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April 21, 2024

Chasing leftovers: a student’s journey with Waste Neutral owner Keith Losoya

By Lauren Bryant | May 2, 2013

It’s 6 a.m. and I’m squinting into the darkness outside Woodberry Kitchen, looking for a big white dump truck. There’s a hint of the sunrise to the east, but for now the watery pink of street lamps lights the pavement. My team: three other Hopkins students — bundled up, fiddling with cameras — all crane their necks like me, looking down the road.

I’m here, on my own volition, for a class. This semester, I signed up for the community-based learning course, Environmental Photojournalism and Filmmaking. My group chose to make a short film on restaurant waste in Baltimore. We wanted to know where those leftovers went after your plate is whisked away from a restaurant table, and what impact they had on the environment. In all, we’d do over ten interviews with restaurants, food haulers and waste facilities, but this morning, we’re here to see waste-saving in action.

Founded five years ago, Waste Neutral is a hauling service headed by Keith Losoya and his business partner Patrick Richter. The company collects compost from restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and other institutions and delivers them to a compost facility. At Hopkins, places like the Fresh Food Café (FFC), Levering, and even some biology labs also use the service to reduce their environmental impact.

Today, I’m riding in the cab with Keith to continue the journey of leftover food. The truck lumbers around the bend and we meet Keith by Woodberry’s food waste bins. It’s basically your standard trash truck: A machine lifts the bins up, empties their contents and opens its giant mouth to smash all the waste together. The only difference is that this truck eats mostly food, not trash —Keith now diverts an astonishing 4 million pounds a year from the landfill.

From the way he talks about his business and his gusto while emptying bins at 6:30 in the morning, it’s clear that Keith loves his job – which is good because right off the bat it’s obvious that it has its challenges. As the group stands around getting photos of Keith emptying a bin, a rat tumbles into the back of the truck. Desperately trying to avoid the metal jaws, it leaps off the edge, past Keith—and straight toward me.

The rat seems unsure of his exit route and he dances around my feet as I hop back and forth, emitting a wobbly yell. He’s fat: a good-sized Baltimore beauty. He has a thick tail and chubby haunches no doubt nourished by the high-quality food scraps of Woodberry Kitchen. Keith laughs and says I’m getting the full experience. Rats in the bins are rare —especially at Woodberry, he says— but that they do happen if the bin’s lid is not secured properly.

He empties the last bin and invites me into the cab. Raising our voices over the sound of the truck, he tells me about how he loves these early morning runs. Despite my numb hands and two hours of sleep from the night before, it’s not hard to see why: as we make our way into downtown Hampden, the sun cracks over the horizon. The sky is untroubled and cloudless and the first cars are beginning to pass us in the street. Some of the passing drivers wave.

At each restaurant, Keith sizes up the compost:

“Must be on spring break,” he says, or “A good load this week.” He tells me about the ins and outs of building his business of five years—the challenge to find restaurants that can compost, to work out routes, and to make something that’s good for the environment into a for-profit business.

It’s not a business for the faint of heart —some of the bins weigh over a thousand pounds, and there’s the occasional rat or trash juice dripping from the bins. But as Keith offers to let me ride on the back of the truck like a real trash woman and I hold on for dear life, it would be hard to argue that this morning’s ride doesn’t have its perks: the wind, the chill of dawn, the kids waving to me on their way to school all make this job something different. It makes me slow down, maybe not to smell the compost exactly, but to appreciate other things.

For one, I am amazed that this is part of my homework. It’s an assignment that I will work harder on than anything I’ve ever done in college, without a doubt, but it’s still for school. Isn’t that what college is about – giving you experiences that you would never have anywhere else (unless, of course, you’re Keith)? The great thing about community-based learning is that whatever product I create, or grade I ultimately get, I can say for certain that I’ve enjoyed the ride —on the back of a trash truck, that is.

To see the film, please visit www.leftoverfilm.wordpress.com


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