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  • Doug Bierend

Renaissance of the Rotten: a rind is a terrible thing to waste

In my kitchen freezer, you will reliably find half a dozen brown paper bags filled with rotting vegetables. It‘s only a slight inconvenience to haul them to the nearest compost bin, which is half an hour’s drive away from my home in New York’s Hudson Valley, thanks to the lack of any municipal compost services. Understandably, that’s more than most people have time or patience for - not to mention that some may have other uses for their freezer space. But for me, it is less a matter of convenience than visceral aversion to the thought of letting decomposition go to waste.

It might seem a strange thing to be triggered by the sight of a half-eaten helping of rice, spent coffee grounds or sundry vegetable scraps tossed in with the garbage, but trigger me it does. While I generally won’t pass judgment on someone whose household habits differ from mine, I will go to lengths to find any alternative to tying off organic matter inside a plastic bag. This usually involves searching for some outdoor location where I can discreetly dispose of uneaten food, or carrying it home, sometimes to the consternation of bystanders on the subway. A psychologist may point to obsessive compulsive roots to this pathology, but to my mind, it is simply a matter of what such waste represents.

The more one learns about biotic processes, ecological relationships, or the critical state of topsoils, the more the very idea of sealing off and burying precious biomass in plastic reads as an affront. At a certain point, one cannot help being aware that every morsel bound for the bin is denied its small but crucial role in the ecosystem, gradually thinning the basis of future soils and the very stuff of life. Nothing which once lived can ever be garbage, even if it is treated that way. To my mind, that is a simple reality, but it is also a question of values. Eating is a daily ritual, and what we choose to eat is often a reflection of our priorities as much as our culture or tastes; perhaps the same could be said for what we do with the leftovers.

It’s a practical issue, too. We separate our waste from our immediate environments for good reason, benefitting from the practice in many tangible ways. And of course, even when isolated from the outside world, uneaten food will still rot, such is the profligacy of microbes in every nook and cranny of the biosphere. But the life-making potential under those conditions is limited, and in fact harmful. Some 25 percent of landfill mass is food. Buried under mountains of other plastic bags, decomposing food goes anaerobic, producing noxious gasses including methane, a compound many times more potent than carbon dioxide, and not in negligible amounts. Decomposing organic matter in landfills accounts for a third of all methane emissions in the United States.

Underscoring such facts is not enough to sway public behaviour, certainly not at the level required to make a dent in those numbers. But personal change in behaviour is a crucial factor in systemic change. After all, how does one take meaningful part in a collective shift of attitudes without enacting that change themselves? Muttering this to myself while carrying a mouldering banana peel for several blocks might seem a little off kilter, but does not make it less true. Beyond undermining the cycles of life, or any discrete environmental damage anaerobically rotting food may cause, treating biomass as trash also deepens a sense of alienation from the processes that our lives — and all life — depend upon.

For anything organic, the landfill is not where things die, but something even worse. It is where they enter into a limbo state, out of sight, out of mind, and beyond any hope of rejoining the cycles that advance the processes of life. For most people it is a simple matter of convenience, but also aversion. Western society generally recoils from decay, which is easy enough to understand. Eating rotten food can make us sick; if left unchecked it will compromise supplies, and bring insects and pests. The smell of putrefaction naturally triggers a flight response acquired over eons of evolution. In the wild, proximity to decomposition could mean catching a disease, or perhaps falling prey to whatever nearby predator killed the rotting thing in the first place. The reasonable urge to control and distance ourselves from processes of decay now underpins ways of life that require immense energy and infrastructure to hold them at bay.

The average American’s refrigerator alone uses more electricity per year than all the energy consumed for any purpose by people in other countries. Meanwhile, the infrastructure for making productive use of decomposition is generally lacking. There are encouraging efforts to improve composting in some major cities here in the USA, but it depends on participation from a public that is often conditioned to simply throw ‘organics’ into the trash. Soon after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the modest municipal compost program in New York City was cut, and has struggled to regain footing ever since. What’s needed is a renaissance of the rotten, a recognition of its importance, and an embrace of the practices that leverage it to the benefit of all.

The aversion to rot seems rooted in an aversion to death. People will go to great lengths in order to separate our bodies from the same cycles of rot and renewal that our food undergoes. Thinking differently about rot may not just be a matter of practical concern — making better use of food and reducing waste. It could also be part of a crucial change in values that brings us back into a sense of reciprocity with the cycles on which our lives — and all life — depends. In a sense, embracing rot is about embracing the life that death facilitates.

The transformation of my own views on decay was inspired by a growing interest in mushrooms and fungi. As the ‘great recyclers’, these beings undermine our common concepts of waste, making real and tangible the value of decomposition, and underscoring the reality that waste is a decision, not an inevitable reality. Once introduced to these organisms, one finds themselves overcoming the acquired disdain for decay, and even grinning as they poke their nose under a mouldy log or a damp pile of leaves. One might never come to indulge in the smell that comes from a compost pile, but seeing its real value nonetheless changes the experience fundamentally.

Not everyone is intrigued by mushrooms; another place to start may be fermentation. To ferment something is to guide a process of decay such that something preferable emerges as a result. Chop up a bunch of vegetables, add a heap of salt, and crush them until their cells break and they bathe in their own juices. As luck (or evolution) would have it, that is all it takes to create conditions for a host of human-benefitting bacteria to act on the vegetable tissues and produce lactic acid, which changes the flavour and prevents other, dangerous microbes from gaining purchase.

When handled with care and intention, certain kinds of decomposition are really more like recomposition, changing the chemistry of our food to preserve and enhance it. Since decay is inevitable on a living planet, this is certainly convenient, and useful. One has only to maintain the right conditions, which is often dead easy. Composting is a kind of fermentation, too, albeit with a result better fit for consumption by plants and soil biota than humans. These processes will happen one way or another — what makes the difference is intention.

Rather than keep rot forever at arm’s length, there are opportunities abound to relate rot in ways that support transformation rather than disintegration. Change is inevitable, and decay creates the grounds for regenesis. So if we humans have some ideas of sticking around here on Earth — even as, coincidentally, many now dream of escaping to cold, distant, lifeless worlds like Mars — we might consider instead embracing and working with the natural forces of change and renewal.

The timing is right for this, as we are very much living in a time of change. As our institutions, assumptions, and ways of life break down, rather than retreat from the process, we might do well to choose to approach the process with intention and in the spirit of transformation. Our relationship to rot is perhaps reflected in our attitudes about the nature of our societies, the same impulse to avoid it related to a certain resistance to change, even as the urgent need for that change becomes apparent.

Decay is proof of life, the sign of something changing because it is time to change, and because it must. Perhaps putting in the extra effort to avoid tossing food in with the garbage is just one simple way of ritualising that reality in our daily lives. However unpleasant it may seem to our senses, rot is in fact a blooming of life, and a sign of impending renewal. That could be a reason to smile, rather than to pinch our noses.


Doug Bierend is a journalist and author based in the US and focused on science and technology, food, education and the various ways they point to a more equitable and sustainable world. His debut book In Search of Mycotopia: citizen, fungi fanatics and the untapped potential of mushrooms was published in 2021. Listen to his interview with Sourced co-founder Anna.

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