Scan | Journal of Media Arts Culture
Volume 11 Number 1 2014

Food waste, intimacy and compost: The stirrings of a new ecology?

Bethaney Turner


This paper takes food, or more specifically food waste, as its point of departure to explore the potential for food to act on us, and with us, in a manner that may encourage a rethinking of our “narrative selves” in more productive ecological terms. It suggests that intimate engagement with our own food waste through composting, bokashi buckets, worm farms and backyard chickens may help facilitate a move away from an anthropocentric worldview to a perspective within which humans are understood as only one component of an interconnected ecological web or “mesh”. The paper first outlines a theoretical framework drawing on the work of ecological feminist Val Plumwood, political theorist Jane Bennett and ecocritic Timothy Morton to identify the limitations of dominant anthropocentric ecological thinking. It then explores some of the ways in which an awareness of these limitations and a new ethics of waste are being developed through food waste management in people’s homes. To do this it draws on semi-structured interview data gathered from 40 people in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) who garden in backyard, balcony, community, school kitchen and landshare gardens and manage at least some of their own food waste in these spaces. Their experiences suggest that engagement in these practices can promote greater understanding of human reliance on, and connections with, non-humans such as soil, microorganisms and worms to assist in feeding ourselves. Through this awareness and appreciation of the “mesh” of interconnected bodies we may well be hearing the stirrings of new forms of ecological thinking and being.

As Levi-Strauss asserts, food is useful to think with (1969). However, in this paper, food is not only taken to be a tool of human thought; an object ripe for cultural projection and interpretation, it is also understood as having the capacity to impact, effect and act on humans, other objects and the world more broadly. To use Latour’s term, food can be an “actant”, a concept which extends the capacity for agency and action beyond humans (1987). In this understanding, food is not just something that can be used to understand humans, their cultural perspectives and worldviews, but it is something that may well play a role in shaping these. As Bennett writes, “food as a self-altering, dissipative materiality, is also a player. It enters into what we become” (2010: 51). Food acts on and with humans in numerous ways. However, importantly, the term food, as used in this paper, recognises that that which can be eaten extends beyond the non-human. Humans too can be food.

On a daily basis our bodies feed millions of microorganisms, most of which cause us no harm and many of which are useful to our body, but some can cause illness and lead to death. Our bodies can also nourish large predators as evident in Plumwood’s near-death experience in a crocodile attack recounted in her article “Being Prey” (n.d.). For Plumwood, the attack confirmed the great weight Western societies place on the “narrative self” and its capacity to enable us to “remake and “invest” the world “with meaning, reconceiving it as sane, survivable, amenable to hope and resolution” (n.d.). Through these narrative practices the world is made palatable to humans by representing it as a place designed for human inhabitation, use and enjoyment. In the jaws of the crocodile in its natural habitat, gripped in a death roll, Plumwood notes that these very beliefs and, thus, this very self, was savaged. It is at such moments that the “human supremacist culture of the West” and its efforts to remove human beings from the food chain to deny our animality through discursive acts is called into question (n.d). And it is in this questioning that Plumwood identifies the potential for new forms of ecological living which reposition humans as animals, part of a food chain who inhabit a world not entirely of their own making. However in Western culture, human bodies are tightly wrapped in discursive attempts to negate the nourishment they could provide to the bodies of others.

The Western human fear of becoming food for both real and imagined others (Plumwood writes of blood suckers—vampires, leeches and mosquitoes—as well as worms) and the consequent need for us to assert dominance over all non-humans leads to bodily performances and narratives which seek to affirm our separateness from—our difference to—animals and the broader ecological community of a more productive engagement with practices of ecological living is to be brought about, then other discourses, and other ways of being, are needed. This must, as Bennett suggests, go beyond contemporary strategies to inspire people (or guilt them into) “caring for the environment” (2010: 111). Through such a framework humans remain disconnected from the broader ecology of which we are a part. The capacity to “care” for the environment not only reinforces human separateness from non-humans but, in some discursive guises, can also position humans as the necessary, benevolent, superior entity required to look after these others (somewhat reminiscent of the “caring” role taken on by colonialists in the past). This approach does little to disrupt the dominance of the narrative self. If, as Plumwood argues, questioning of the narrative self provides the basis for new and more productive forms of ecological thinking, there is a need to identify how such questioning can be initiated and supported. Far from the top end of Australia and the crocodile’s habitat, this paper explores some of the ways in which engagement with food waste might assist in the development, and possibly achievement, of the task Plumwood sets of, “resituating humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms" (2002: 8-9).

