“It all happened so fast.”
Such are the famous last words of a person who is scrambling to find an explanation for a mistake they committed or incredibly unusual behavior. Normally it is only offered as an excuse to someone who is going to judge or question this behavior. But today, the only person around to judge as I took my first bite of bacon in three years was myself.
After becoming a vegetarian three years ago, I’d never had any intention of eating meat again. Outside of Chic-fil-a’s crispy chicken sandwich (which I still remember fondly on occasion) meat has smelled and looked pretty unappetizing. Like many vegetarians, my journey started for moral and environmental reasons. Eating a plant-based diet has the potential to reduce a person’s carbon footprint by as much as all forms of fossil fuel-based transportation. 95% of supermarket meats, dairy, and eggs are sourced from factory-farmed operations that ignore the health and well-being of livestock. If you’re looking for an opportunity to support the environment with your wallet, then plant-based eating should be at the top of the list. Now, though I still miss eating meat at times and don’t take offense to seeing others eat or prepare it, my tastebuds have not only adjusted to eating this way, but my mind has as well. I know too much about the meat and dairy industry to feed into that system again.
Despite eating a piece of bacon earlier today, I hold firm in this philosophy. Though I often label myself as “vegan” for convenience, I am technically not vegan or vegetarian at all. A short window in which I was fully plant-based ended shortly after it began to hinder my ability to engage in the pleasures of social eating. Generally speaking New England and upstate New York, two places I’ve spent the most time with my family and friends, are not vegan-friendly. Options you may assume are vegan, like veggie burgers and tacos, often contain eggs or dairy. If caught between eating trace amounts of dairy and not eating at family gatherings, I now choose the former. Studying sustainable seafood has also made me realize that I should be an advocate for sustainable animal protein from our oceans, so I do my best to support sustainable fishing or aquaculture operations when I can by purchasing and eating those products.
It’s also easier to make those concessions now that I live on my own and can curate my own vegan meals. In not buying animal products for the house, I limit myself to maybe one or two outings a week where I’ll eat a fish product or eggs. This is the diet that makes me feel at peace with my consumption habits and my role in the industrial food system. For others, it may look different, and I’m not here to judge that.
How could I when I ate bacon today?! That statement makes me laugh because out of context it sounds absolutely ridiculous. Within context, it’s still ridiculous. But it is also a simple gesture towards evolving my eating habits so that they can be the most sustainable, while simultaneously bringing new people into the world of plant-based eating who would have seen it previously as restrictive and impossible to maintain. My experiment is a small part of one of the coolest new concepts I’ve come across in sustainable eating known as ‘wastetarianism”. Before this term becomes lumped together with ‘restrictive’ labeling or the newest fad diets, I’d like tot explain where I see the concept fitting into my life.
What is wastetarianism?
Wastetarianism, as explained by blogger and fellow Amherst grad Lily Fang, is a variation of flexitarianism, whose followers subscribe to plant-based eating with minimal amounts of animal products (Fang 2019). I’ve never chosen to label myself this way because of how it has been misinterpreted and twisted by the masses since its introduction about a decade ago. It quickly became vulnerable to a widening threshold that diluted its original message. Now, just about anyone who engages in ‘meatless Mondays’ will say they qualify, even though their environmental contributions are very minimal compared to someone who only eats meat once in a great while.
Wastetarianism doesn’t allow for the same loopholes. Rather than eating meat for no reason other than to satisfy a craving, one only eats meat that would otherwise go to waste. Food waste has become a highly visible global issue as greater attention is directed towards food security. One-third of the food grown and shipped for consumption is wasted or lost before it gets eaten. While America leads the world in food waste (they occupy over 50% of American landfills!) most western countries boast shameful statistics (Chandler 2016). American and Canadian households throw out over $1000 of food annually. The consequences are also extreme on the environmental side: greenhouse gas emissions accumulate both directly through food rotting at dumps and outside of homes, and indirectly through encouraging the production sector to produce more food for consumption. A wastetarian diet places food waste at the front of our minds by encouraging us to become conscious of not just the food we eat, but how we eat it. It opens up another dimension of the plant-based movement that often gets overlooked because it has less to do with the production than the post-production.
In many ways, I see this diet as a much more inclusive and effective way to shift consumers to plant-based. Gone are the excuses that the diet is too restrictive because there are ample opportunities to consume animal products. Consider the number of scenarios where the no-waste omnivore will apply- catered events, parties, leftover food from restaurants, and reduced meat or produce at the grocery store can and should be salvaged. The ‘wastetarian’ isn’t fueling additional demand and can still enjoy animal products knowing that he or she is limiting one of the greatest threats to food security. Once it becomes more well-known, the wastetarian diet will draw people with a common connection to caring about the food they eat in the most holistic sense. Thinking like this will push forward our biggest hope for recovering our planet: reducing consumption and waste in all of its forms.
One of the biggest deterrents to a vegan diet besides the restriction itself is the perceived impact it will have on the food system. Most believe if they don’t eat a particular meat or dairy product on the grocery shelves, someone else will. But reducing food waste corresponds to a direct economic and environmental benefit. Each person making this effort ends up wasting less money and keeps uneaten food out of landfills. It’s a no-brainer.
How was my bacon experience?
Some of you have probably clicked this link based on the triggering title, wondering how a ‘vegan’ enjoyed eating a slice of bacon. To preface, bacon would not have been my first choice to usher my ‘wastetarian’ lifestyle. Even when I followed a standard omnivorous diet, I barely ate bacon because it is such a formidable food. It doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s the epitome of greasy, salty, fatty meat. If the smell of bacon grease used to make me a little nauseous, that has amplified ten-fold. Just as I had transitioned into veganism, I had imagined transitioning out of it to be a gradual process. But as wary as I was about trying the extra piece of nearly-rancid bacon offered to me, something had clicked in that moment. As a wastetarian sometimes I won’t get a choice. I can choose if I want to save it, but not what is there to save. So, this act ties not only to my blog’s theme of new experiences and growth, but also to communication and inviting others to do the same. In the minute or so it took me to go from eye to mouth, I had labeled this as an act of advocacy and for experimentation.
With a level of detachment secured, I ripped off a small sliver and tasted it. A salty bite that left grease coating my fingertips, it was surprisingly similar in taste to how I remembered it three years ago. The overall experience, however, was very different. I knew where on the pig that pork had come from, how many resources it took to raise the pig, and assumed a high level of suffering endured. By the time I had finished that small bite, I was exhausted and didn’t want any more. At least for now, even soon-to-be-wasted pork won’t be in my future. However, I can see cheese, eggs, and fish becoming a part of my diet through food waste. And for other people, I see much more.
Image: The Ecologist
Chandler, Adam. “Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste”. The Atlantic. July 15th, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/american-food-waste/491513/
Fang, Lily. ‘Wastetarianism: An Alternative to Veganism?” Imperfect Idealist. Blog.February 27, 2019. https://www.imperfectidealist.com/2019/02/wastetarianism-alternative-to-veganism.html