Interview with Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau

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Today’s blog post is an interview with Anne-Marie Bonneau from San Francisco Bay Area who is a zero-waste chef, editor and a mother to two kids. Concerned with the planet’s plastic pollution problem, she went plastic-free in 2011, which led her to go zero-waste as a next logical step. In this interview I take you through her zero-waste adventures where she tells you how going zero-waste is not that difficult and how you can do it too!

My first question to you is – What do you mean by a zero-waste chef?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I run my kitchen without producing waste. So I don’t buy anything in packaging. That means I don’t eat any processed food. (All the processed stuff comes packaged in plastic.) And I don’t waste any food. Another thing, I’m not actually a trained chef. I like to point out to people that anyone can do what I do. You don’t need special training to cook your dinner.

I see. The way you define zero-waste chef, that’s a pretty high standard to live by given the busy and rapid lives we live, don’t you think? Someone like me who’s just beginning to understand something like this must feel awe.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I always tell people I’m not perfect. If you aim for perfection, you might give up. You can start out small. My older daughter and I started all of this when we decided to go plastic-free. That took several months as we adopted new habits like shopping at the farmer’s market with reusable cloth produce bags and making more things from scratch. And actually, I think zero-waste is easier than people think. Unless you’re a huge consumer, you probably produce most of your waste in the kitchen—packaging and food. So I cook food from scratch but I don’t cook anything very difficult. I buy staples at the bulk bins and produce from the farmer’s market. My intention when I started all of this was to cut the plastic but I inadvertently cleaned up my diet as well. I’m much healthier now as a result. All the bad food is processed. If you cut the processed food, you cut a big part of your waste.

When you put this idea in small digestible bites like this, it starts to seem possible.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well you start off small. If you try to do it all at once, you may feel overwhelmed. It takes a little while to adjust to the new routine, but it’s all very doable, you just have to get used to it. So I have some suggestions for starting small. First, cut the bottled water if you drink it! While you’re at it, cut all beverages that come in plastic containers. Make water your drink of choice and get a reusable water bottle. You can also try to do one zero-waste meal a day. I started with breakfast. After I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan I vowed I wouldn’t eat cereal anymore. So I started making granola. I love steel cut oats (I had them for breakfast this morning) topped with fruit, seeds, nuts and some plain yogurt. I make them the night before, so that’s super easy. I also make sourdough pancakes a few mornings a week. Or I’ll eat eggs. There are so many choices. Fruit and yogurt…I can get yogurt in glass jars that I can return to the vendor at the farmer’s market I buy it from. Yogurt is also pretty easy to make. I think most of us are used to taking our reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. You can make or buy reusable cloth produce bags. I sewed some and they are very simple, just a rectangular bag the same size as the plastic ones. So, get some of those and tuck them into your shopping bags. That’s an easy thing to do and you’ll eliminate probably hundreds of plastic produce bags every year from going into landfill. So those are easy steps you can take. To take it to the next level, take containers and jars to the grocery store. Depending on the store, customer service will weigh them before you fill them up at the bulk bins. That way, when the cashier rings you up, you pay only for the weight of the food in the jars and not the weight of the jar. This is very important when you buy tea at $40 a pound and you use a heavy jar!!! You can also take containers to the butcher counter. So the first time I did this (in 2011), I confused all the butchers and they thought I was crazy but now they actually thank me! They may still think I’m crazy though ;)

I’ve never taken a heavy jar to a grocery store. I would get the same reactions I guess and somewhere those reactions are scary. There are some things that are becoming increasingly common with changing lifestyles, irrespective of where you come from – such as drinking bottled water. We can definitely carry a reusable water bottle. The organization I worked with had organized a waste management conference for capacity building. A colleague had requested the participants to not take the bottled water given to them and instead use the refillable jar placed in one corner of the conference room. It was a great idea!

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well it depends on the store. I’m in Northern California, so it’s hard to be weird here ;) And people are pretty green here too.