Connecting with food waste

A lack of data makes it difficult to identify just how much food wastage occurs around the globe with estimates that between 10 and 40 per cent of the world’s total food production is lost at some stage in the food system from production to consumption (Parfitt et al. 2010: 3065). While around the same percentage of food waste occurs in the developed world and the developing world, in the latter, most food is lost or spoilt along the supply chain, from pest-inflicted damage at the site of production due to poor storage and transport problems (Gustavsson et al. 2011). Such issues have mostly been eliminated in the developed world. However, food waste still occurs in the more affluent economies through the distribution and point of sale components of the food system. This is particularly obvious in the discarding of still edible food by large supermarkets. The dominance of supermarkets as the key place of purchase of household groceries in the developed world continues to climb, with the Coles and Woolworths duopoly in Australia accounting for more than 70 per cent of sales (DAFF 2011). Supermarket food is a product of a globalised, mass market based, industrial food-system which emphasises high yield (Lyson 2004). The focus on over-production contributes to a cycle of over-consumption and waste in the developed world, while many elsewhere go hungry. As Muir (2011) notes, “[p]erhaps what is most unsettling about the global food system is that, despite it producing such large surpluses, around two billion people suffer from lack of nutrients, and of those a billion go hungry every day”. While such issues have proven difficult for the international community to tackle, they have helped focus domestic attention on the social justice elements of food waste.

Rising awareness of food waste has seen significant mobilisation around the issue of food justice in Australia over the last few years, coordinated by established social and environmental justice movements and small-scale grassroots initiatives. This has included the development of charities such as SecondBite, Ozharvest, and the Yellow Van, which collect, repurpose and/or redistribute fresh or pre-prepared food from supermarkets and other food businesses to those in need. Dumpster divers, many of whom are adherents of freeganism (an anti-consumerist ideology which encourages people to limit their participation in neoliberal economic relationships), also contribute to reducing waste at the point of distribution and sale. For freegans who dumpster dive, the act of repurposing discarded food can be understood as a political and ethical act aimed at intervening in the inefficiencies of the global agri-food industry (Turner and Henryks 2011). Freegans are intimately engaged with reinterpreting what the food system discards as waste. Indeed, they challenge the logic of use-by and best-by dates imposed by the industrial agri-food system instead using “their innate senses of touch, taste and smell” to inform their food choices, thus taking responsibility for their own food safety (Edwards and Mercer 2007: 290). This form of embodied engagement with what some parts of the food system identify as waste may provide the basis for a deeper engagement with the food system and broader understanding of our ecological interconnectedness. The use of senses to determine the freshness or edibility of food was all humans had to rely on prior to the industrialisation of the food system. It remains so for many in the developing world today and some marginalised groups in the developed world. The use of senses to assess the suitability of food is key to animal survival. For humans, such skills seemed to have waned in urban settings in the developed world where many people have come to rely on the risk assessment practices built in to the industrial food system to make their food safe. A rethinking of waste, a reengagement with these senses and the development of a more careful and embodied relationship with our food represents a key way in which an understanding of the points of connections between humans and non-humans can be developed.

