Elizabeth Balkan, Director of Policy and Senior Advisor to the Commissioner at the New York City Department of Sanitation, will be speaking at the inaugural New York City Food Tank Summit, “Focusing on Food Loss and Food Waste,” which will be held in partnership with Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) and with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and The Fink Family Foundation on September 13, 2017.
Balkan has been responsible for developing and implementing the city’s zero waste plan. She is also the Executive Director of the Foundation for New York’s Strongest, which leverages innovative strategies to promote sustainability and advance the essential services that sanitation employees provide. Previously, she worked on long-term planning and sustainability at the Mayor’s Office.
Before joining the City, Balkan lived and worked in China for more than a decade, researching solid waste planning in China and running an energy and environmental consulting firm. She has worked extensively with cities to make sustainable development a viable option for both developed and emerging economies. Her educational background is in public policy and economic development. She holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s from Georgetown University.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Balkan about the importance of consumers getting involved in waste reduction at the local level.
Food Tank (FT): How did you originally get involved in your work, and what inspired you?
Elizabeth Balkan (EB): As with anyone who works in this field, my inspiration came from many places. I can point to a lot of things that I’ve experienced in my career and my personal life over time that has inspired me. My time living and working in China was a real inspiration for me to be involved in environmental policy and specifically to work within waste management.
FT: What were you doing in China?
EB: In China, I was working doing factory inspections, as well as looking at social labor and environmental compliance. This initiated a deep consideration of not just the issues, but of who and what are able to impact changes to solve and address the issues. That is when I really started to shift my career focus to working at the city level. This is not to say that national or international initiatives aren’t as important and critical, but when I looked at where people and the environment were most affected, it was definitely at the local level. I looked at the government levels that are best poised to use policy and other tools to have an impact and realized that I feel very strongly that cities are where change and progress happens. It is easier to engage people at this level because it is relevant to their local community and quality of life. Things like water, waste collection, and public transport in cities have an enormous capability to improve lives of local residents and to affect environmental changes through the services they provide.
FT: Can you explain how your work ties into the food and agriculture realm?
EB: For many people, the role that the Department of Sanitation plays in this area may seem a bit odd. People typically think of us as the people who collect the garbage and the people who take and properly dispose of recyclables. It is very much the end of the pipe. Although we see the perspective that our main task is to deal with what we are given and try to develop programs and solutions as correct, we also feel it is outdated.
We see the Department of Sanitation as the entity best positioned to address some of the upstream contributors to excessive waste and to waste streams that are non-recyclable. Everybody plays a role and we have to do our part to be environmentally responsible. However, it is not our responsibility to clean up the mess that is generated by all the actors upstream. It is particularly because we have to deal with what ends up in trash bins that we feel it is critical that we have a voice that is part of the movement to address waste prevention and waste reduction. Industry and other actors upstream make the decision, through manufacturing or design, about the reusability of the products they distribute. These actors have a huge impact on our society’s level of waste.
FT: Do you have any specific examples of projects you have done or work that you participated in that focuses upstream actors?
EB: Yes, apart from food waste, if you look at many consumer goods, the packaging that is used typically is designed to address several requirements or issues. Food safety is imperative for manufacturers and suppliers. They have to assure customers that when they are opening a can of beans or drinking a bottled beverage that they are not going to get sick. No one would say that that should be compromised.
There are several other things that are probably a little less critical from a public health perspective. However, they may play into the company’s economics or the company’s brand. The look and feel of something may make it more popular than the competitor brand. These are some of the things that get taken into consideration when a consumer product is being designed or when the packaging for a product is being designed. Although it is typically a factor on the list, very rarely does recyclability or end of use rank high in that list of priorities.
From our perspective and the perspective of consumers, that needs to change. When you are looking at things like packaging, we have arrived at a state of relative economic advancement and luxury. Consumer goods and packaging for those goods allows us to live our lives in a very convenient way, but it doesn’t really take into consideration what is left after the product is consumed.
FT: What is the biggest opportunity you see to fix some of these problems in the food system?