Speaking of weird reactions, what challenges did you face when you decided you want to cut waste from your kitchen?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I think the biggest challenge right now is people giving me stuff. They are trying to do something nice, but I wish they wouldn’t. Also let’s just say my younger daughter hasn’t fully embraced the zero-waste lifestyle. Her sister is the one that got us started and the younger often says to the older, “Why did you do this???!!!” She thinks her sister created a monster :P So that’s my biggest challenge, trying to control what comes into my home. But most people are really excited. My neighbours and friends have changed some of their habits. My one friend started making bread and kombucha and using less plastic. My boss started buying milk in returnable glass bottles. And a colleague threw her son a plastic-free birthday party. I try not to preach, people hate that and it doesn’t work, but I find when people see what I’m doing they get excited and want to adopt some of my habits. Just yesterday when I was filling up my jars at the bulk bins, a woman asked me about it and said “I’m going to do that!” after I explained how to do it.

Ha-ha, that’s adorable. To clarify has your daughter taken up after you or did you follow her? She’s found her own niche in the zero-waste chef adventure. It is interesting to see how we pass the concept of sustainability on to the next generation. Jamie Oliver is transforming the way we feed ourselves, and our children too. He wants us to teach every child about food. And by every child I mean girls as well as boys, a non-biased way of teaching, because hey some things make you independent, irrespective of your gender. Tell us more about your daughter and her adventures.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well my older daughter was tired of hearing me complain about plastic. This was back in 2011. I had banned bottled water from our home and had used reusable shopping bags for years. I felt bad about buying stuff in plastic but really didn’t know how to stop. She found Beth Terry’s blog http://www.myplasticfreelife.com and we started to do what Beth does. So then MKat (my daughter) started her own blog when she was 16, The Plastic-Free Chef. I LOVED her blog. But then she went away to university in Canada (we’re Canadian) and she couldn’t keep it up. I asked her if I could take it over and she said no way, start your own, so I did.

It’s amazing what leading by example does to our society. Does the concept of zero-waste extend to the other parts of your life outside kitchen? I wish I was your neighbour, it’d be easier to learn from you.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oh yeah, I’m plastic-free and have been since 2011. I don’t buy stuff in plastic. I make my own deodorant. I ran out of homemade toothpaste and so need to make some more tonight before bed :)  I am not a huge consumer, so the kitchen was the biggest generator of waste. If all you buy is food (and maybe books…), you don’t produce much waste outside of the kitchen. Well I’d be happy to teach you if you were my neighbour.

I see. What about stationary?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well that can be recycled. So I should clarify, I do recycle paper. That’s not so bad. It’s the plastic I avoid. Recycling plastic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I understand your concern about plastic.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Yeah it’s pretty bad. The oceans are a mess. It breaks my heart that so many animals are dying from eating the stuff. Like albatrosses. They feed it to their young, thinking its food :( The baby birds feel full but starve to death. It’s a huge problem. Mind boggling, it’s so huge. Oh and I compost too. That helps a lot too. I love my compost piles. The one is ready. It smells so good.

It is good to know that you compost too. Reminds me of a greenhouse a family built around their house. Do you plan anything like that as an environmental conscious person?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I live in an intentional community so I can’t really build anything here. I would love to have a greenhouse. We have a hoop house on the property that extend the growing season. It gets very warm in there.

There was this blog I read the other day. It said ‘technology is making us greener’. I wish the companies could make it easier for us. Is it too much to ask for?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Corporations play a huge role. Every November, we celebrate America Recycles Day in the US. Corporations dreamt that up. They want us to keep consuming their products and by making us feel that recycling solves the problem of clean up, we continue to buy. It’s a sham. They make a big mess and leave it to us to clean it up. They should have to.

Although in a nascent stage, there are technologies coming up that can convert any kinds of plastic to oil again. What are your thoughts about it?

Anne-Marie Bonneau:  Well I am not an expert but I’m not too thrilled about plastic-to-oil conversion. I would rather cut the plastic. Most food (and other products) packaged in single-use plastic are things that not only do we not need, but are bad for us. I think that at the bottom of it all, we need to change how we live. We can’t keep consuming the way we are. We keep trying to change the product design but not the consumption pattern. Electric cars are better than cars powered by fossil fuels but we need mass transit and decent bike lanes.