Despite the growth in attention to food waste as an environmental and social justice issue, and some action being taken to reduce or repurpose wastage at the point of purchase, post-consumer food waste remains the most significant contributor to food loss in affluent economies (Parfitt et al. 2010: 3065). In Australia, households reportedly discard between 5 -7.8 billion dollars worth of food each year (Baker et al. 2009; Do Something 2012). This has a considerable environmental impact, ranging from wasted water and phosphorous involved in food production to the methane emissions generated as food rots away in rubbish tips. The issues of climate change, peak oil and food security are increasingly informing public understanding of environmental issues and are fuelling a growing interest in the pursuit of more “sustainable” lifestyles. Increasingly, governments and NGOs (for example the Love Food Hate Waste campaigns and the FoodWise initiative discussed below) are identifying food waste as a significant component of these issues in the domestic sphere.

While not all food waste can be repurposed (meat scraps and bones can be difficult to manage in homes), communication and education strategies have been developed to encourage Australian households to reduce their food waste. Two key Australian campaigns are FoodWise, a national initiative run by Do Something, a Not for Profit organisation, and the Love Food Hate Waste strategy (LFHW) adopted from the UK, and managed by the New South Wales Government’s Office of Environment and Heritage. In both of these campaigns the traditional environmental message imploring us to care for the environment is front and centre, supported by promises of economic and time benefits for consumers if they waste less. The LFHW website asserts that its aim is to “help you avoid food waste, save time and money, and reduce your environmental impact by planning better, shopping smarter and storing food effectively”. Despite these assertions, these are of course things that require a significant investment of time (requiring not only mind shifts, but changes to ingrained bodily habits and affects).

In both the LFHW and FoodWise campaigns, and the broader environmental and social justice discourses related to food waste, food is something to be acted on. We are implored to “Love it” (though it is not represented as being able to love us back, except by saving us money and alleviating our guilt) while hating the “waste” that we might produce if we don’t perform our love in the right way. As Bennett, Hawkins and Morton suggest, such messages tend to reaffirm an anthropocentric, hierarchical view of the world. They promote an ecologically blind perspective which fails to understand humans as one element in an ecological web, or “mesh” (Morton’s term to denote a more porous structure—2010a) or assemblage (Deleuze & Guattari 1993) of multiple life forms. Indeed, Bennett suggests that representations of non-human others as objects awaiting cultural inscription in part fuels “an aggressively wasteful and planet-endangering consumption” whereby all objects exist for us; their sole purpose being to be bought, consumed, enjoyed or put to use by humans (2010: 51). To counteract this, Bennett offers her conception of vital materiality. Through this framework objects have thing-power, “a materiality experienced as a lively force with agentic capacity” which “could animate a more ecologically sustainable public” (2010: 51). In the liveliness of soil and the renewing force of compost, some of those who engage with their food waste seem to be identifying just this. This paper questions whether this awareness and appreciation of the “mesh” of interconnected bodies and lifeworlds of human and non-humans reliant on the digestive processes of each other may well provide the stirrings necessary for new forms of ecological thinking which centre on understanding our shared reliance on, and role in shaping, our ecology.

Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Bennett highlights the “vagabond” qualities of food (2010: 50). This is particularly apparent in the process of digestion where food is subjected to multiple bodily processes and forced to take on various forms in in order to nourish the human body. However, through these processes food is not only an object, it also acts on the body. The human body has to react in certain ways in response to the chemical make-up of the food we ingest. This can range from releasing different quantities of bile and various digestive enzymes to the amount of time the process of digestion takes to extract the nutrients the body requires and remove useless and potentially harmful waste. These are processes over which humans lack conscious control. They are automatically triggered by the food we eat. As food passes through the different stages of digestion, from the mouth to anus, the body is constantly being called into action by food and the various states it moves through.

