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The Pantry Patrol Reports

In many American kitchens, the "waste not, want not" maxim is decidedly passé. Researchers at the University of Arizona's Contemporary Archaeology Project (birthplace of modern garbage analysis), have found that the average U.S. household produces 474.5 pounds of food waste each year -- almost three times the amount previously estimated.

Led by anthropologist Tim Jones, researchers spent a year tracking the culinary lives of more than 200 Tucson families. The team interviewed residents about their buying and disposal habits, meticulously gathered grocery receipts, and each week hauled garbage off to an industrial freezer, where decomposition was arrested until banana peels could be sorted from chicken bones, and all of it tallied and weighed.

Jones's obsession with documenting waste down to the pea in part explains the figure's quantum leap. Other culprits may include packaging changes that make storage difficult, such as containers with nonreusable cellophane tops; health-conscious purchases of quick-to-spoil fruits and vegetables; and a growing number of what Jones calls "dent-and-bent" grocery stores, where food is very cheap -- and thus more likely to be overbought.

Why would Americans buy hundreds of pounds of food they cannot possibly eat? Jones, a garrulous fifty year old with an insatiable curiosity about garbage, has a theory. It goes back to his early work on the food-disposal habits of a nineteenth-century Idaho homestead: Diaries revealed a huge gap between what settlers thought they threw away and what researchers actually found in their refuse pit. "That's when I realized the extent to which preparing food is often what I call an 'uncognized behavior,'" Jones says.

Given the harried modern lifestyle, this trend could be worsening. "People have less and less time to think about food habits," he says. Jones hopes the full results of this study (to be published next year) will change such mindlessness -- thereby keeping food out of the trash and on the table, where it belongs.
-- Tim Vanderpool

Trashy Habits

Florida's Manatees Take a Hit

photo of a manateeLast July, a powerboat collided with a manatee in Florida's Indian River Lagoon. She hung on in Sea World's rehabilitation center for a while, but on September 26 she broke a manatee record: the most deaths by boat collision in a single year since records began in 1974. She was the eighty-third, and that was only September. The eighty-fifth died just before this magazine went to press.

Boat collisions account for 33 percent of this year's manatee deaths, up from the usual 25 percent. Recreational boating and fishing interests say that's a good sign, because it means more manatees are out there -- 3,276 were counted from a plane in January 2001, up from 1,456 in 1991. But scientists at the Save the Manatee Club deny the baby boom: No animal that produces one calf every two to three years, they say, can double its numbers in a decade. "They're not rabbits," says Patti Thompson, the club's science and conservation director. The 2001 count day was phenomenally clear and still, so more manatees were visible. Past counts were simply too low, she says, and boat-related mortality has exceeded what you could expect from even realistic population growth.

Meanwhile, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans in January to change the manatee's state designation from "endangered" to "threatened." It's not the urgency of their peril that's changed, but the vocabulary describing it. To be endangered under the new rules, a species will have to face an 80 percent population decline in the next forty-five years, number fewer than 250 adults, or have a fifty-fifty chance of extinction within half a century. "I can't think of any Florida animal that would make the cut," says Thompson.

The federal endangered status will remain, and protections -- like powerboat speed limits -- should hold. But protections depend on public support, and if the manatee is merely "threatened," Floridians might care less.

So if there's been no population boom, why all the boat deaths? It might be the weather. When it's cold, manatees snuggle around hot springs and nuclear plants' discharge pipes. When it's warm, manatees are out "doing what manatees do," says Thompson. "Unfortunately, the same is true of boaters."
-- Gillian Ashley

photo of a frog

Last April, endocrinologist Tyrone Hayes reported that a common weed killer called atrazine turned male African clawed frogs into hermaphrodites. That didn't sit well with Syngenta, the herbicide's manufacturer, which argued that Hayes's study was flawed because the University of California scientist had experimented with foreign animals in laboratory (and thus unnatural) conditions. So Hayes conducted more tests. This time he used a common U.S. species, the leopard frog, and also observed the animals in "natural" atrazine-addled ponds. His results, published in October in the journal Nature , again showed that atrazine puts frogs in the gender blender. Italy, France, and Germany have banned or restricted the use of atrazine, but U.S. farmers still apply some 60 million pounds every year. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to release an evaluation of the chemical's risks.
-- Jill Davis

Rubber Stamp Soon, when you're buying computer paper, you may notice that some packages are stamped with the SFI logo. It has a tree. It has a leaf. But if the brand uses environmental imagery, its meaning is anything but green. Created by the American Forest & Paper Association, whose pulp-industry members manage 90 percent of U.S. timberlands, the logo masquerades as a seal of eco-approval for wood products. FSC seal
But in reality, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), lets companies clear cut areas the size of 116 football fields and turn native forests into tree plantations, among other unsustainable acts. Buyer beware: SFI is the stamp of the status quo. Instead, consumers should look for the seal of the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (bottom).

Illustration: Craig LaRotonda
Photos: Sex & Drugs Don't Mix, Doug Wechsler; Florida Manatees Take a Hit, Chris Huss
Table source: EPA Municipal Solid Waste Report

OnEarth. Winter 2003
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council