What do you think about bioplastics?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well again, I’m not an expert. Do they really break down? I doubt it. I’m always a bit leery of claims like “biodegradable plastic.” So instead of ordering a drink in a bioplastic cup, why not just bring your own? It’s not hard to do. I don’t like single-use items. They are a waste even if some are made of less harmful materials. And isn’t it much more pleasant to drink a cup of tea from a real, ceramic mug, than from a paper one? And those paper ones are lined with plastic, plus they have the plastic lid on top. So that’s one thing I would like to point out to people. This isn’t about denying myself. I eat better food. I’m healthier and I’m happier. I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not consuming so much stuff.

I think bioplastics can be a softer transition for many people who are a lot dependent on plastic. Not all bioplastics are degradable though. They can either be degradable; biodegradable; or compostable.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I think environmentalists have to point that out more. That all this over consumption isn’t making us happy. Going outside and enjoying nature does make us happy, however!

Sustainable consumption and production (SCP) as some have coined it, is a topic for another day. :) Mankind has always circumvented. To the plastic mess that it has created, I think it is more creative than ever. Take for instance WikiFoods. Its technology wraps a vast range of foods and beverages in edible packages made of natural ingredients = less packaging waste.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I guess. But a corporation like Coca-Cola will use something like bioplastics to try to convince us that it has no impact. I have heard of edible packaging but not WikiFoods. I will look that up. Ice cream cones are basically edible packaging :) Thanks for the SCP acronym. I will look that up too.

As opposed to green disposable items, there are of course ones that stay for long – such as BuyMeOnce. It finds and promotes products that don’t break the bank, don’t break the planet… that don’t break at all!

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oh yeah, I have seen her website. I LOVE my Le Creuset pots. They are basically indestructible. That site sells those.

Listening to you reminds me of how different our cuisines are. I wonder how Indian food can be made from scratch. That’s a thought I’ll take with me to ponder upon.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oooh I love Indian food! Are you vegetarian? I make dal and channa masala often. So good! My daughter has made paneer from scratch too. Vegetarian and vegan food make zero-waste easier. Meat and cheese are the most difficult things to get zero-waste, I find. But lentils, spices and vegetable, rice…those are easy to get unpackaged and the food is so delicious, that is doesn’t go to waste ;)

I’m Indian and I haven’t made paneer from scratch yet! Wow! I was a vegetarian for a few years but I now eat eggs mostly on a daily basis, and chicken once a week, no other meat.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well it’s actually pretty easy. You heat the milk and then add some vinegar. It curdles and you strain it and get paneer. I may have the recipe wrong. I will have to look it up. But I think it’s milk and vinegar. Maybe one other thing… I think most people just don’t think about the impact of these small choices.

I agree! There’s a conscious consumerism movement that we are all now a part of and should actively promote. Thank you for the recipe, Anne-Marie. I definitely want to try. Coming to shopping bags. After moving to US, I often visit Wegmans for grocery. All Wegmans stores have collection facilities for used bags which are then sent to a recycling facility and eventually are made into more bags. What do you think about that?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I don’t recycle. I don’t buy stuff that needs to be recycled.

Why do you not recycle?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well, recycling isn’t the answer. We can’t keep consuming at the rate we are and think that throwing all that plastic in the recycling bin will make up for it. We have to cut the stuff off at its source and not buy it in the first place. Plastic eventually ends up in landfill. It gets recycled once or twice but each time, the material degrades until it’s garbage. So I just avoid it.

To wrap it up, here’s my last question to you. What is that one tip you’d like to give us layman on kick-starting our own zero-waste kitchens?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I think if you do only one thing, cut out the processed food. You will reduce your garbage, eat better food and improve your health.

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Anne-Marie on the cover of the @mvvoice Weekend section

I thank Anne-Marie for taking some time out for the interview and I appreciate the candidness. You can read her blogs on The Zero-Waste Chef. You can also find her on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. Have you tried anything like Anne-Marie, please tell us about your experience; tips; challenges; anything that can help our readers gain more insights into a zero-waste journey.