The nutrients and characteristics of food also impact on what our body looks like and what it can do. Food allergies incite a body to rally its defences and act in unexpected ways. The many forms food assumes and the different responses it elicits from different human bodies through digestion not only points to its actant qualities, but also to its transient nature. The “vagabond” qualities of food hint at the flow of our ecological selves which require and produce different assemblages of human and non-human others at different moments in time. For Bennett, food in its various forms can induce changes in bodies, noting that through digestion “all bodies are shown to be but temporary congealments of a materiality that is a process of coming, is hustle and flow punctuated by sedimentation and substance” (Bennett 2010: 49). It is through awareness of this process that we see the very limits of the “narrative self” and of what it is to be human. Digestive processes are reliant on gut flora, the microbes that assist our body receive its nutritional requirements and remove waste in, and through, our guts. Bodies are “not fully or exclusively human” (Bennett 2010: 113). Instead “flesh is populated and constituted by different forms of foreigners…The its outnumber the mes” (Bennett 2010: 113). This is reminiscent of Haraway’s observations and “love” of:

the fact that human genomes can be found in only 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 per cent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to be many (2008: 3).

The lack of human control over the presence and actions of these microorganisms clearly points to the limits of our narrative selves. Acknowledgment of this fact facilitates a better understanding of our ecological interconnectedness while highlighting the inability for humans to exist in and of ourselves according to our own rules and dictates. Still, we resist such ideas.

Morton attempts to highlight the flawed thinking fuelling this resistance by drawing attention to the limits of the human in his notion of the “strange stranger”. In this imagining we—humans and non-humans alike—are all “strange strangers,” both known and unknown to ourselves. It is through this disruption of monolithic human power and agency that Morton posits the potential for alternative articulations of ecology. This notion is unquestionably grounded in interconnectedness with others where both us and them always maintain an unknowable, unassimilable aspect. This concept underpins Morton’s notion of “the ecological thought” that:

imagines interconnectedness, which I call the mesh. Who or what is interconnected with what or with whom? The mesh of interconnected things is vast, perhaps immeasurably so. Each entity in the mesh looks strange. Nothing exists all by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself.”… Our encounter with other beings becomes profound. They are strange, even intrinsically strange. Getting to know them makes them stranger. When we talk about life forms, we’re talking about strange strangers. The ecological thought imagines a multitude of entangled strange strangers (2007: 15).

These ideas jettison a human-centred understanding of connectedness, instead “at each node of the network, there is a radical gap. Our encounter with the network at any point is with an irreducible alterity” (Morton 2007: 76). Here Morton challenges notions of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism by focusing on a need to “respect” the “alterity of the strange stranger”, an idea that removes the capacity of humans to inscribe the world with static meaning (2007: 76). While such a rethinking and repositioning of humans and non-humans may well facilitate more sustainable ways of living, just how such respect can be cultivated is difficult to discern. Morton focuses on the aesthetic world of literature and art but this paper explores the capacity for respect in an altogether darker world; one of rotting flesh and corpses (food waste) which is, somewhat paradoxically, also teeming with life.

Food waste, intimacy and gardens

Drawing on Morton’s claim that “ecology is about intimacy” (2010b: 284), and building on Hawkins’ efforts to explore “which bodily affects and habits of self-cultivation shape ethical sensibilities and our relations with things and the world” (2006: 120), my paper now turns to an exploration of the relationships food-producing gardeners have with their food waste. We encounter our own waste—ranging from food to brown water—on a daily basis. However, the interaction is usually very limited as waste is promptly removed from the domestic sphere. We live in a society where the majority of bodies have been habitualised into routines requiring us to eliminate or hide waste. Cleanliness is about removing waste from our homes usually through sewage systems or putting it in bins and having it taken away. Discourses of health and hygiene speak of the negativity and danger waste presents to our bodies (germs and flies are waiting to infiltrate and make us or our children sick). In response to this, and fuelled by the belief that a lack of engagement with our waste contributes to a cycle of over consumption, Hawkins identifies the need for a new ethics of waste. This ethics of waste would facilitate and celebrate more creative, engaged and closer relationships with our waste—including our wasted food (Hawkins 2006).

The development of modern home recycling indicates the potential for people to rethink their approach and bodily habits in relation to waste if there is a publicly controlled, ordered system available (Hawkins 2006: 104-7). Food waste, however, is a lot messier than cans and newspapers. It rots and it can stink. Futhermore, for most Australians, if they choose to separate their food waste from other rubbish they must then manage it in their own domestic sphere (unless they reside in one of the few locales where kerbside organic waste collection is provided). This management, whether motivated by guilt, a love of gardening or a new form of closer ecological engagement with non-human others, cannot simply be a human-enforced act. Management of food waste, whether in compost heaps, bokashi buckets, worm farms or with backyard chooks, requires help from multiple non-human others. Its successful decomposition to make seemingly “dead” matter capable of sustaining new life relies on the micro-climate, microorganisms and worms present in the compost heap, or animal guts to break it down. This is small-scale engagement in the broader ecological web. As Morton writes “instead of insisting on being part of something bigger, ecological thinking leads to a different framework: intimacy not holism” (2010b: 284). Perhaps, this domestic intimacy is more effective than broader scale environmental messages which encourage us to care and preserve our world in fostering respect for, and greater engagement with, the ecological well-being of all who make up our world. Food waste, and the gardens where this waste is managed, may just be the place to start. After all, Foucault describes the garden as “the smallest parcel of the world” within which we find “the totality of the world” (n.d). Intimate engagement between humans and non-humans in these spaces may well promote new ecological thinking and, at the very least, a questioning of old binaries.

While gardening has traditionally been represented as an attempt to control nature, Morton challenges the very concept of nature noting it is “an arbitrary rhetorical construct, empty of independent, genuine existence behind or beyond the texts we create about it” (2007: 21). For him, representations of nature serve to promote a distancing between us and them, a failure to recognise the strangeness of us all and the mesh through which we are interconnected.

In gardens intimacy with non-humans that are distinctly not us comes to the fore. To explore the practical applicability of the theoretical concepts related to the potential for engagement with our own food waste to promote new ecological ways of being as outlined in the previous pages, the following section draws on interview data gathered from 40 people in the Australian Capital Territory. These interviewees garden in backyard, balcony, community, school kitchen and landshare gardens and all manage at least some of their food waste through composting and/or bokashi buckets and/or worm farms and/or backyard chickens. These semi-structured interviews were undertaken between 2009-2012 with the aim of producing a thick, rich and in-depth understanding of the issues under investigation based on the lived-experiences of the participants. In this research, many gardeners expressed a human-centric view of the world and an idea of nature and non-humans as “other”. However, there were also those who spoke passionately about the liveliness of their soil and the agency of compost. Most people drew on aspects of both schools of thought possibly indicating the initial stirrings of a rethinking of how “anthropocentric perspectives and culture…make us insensitive to our ecological place in the world” (Plumwood 2002). There was a sense that many of these gardeners were finding themselves more closely intertwined with non-humans as a result of their embodied practices of managing food waste in their gardens. However, there was also evidence that such processes were difficult to make sense of for the participants as they unsettled their anthropocentric narratives.

In this research gardening was commonly spoken about in relation to its capacity to promote a sense of connection, usually with other people, place, community and the broader environment. As one participant highlighted: “It [gardening] keeps you attached to the earth…attached to the reality of where these things come from…”. Composting was seen by gardeners to be a solution for food waste and also provided a key focus through which participants articulated a sense of interconnection with non-humans. Identification of its importance in the cycle of life and in the nurturing of life prompted positive, excited feelings and comments about the “smelly stuff” that was “rich and wormy” yet paradoxically able to nurture and feed “clean, healthy food”. One community gardener noted that “mountains” of compost was “every gardener’s fantasy” because of its capacity (through the labour of micro-organisms and worms) to turn dead matter into a form capable of increasing food productivity “threefold”. This link between decomposition and new life was particularly important to volunteers in school kitchen garden programs that saw this as important for young children to be aware of. One school kitchen garden volunteer noted “the compost heap has still got some things that are well composted and some things that are not…they (the children) can see ‘There’s a banana’ or something they recognise as well as the actual organic matter that’s ready to go on to the garden.” Having the children dig about, smell and feel this matter and discuss the non-human elements that make the process possible was identified as enabling them to intimately engage with the life cycles. Through these embodied encounters the children were becoming more aware of the presence and agency of non-humans and the “mesh” within which humans and non-humans co-exist.

