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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Have You Tried Turning Garbage into Gold?

Whenever I peel a potato and discard its skins into the compost bucket, I think of the time when the food industry tried to convince us that potato peels were a snack food. I can’t remember if it was in the 80’s or 90’s when food processors decided that selling potato skins to hog farmers as cattle food wasn’t sufficiently rewarding. They targeted humans instead.

Baked potato skins, oozing with melted cheese or sour cream and other condiments, made their appearance at family restaurants across the nation. One day, a news item appeared in the media alleging that the skins of mature potatoes contained unhealthy substances, along with the healthy fiber they provided. And so, a short-lived food fad came to an end.

Today, the kitchen scraps I collect are stored outdoors in a large wheeled container. Once a week, a garbage truck, fitted with a robotic arm, drives by my home, extends the arm to cradle the bucket, empties it into the dumpster, and gently sets it back down on the sidewalk in front of the house. To reward me for my civic duty, each spring, our municipality offers its gardeners bags of compost converted from the collected kitchen scraps.

In addition to organic matter, we sort unneeded paper, plastics, metals and glass. These are collected in a  manner similar to kitchen waste and converted into useable consumer and industrial products. Even worn automobile tires get a second life when they are shredded and reconstituted into winter doormats.

Interestingly, recycling is not such a new phenomenon in our industrial world. Since the introduction of the automobile, unsalable old cars, stripped of their working parts, have been crushed like sardine cans by giant machines. These unnatural looking shapes are then sent to smelters were they are included in the manufacture of steel. Candy bar manufacturers have been selling broken bar pieces to other food manufacturers for quite some time. In turn, the second manufacturers market the crumbled bars as sundae toppings, ice cream ingredients, and bulk food. Just the other day, a fast food chain introduced a chocolate pastry filled with broken Oreo cookies. This brings new perspective to the saying, waste not, want not.

The most moving story that I ever heard about recycling came from the toy industry. A legend is told of an American soldier stationed in Occupied Japan in 1945, after the Second World War, when that country and its economy lay in physical and fiscal ruin.  One day, he was walking along the remains of a city street, drinking American beer from a tin can. When he finished, he instinctively crumpled and discarded the can. A Japanese toy designer, Matsuz Kosuge, who happened to walk by, picked it up and took it home.

istockphoto.comJapan has never been a country of raw materials. In fact, even at the best of times, it imports most of its fundamental manufacturing needs. Now, after devastation brought on by a war it had incited, and with no funds to rebuild itself, the economy and the country was in shambles. The beer can, garbage to the US soldier, was, to this toy designer, a raw material that he could turn into a commodity, hopefully resalable to other American soldiers - the only ones in Japan with any money to spend.

When he arrived home, Mr. Kosuge slit open the beer can and ironed out the creases in the tin to create a  metal sheet. This, he hammered into the shape of a US Army Jeep. Crudely painted by hand and  powered by nothing more than an elastic band, thus began the birth of a toy industry in post-war Japan.

Today, thanks to municipal leadership, my kitchen scraps, including those allegedly- toxic potato skins, have been converted into a nutrient-rich medium that serves as steroids, tonic, and vitamins for all the plants I grow in my garden. Indeed, just like the industrious toy designer, but more like the wizard of childhood tales, my garbage has been turned into gold.

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