Interview with Leda Marritz, Creative Director at DeepRoot, on Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Solutions

DSC_9234.jpgToday’s blog post is an interview with Leda Marritz, Creative Director at DeepRoot, on how their urban tree infrastructure solutions are helping cities be healthier and happier, what is it about planting trees that we miss and what we should be doing instead. Leda joined in 2006 and is responsible for all of DeepRoot’s online and print materials, advertising, writing, design, events, and other creative projects. Some of Leda’s major initiatives have included significant updates to DeepRoot’s online presence, including website enhancements and a strong social media presence. In 2009 she started a company blog called “Green Infrastructure for Your Community,” where she posts three times a week on topics related to trees, soil, stormwater, and company news. In 2011 she became a certified arborist and, in addition to the writing she does for DeepRoot, contributes articles for Next City and Earth In Transition. Leda holds a B.A. from Brown University in Comparative Literature.

1 . Leda, how did you get involved with DeepRoot?

Answer: I started my career in publishing (I studied comparative literature in college), which was a lot of fun but ultimately not for me. I wanted to try something new. When I moved to San Francisco in 2006, I had to decide what that was! I started by searching my alumni network for anyone in the Bay Area doing work I was interested in, which led me to Graham Ray, the CEO of DeepRoot. The timing was really fortuitous, because my background was in marketing and the company had a need for someone to tackle that. I started a week or two later and have been here ever since.

2. How can one become a certified arborist like you?

Answer: You have to pass an exam administered by the International Society of Arboriculture and then maintain the accreditation by getting 10 continuing education units every year. While my day job doesn’t get me out in the field among trees much, I really enjoyed studying for the accreditation and recommend it.

3. How do you define sustainability?

Answer: I’d define sustainability, and sustainable thinking, as being driven by a vision for how something will function, look, and feel 20, 50, 100 years from today.

4. What are the many environmental and social benefits of urban landscaping? What are some of the most overlooked benefits?

Answer: There are so many benefits to urban trees! They help reduce urban heat-island effect and crime rates, and help slow, cool, and clean the rain that falls on paving and then runs into our sewer system. Trees reduce vacancy rates and air pollution, creating a cleaner and more pleasant environment. They’re calming and psychologically restorative; people instinctively want to be where trees are.

Having so many benefits can, in certain ways, be a liability. In a recent interview with Russell Horsey (Development Director of Institute of Chartered Foresters in England) that we published on the DeepRoot blog, he said “If you imagined us as a business trying to market “trees,” we have a product that in some ways does too many good things! As a sector we try to explain all of the things that trees do rather than honing our message and keeping our messages simple. We still use too much technical wording which does not work with the public, politicians and some higher managers, who may manage more than just trees and may not have an arboricultural background.” I tend to agree.

5. What problems is DeepRoot trying to solve through its solutions? What are the major drivers?

Answer:  The U.S. is losing millions of urban canopy cover every year. We’re trying to help stem that loss while also incorporating the incredible ability of trees and soil to clean and absorb water and return it to the atmosphere. In cities, so much rainfall hits the ground and rushes right into the sewer rather than being used to irrigate plants or being saved for other uses. And so many trees are planted in tiny areas, with little or no thought given to what it needs to survive and mature. Green infrastructure (trees, soil, and water) is the backbone of a city’s ecological health.

6. What do you mean when you say ‘Rethink trees’?

Answer: When we say “rethink trees,” we’re trying to draw attention to trees as underutilized, and undervalued, elements of our urban fabric. Most people don’t think about trees much at all – and if they do, they tend to think of them as ornamental. We don’t think trees are ornamental at all – we think they’re fundamental to health and resilient urban design. We want to prompt people to think about trees as essential to smart, economically viable, and successful development. That’s what we mean.

7. The planting of the one millionth tree of the MillionTreesNYC initiative was celebrated. Speaking of quantity over quality, how would you describe the quality of this process? Were they planted the right way? Does simply planting trees, any kind, help? Is there a right or a wrong way?

Answer: I have no firsthand knowledge of how the MillionTreesNYC planting program was run; I’m quite sure they have great folks working for them who truly believe in the cause. And a million trees is a very, very large number! We congratulate them on their efforts and we’re so glad there are people who care so much about trees.

