Market management: Are you following?
Here’s the official Web site: http://unionmarketdc.com/
Here’s where you can find Union Market: