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Meet the Uneaten of
Tucson Meet Yourself

A team of volunteers composts and recycles thousands of pounds of waste at Tucson Meet Yourself.

November 6, 2017

Tucson Meet Yourself is an annual festival that celebrates the very best of Tucson, including the many diverse cultures that make up Baja Arizona. (Read about a first-timer’s journey through Tucson Meet Yourself.) At the three-day festival, cultures and traditions are celebrated through various mediums, like music, dance, crafts, and food. Also known as “Tucson Eat Yourself,” the festival earned its beloved nickname for the plethora of food that celebrates the various heritages that exist within the community.

Festival-goers at Tucson Meet Yourself enjoy food from a variety of food stands.

Though the cuisines at Tucson Meet Yourself vary, they all share the same destination–our bellies. However, not every noodle, pita, taco, kebab, and ice cream cone will make it there. With so many different kinds of food to sample, there’s no way festival-goers can finish every bite of every dish and leave room to continue eating from the 58 vendors there. According to the Tucson Meet Yourself website, the event generates 20,000 pounds of waste, and roughly 33 percent of that is food waste alone.

Luckily, the waves of half-eaten plates are not tossed in vain. Just because that food was not eaten, does not mean it will not be “consumed” in one way or another. Compost Cats has a place for all those food scraps. The oozy-gooey concoction of Tucson Meet Yourself’s unfinished food and drinks is warmly welcomed to compost piles. Compost Cats has a partnership with the San Xavier Co-op Farm, where the whole composting process takes place. All of the discarded food will be mulched and sifted into amended soil to grow future foods and made paper products like plates and napkins. According to Chet Phillips, founder of Compost Cats, 6,120 pounds of compost were collected at this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself festival.

Compost Cats partners with the San Xavier Co-op Farm to turn food waste into compost.

Collecting compost is part of the festival’s sustainability initiative, led by Phillips. This is the sixth year that the festival has collected compost. Now, Tucson Meet Yourself is armed with waste stations. Each station has three separate bins: compost, recyclables, and landfill, and is armed with up to three volunteers in unmistakable bright green shirts who collect compost and keep recycling clean. These volunteers are part of the ‘Green Team’ and have their sights set on reducing the festival’s environmental impact by diverting as much waste as possible from the landfill.

Green Team volunteers help a festival-goer sort food waste into compost, recycling, and landfill bins.

Even though there are detailed signs that list what goes where, the Green Team’s job is to ensure that all debris ends up in the correct receptacle. Many volunteers noted that most of which is thrown away, or attempted to be thrown away, is not landfill trash at all. “I learned that the majority of our trash can actually be composted. Composted or recycled. Not a lot of it has to be thrown away, which is really good. It is just that a lot of people do not know where everything goes so they just throw everything in the trash immediately,” said Rebecca Newton, a Green Team volunteer.  The vast majority of the Tucson community, as well as many of the volunteers, are still learning.

It was Anali Martinez’s first year volunteering for Tucson Meet Yourself and the Green Team. “I am actually learning a lot about how to do compost and recycling and stuff. I never understood the specifics before, like paper. Most people put it in the recycle pile and I learned that it can be composted,” Martinez said. Paper and cardboard can be composted or recycled, but the Compost Cats advise that wet paper or cardboard should be composted. If it is dry, recycle it. Martinez, like many other volunteers, was surprised to learn that straws and plastic utensils, the most common items going to the landfill, cannot be recycled.

A Green Team volunteer empties a large compost bin.

That is exactly the kind of revelation that Phillips was hoping to inspire, from the community members as well as the attendees. Philips claims that Tucson Meet Yourself is all about celebrating the very best of Tucson, including its sustainable practices. “I think it makes the Tucson Meet Yourself the largest green festival in Southern Arizona. We want the community to think about how materials can be reused into something else. Tucson Meet Yourself is a wonderful to illustrate how much of how many of the materials … can be turned into something useful instead of throwing it in the trash,” Phillip said.

Compost Cats use Tucson Meet Yourself as an opportunity to teach community members about composting and recycling waste.

These best practices are demonstrated even after the festival is officially over. After the clock struck six on Sunday, the last day of the 2017 Tucson Meet Yourself festival, vendors scrambled to pack up. By eight o’clock, after most of the vendors and general volunteers had left, the Green Team remained. They sorted through what was left after the storm and went through wastewater bins that had been mistaken for trash bins. Behind the scenes, the Compost Cats got up close and personal in the heaping roll off, pulling out as much inorganic waste as possible before it went to the farm, where is will be sifted through again for contaminants. After it is all mulched up and turned into compost, it will be sold back to the Tucson community from which it came.

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