Recognition of the importance of this embodied engagement with non-humans was particularly prominent amongst community/landshare gardeners. Without prompting, all of these interviewees expressed a deep connection to their plots, particularly their soil. For some, this was an act of having to work on (rather than with) what was there, but for many this was seen to be a process of interaction and engagement between humans, soil and its worms, and many microorganisms. In this way, the soil and the many bodies within it are treated as partners in the food production process and shown a significant amount of respect and attention. One participant, who gardens at home and in a landshare plot, noted that there is “almost like a Zen or a meditative space that you can get into when you’re interacting with the soil, when you’re cultivating and caring for something ‘cause growing is all about noticing what is a plant doing, what is the soil doing, what is the air around you doing”. Through these observations the actant qualities of the non-humans are brought to the fore. These plants and their environments “do” things that not only cannot be controlled by the gardener, but require her to respond in possibly unexpected ways.

One community gardener new to vegetable production was amazed anything was growing in her plot, seeing it as evidence that “the soil always comes to the party”. This gardener saw herself as lacking the skill and knowledge to grow food and found herself amazed at what the soil (with very little input from her) could produce. Here the soil rather than the human gardener is represented as the dominant actor; the soil is imbued with agency and “thing-power”. Another community gardener, who had worked his plot for 20 years had become so intimately engaged with his garden that he claimed to know “every grain of soil… personally”. This man talked about himself as “acting” on the soil yet he was so closely acquainted with it, it had its own character (or many individual characters) which elevated it from growing medium to partner. Another permaculture gardener spoke of her compost recipes and how the soil produced “vitamins and minerals” for human consumption. In these representations, soil is “lively”; it does things that are beyond the control of the gardener and it encourages (sometimes forces) them to acknowledge the limits of human control over the soil and to marvel at what it itself can do.

Even those for whom the soil was something to be worked on (or something which, as one community gardener noted, “I haven’t quite mastered…yet,”) identified it as having a degree of thing-power or actant qualities: “you know, you’re always worrying about your soil and putting things into it.” Some gardeners talked about this in terms of “flow”: “I think it’s all linked in together. You use the compost out here. I mean we would have thrown it out, now we have a garden to use it. So I guess that we’re a lot more attuned to the importance of the environment, it’s not that we’re missionaries in that sense or activists but we’re certainly a lot more conscious”. Access to a garden plot for this townhouse dweller brought about a change in her practices. The garden encouraged a reduction in food waste by “requiring” compost. The voices and bodies of these gardeners seem to be starting to reconceptualise their place in the world and recognising that humans are only one element of ecological existence.

The process of composting and feeding chooks and worm farms does not simply rely on a human actor. These forms of managing household organic waste require humans to act in certain ways to facilitate the process of decomposition and the production of rich fertiliser to reinvest in the ground. The presence of gardening sites can also act on humans, altering food waste behaviours, by providing a space and “need” for compost. The conscious bodily actions of humans can encourage the process of composting, but we are ultimately reliant on non-human others to “come to the party”. In this way, composters and those with worm farms and backyard chickens recognise the limits of their control and their reliance on non-human others to assist them to nourish the earth and themselves with home-grown produce. In this acknowledgement of the vitality and actant qualities of non-humans we might well recognise the destabilisation of the narrative self.

