'Wasted! The Story of Food Waste': Film Review

That rare eco-doc that doesn't feel like doing chores.
10/13/2017

Anthony Bourdain hosts an unusually uplifting doc about what to do with all those food scraps.

Those of us who watch a lot of environment-themed documentaries often think, upon seeing an especially good one, "Everybody who doesn't care about environmentalism should be forced to watch this." Well, they aren't. But if the world were force-fed those bits of cinematic nutrition, they might be relieved to find Wasted! The Story of Food Waste next up on the menu. Anna Chai's and Nari Kye's food-centric film inverts the usual eco-doc formula, spending only enough time on problems to establish their importance, then traveling around the world to prove how satisfying the solutions can be. Anthony Bourdain and several other food superstars should help draw attention to this serious but feel-good doc, which with luck will have legs on small screens after its theatrical run ends.

Bourdain opens the film by admitting that he "hated the whole idea of this movie" and is made itchy by the idea of advocacy. On the other hand, he says, every bit of his culinary education trained him to abhor waste. So here he is, lending his very relevant globe-trotting experience to a look at the problem of wasted food.

The filmmakers (both, surprisingly, making their feature debuts here) toss out worrisome statistics but don't dwell on them. Forty percent of food produced in the United States isn't eaten, a journalist tells us. Waste costs $1 trillion a year, with the average American family throwing $1,500 worth of food in the garbage annually.

And while you might think the scraps you discard are biodegradable, therefore hurting nothing more than your pocketbook, landfills are terrible places for food. Trapped without oxygen under a mountain of garbage, a head of lettuce takes 25 years to decompose, according to the film. And while scraps in compost piles transform quickly into valuable fertilizer, in landfills they instead produce methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times worse than carbon dioxide. (Other sources, like Scientific American and the Environmental Defense Fund, think methane's even worse than the film says, causing more than 80 times the damage of CO2 over the short term. It's refreshing to find doc-makers who use a less scary stat that is easier to defend to critics.)

But before these facts can produce nervous perspiration, the film has whisked us off to the Stone Barns Center, where celebrated chef Dan Barber is figuring out how to make fancy-pants food out of plant materials others discard. Barber points out that some of global cuisine's greatest hits were ways of dealing with leftovers: bouillabaisse, a stew made of rejected fish; prosciutto di Parma, the exquisite meat of pigs that ate waste.

Pigs that eat waste? Those are called "pigs." But while American industrial producers use corn and soy to churn out vast quantities of generic ham, Japanese farmers have started boutique operations — making name-brand pork with pigs raised exclusively on sushi leftovers, the remnants of sake production and so on. Danny Bowien, of the foodie-beloved Mission Chinese Food, takes us to an operation in Chiba, Japan, where a high-tech "eco-feed" is eagerly slurped by free-roaming pigs. This long Japanese episode, in which Bowien not only eats life-changing pork, but has an omakase dinner of unmentionable ingredients, exemplifies the film's ability to make environmentalism mouthwatering.

Wasted! ranges all over its territory, appealing to both fine-dining fans (Mario Batali and his Esca chef Dave Pasternack show how varieties of "trash fish" become customer favorites with the right handling) and community organizers (talking to Jahmal Hurst at New Orleans' Edible Schoolyard and Doug Rauch of Daily Table). It even finds a Green pin-up in the person of Tristram Stuart, a handsome British activist whose Toast Ale raises funds while turning thrown-away (but perfectly good) bread into mash for beer. Delicious beer.

There's much more here, including one or two efforts that sound like less fun: South Korea's effective solution to landfills, for instance, is making people weigh the food trash they toss and pay by the kilo. But in everything from its selection of subjects to its lively editing and score, Wasted! makes the case that this is an arena where doing the wrong thing just makes no sense at all: Learning to eat the things we waste saves tremendous amounts of money. It feeds those around us who go hungry. It makes a dent in climate change. And it tastes fucking awesome.

 

Production company: Zero Point Zero Films

Distributor: Super LTD

Directors: Anna Chai, Nari Kye

Producers: Joe Caterini, Lydia Tenaglia

Executive producers: Anthony Bourdain, Christopher Collins, Joe Caterini, Lydia Tenaglia, Nari Kye

Director of photography: Jeremy Leach

Editors: Mustafa Bhagat, Laura Deney

Composers: Giulio Carmassi, Bryan Scary

 

85 minutes

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