Signs of Sustainability: Dish Truck – You Can Be a Part of the Solution

By Joey Diana Gates

Aiming for pollution prevention, the Ithaca-area based Dish Truck provides durable dishes to event coordinators, small-scale food enterprises and the general public to use in place of disposable dishware.

Solid waste displacement through the use of durable dishware at events provides an immense opportunity to reduce source point pollution, and to address local and statewide environmental, economic and environmental justice concerns. By simply replacing disposables with re-usable dishes, we are bringing the responsibility for our by-products back into the community.

At the beginning of 2016, the food scraps recycling guidelines for the composting program offered by Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management (formerly known as Tompkins County Solid Waste) changed in order to reduce contamination and improve the quality of the finished compost product.

As a result, paper plates, compostable cups and compostable plastic utensils were no longer accepted along with food scraps recycling. The resulting increase in the presence of single-use dishes and utensils in the waste stream created a heightened demand for Dish Truck’s services. The team has met consistently since October 2015 and we are working to transform the concept of providing reusable dishes into a not-for-profit organization, staffed with the help of a volunteer corps who work with the food enterprises at festivals, sponsored events and public celebrations.

As work on Dish Truck continues, world trends away from disposables have appeared, such as the ban on disposable plastic dishes in France to be phased in by the year 2020. To date, Dish Truck has serviced nearly a dozen events, displacing more than 1,200 pieces of disposable dishware, reaching 500-plus people. Events have ranged from a private backyard picnic to a three-day conference, including five meals plus desserts and drinks.

The DT team’s work at these events has helped to develop the logistics for setting up dish distribution and return stations, as well as the hauling and washing the dishes. We work with the endorsement of the Tompkins County Health Department in consultation with the New York State Department of Health.

As festival season begins, we are looking forward to an exciting next phase of our mission to divert more than 5,000 pieces of garbage from the landfill and are seeking dedicated volunteers to help with various tasks. This includes hauling dishes and compost, staffing events, washing dishes and spreading the word about the ability to hold virtually zero-waste celebrations. We provide the training, equipment and logistical support necessary to service the events, as well as a chance to enjoy some amazing meals, in great company, during our shifts. While the idea of washing dishes may sound mundane, what you will be doing is affecting cultural change as we offer a service over a disposable product and shift expectations of best practices.

We will be addressing the multi-faceted problem point of waste production, whether the by-product is polluting fossil fuel emissions, greenhouse gases or garbage. Human endeavors have profound impacts on our fellow species, and on the most vulnerable of our human population. Looking through the lens of environmental justice, we see how poorer communities host our landfills, toxic waste sites and dirty industries. The result is diminished health, quality of life and life expectancy.

Looking at one pain point SSU addresses – disposable cups – we cite a 2014 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council on quick service restaurants. The report revealed the large daily waste stream impacts from these businesses contributed up to 49 percent of street litter in the San Francisco Bay area. Per the report, “Of the 1 million tons of plastic cups and plates generated annually, the EPA says recovery is “negligible.” Imagine if the creation of that waste could be avoided. You can be a part of the solution.

For more information, email Joey Diana Gates at solkitchen1@gmail.com or go to www.dishtruck.org.
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This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. To learn more about the organization, visit its website at SustainableTompkins.org. Joey Diana Gates is the proprietor of Solar Systems Unlimited and the project coordinator for Dish Truck.