Compost heaps, bokashi buckets, worm farms and backyard chooks rely on consumption, waste, and digestion. Humans need non-humans to reinvest our waste with purpose and life-giving properties. The food-producing gardeners in this research can see this happening and accept their reliance, their interconnections, with these non-humans. These non-humans present themselves, and are recognised and often respected, as actants. Worms, as one of the most visible of these entities, have been identified by many as evidence of this. One gardener who used all composted food waste from his home in his community garden plot noted: “It’s great to get down and dig and feel the consistency of it now and the worms in it. It’s something that really strikes you. I never thought that I’d be quite turned on by putting my hand in the soil and looking at it. I guess the older you get different things appeal.” As noted by Bennett (2010), the visibility and hard work of worms has a long history of human observation from Darwin’s work in “Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Actions of Worms with Observations on their Habits” (1881) to Latour’s discussion of the role of worms in altering soil conditions facilitating the expansion of a forest in the Amazon (1999) to Hawkins musings on worm-power in relation to the digestive waste products excreted by humans in The Ethics of Waste (2006). Successful composting involves many other elements such as the microclimate, microorganisms and worms, as well as human food waste and labour. Here, in this commitment to working with non-humans to rework our waste to continue life, we can feel, smell and see the stirrings of new forms of connectedness and possibly new forms of ecological beings.

However, domestic organic waste managers tend to be those who are already environmentally attuned. Many interviewees claimed to always have composted or to have come from “composting families”. The act of throwing away organic matter was, for them, abhorrent and challenged ingrained bodily habits. As one interviewee noted:

…one of the other things that I hate is putting food in a rubbish bin. When I go to someone else’s house it… physically distresses me. I even lived in a town house for a couple of years and we just had this great big kind of smelly rubbish bin on the deck with worms in it and holes in the top and stuff and I eventually carted it downstairs and off to someone’s house. I just cannot put food waste in a rubbish bin.

Another interviewee with strong memories of composting as a child commented that “…when you put food scraps in the bin it just feels weird because I know it’s biodegradable and it could go somewhere else.” For these people, the act of sending food waste to landfill not only resisted on a philosophical and ethical level but also in terms of bodily habits; their bodies resisted and felt strange when unable to facilitate the repurposing of food waste. As such the question arises as to how the interconnectedness, bodily embeddedness and greater ecological awareness encouraged by engagement with food waste can be capitalised on and extended to people with no history or experience in managing their own food waste. Just as with recycling, for many it will require significant behavioural change and a reconceptualisation of what we value as appropriate uses of our time and ethical consideration. This idea gains its most obvious expression through the slow food movement. Parkins and Craig relate how “slow living marks an attempt to make space for an enhanced experience of embodied and sensory pleasures through an investment of time and this is also evident in forms of ethical consumption and sustainable living that are grounded in the material pleasures of food and a sense of ethical obligation to place, the environment, or a specific community of food producers” (2011: 196). For these slow living practices to fulfil their potential they need to be about broader relationships—embodied experiences—with place, community and non-human others. As Melchior Figueroa and Waitt write, “[i]t is through situated encounters with other bodies (human and non-human) that individuals make sense of themselves and their worlds” (2011: 266).

Home food waste management, such as composting, may contribute to a new ethics of waste based on a rethinking of our relationship with each other, the land, and non-human others. Those who have food producing gardens and are engaged in composting, use of bokashi buckets, or the feeding of worm farms and backyard chickens recognise the ability of non-humans to act and, thus, can start to identify the limits of an anthropocentric view of the world dominated by an almighty narrative self. By recognising this, the agency, actant qualities and vital materiality of non-humans is brought to the fore and we can start to see evidence of a destabilisation of the dominant binaries of human/non-human and culture/nature. As Featherstone writes, “[a]n appreciation of other life forms and our interconnectivity with them can lead to greater solidarity with things, a sense of the importance to the lives of other things” (2011: p. xxv). It is possible that engagement with food waste in people’s homes may well be one key way through which this can be achieved. Here we might see a new ecological awareness develop within which humans confront their interconnectedness with and reliance on non-humans on a daily basis through their domestic management of food waste. But, we need to provide people with the gardening spaces and the skills to do this.


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