EB: There is no simple answer because it is such a complicated issue. There needs to be a total shift in consciousness from the consumer perspective. For example, there is an idea if you buy too much food for your household, but you compost it, that’s okay. That mentality really needs to be reconsidered. Certainly, we want people to compost and to recycle, that’s a critical part of our messaging. More than that, though, we want people to rethink their relationship with waste altogether. As important as recycling is, it is lower on the waste management hierarchy than reduction or reuse.
Awakening or rethinking your consciousness to the food waste hierarchy and the waste management hierarchy that the EPA has put out will help people initiate a journey towards reducing their waste footprint overall. Beyond that, there is a tremendous role for the industry to play. Currently, you can be a super conscious consumer, but you are still going to end up with a tube of toothpaste that can’t be recycled. Unless you are someone who is really going off the grid and making your own products, it is very difficult to eliminate waste completely. There need to be tools for the conscious consumer that don’t require them to shift their lifestyle habits so dramatically.
You shouldn’t have to make your own toothpaste in order to avoid having a toothpaste tube that has to go in the trash can, it should be recyclable or compostable. I am confident that there are ways that the industry can find solutions which will still allow them to maintain their profits and market share, but that will be more in line with increasing consumer awareness and preference for things that are either zero waste or minimally wasteful.
FT: How can consumers help drive changes at the company level?
EB: I tell people to throw away their trash can. I do not mean that literally, but if you have a big trash can in your home and you are just throwing things in it is like a big black hole, it is difficult to assess or take stock visually of what is in your can and where the opportunities for waste reduction or diversion are. The best thing to do is really look at what is in your trash can. When you start taking stock of what really can’t be put in your compost or recycling bin and what really must be thrown away as landfill waste, it initiates within your own household an opportunity to identify things that contribute to waste. Maybe instead of buying plastic cutlery, you decided to take a reusable fork and spoon to work. Awareness starts with these small realizations and a lot of change can happen in this way at the household level. Working these changes into the industry level is more complicated because currently there are not great outlets and tools for people. Fortunately, you can do a lot with your power as a consumer by not buying things that don’t meet your requirements. In addition to curating your spending around these values, being involved with local policymaking and action is the best way to influence waste reduction.
FT: What is the first step to getting involved your local policymaking?
EB: Participating in government programs, such as the zero waste programs, are a great way to be involved. Going to events, getting involved with city councils, and linking up with organizations, like Food Tank, is really important. Specifically, in NYC we have community boards, committees, neighborhood associations, and improvement districts, which are great ways to engage with your local government.
A few times a year, I get questions from different groups that are interested in doing activities like a beach clean-up. Although I think beach clean-ups are a great way to get people interested in trash management, the efforts don’t typically last. They make the area pretty for a day, and then more refuse washes up. I try to redirect groups in this case by suggesting local organizations or other opportunities that are community-focused that will make a more long-term impact.
FT: Is there anything else you want to leave us with?
EB: There is a disconnect between what people would like to see happen and the reality. The reality of what we can and can’t do sometimes gets people down. I try to inspire people to think about the possibilities of waste management rather than them seeing the items in our waste stream as being the unfortunate result of our lifestyles that nothing can be done about. Waste is not an unavoidable byproduct of human existence. It is something that we created and just as we created it, we can solve the problem of waste.
The things that are in our waste stream now are commodities, they have value that went into creating them, and there should be ways that we can get more value out of them. If there are things that can’t be valuable in the waste stream, then they shouldn’t be there. It is our responsibility to think about that and to reconsider waste through our disposal habits, to not be something that is inevitable. Waste is very much a design flaw, and just as we have movements underway to solve other problems—social, economic, health-related—we should be thinking about solving this problem, as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The NYC Food Tank Summit is now sold out. Register HERE to watch the livestream on Facebook. A few tickets remain for the Summit Dinner at Blue Hill Restaurant with a special menu from Chef Dan Barber. Apply to attend HERE. If you live in New York City, join us on September 14 for our FREE outdoor dance workout led by Broadway performers, called Garjana, featuring many great speakers raising awareness about food waste issues. Register HERE.