Having said that, it’s true that we can’t just plant our way into a bigger urban tree canopy. To really move the needle on the health of the urban forest, we also need to address how trees are planted. A tree’s size and health are in direct proportion to the amount of soil it has access to. Until we start considering the needs of the tree roots in our development planning – and incorporating room for soil underneath sidewalks, parking lots, plazas, etc. – the trees in those areas will struggle to thrive and survive.

8. How does pollution affect soil health? We’ve heard of phytoremediation. Can it be achieved in urban areas? Have you tried it?

Answer: Pollution can accumulate in soil to levels that are unsafe for humans; I’m not aware of any direct impact to the health of the soil itself. I’ve not heard of any phytoremediation projects being done in urban areas, but there are some great people studying stuff like this – it’s possible I’m just not aware of the work being done in this area.

9. How do you weigh preventive measures against adaptive measures such as seed banks and their gene study?

Answer: First I should say that I’m not an expert in either of these issues, but based on what I’ve seen from my time in the industry, both are important. To protect the future of our communities, we absolutely need to employ preventive measures. But there’s room for all kinds of creative solutions and ideas, and things like seed banks may be one of those.

10. Is mulching the panacea for urban soil health? If not, what is?

Answer: Mulching does a lot of wonderful things for soil health and function; we’re big fans. But it’s not a panacea – nothing is. Instead, we need to take more care of trees and soils at every stage of the planning and planting process. Soil that is healthy should be reused, and soil that is marginal should be salvaged wherever possible. And, above all, we need to give trees enough of it.

11. What do you think Matthew McConaughey meant when he said ‘”It’s not about huggin’ trees…,” he argues. “It’s not about being wasteful, either…,” in an ad for the Lincoln MKZ hybrid sedan? What’s the philosophy here? What’s Deep Root’s philosophy?

Answer: I would never purport to speak for Matthew McConaughey (you’re aware of his naked conga-drum playing episode, right?) on Lincoln Motors! DeepRoot’s philosophy is that trees and soils are elemental to truly sustainable design. We think that trees are essential for the physical, mental, and emotional health of humans (and other living things) and that they should be considered as important as other traditional forms of infrastructure. We’re excited to be a part of making cities more livable.

12. What question do people fail to ask and what would that be?

Answer: People fail to ask, or consider, what they want the site they’re working on to look like in 20, 40, 80 years. Do you envision a beautiful mature tree canopy? If so, you have to play the long game and plan for that tree today.

13. What’s your favorite tree pun? Mine is this – ‘Tree puns are getting old.. We should branch out! *leaves*’

Answer: I don’t know any tree puns, but here’s a non-tree joke: What did the zero say to the eight? “Nice belt.”

I thank Leda for her time and insights. Loved her candidness! I’ve been a fan of DeepRoot since I stumbled upon it on the internet. DeepRoot Green Infrastructure develops solutions to enhance urban forests and surrounding watersheds in city streets, parking lots, campuses, and other heavily-paved areas. I subscribed to its blogs and it started growing on me. And if you’ve read my blog posts in the past, you’d know how I love gardening. Every time I talked about DeepRoot, my colleagues would think I’m selling their products to them. Well, how awesome it is to finally have an interview with them! I’m having a superb weekend! You can read more about DeepRoot on their website, and get in touch with them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

Following are some of my takeaways from the interview.

  • Sustainability when defined with numbers excludes vagueness. It made an impact on my mind, made me think. Tweet: Sustainability when defined with numbers excludes vagueness. It made an impact on my mind, made me think.
  • Everything works in unison, the trees, soil, water and air, to make this planet livable. Urban infrastructure should be based on this. Tweet: Everything works in unison, the trees, soil, water and air, to make this planet livable. Urban infrastructure should be based on this.
  • It’s not just about planting trees, it is about what you plant and how you plant it. Tweet: It's not just about planting trees, it is about what you plant and how you plant it.

My question to you all is, what has made you ‘Rethink Trees’? Please comment below.