O.P.C. Program: Talking Trash at A.R.T.
December 4, 2014

A comic collision between radical environmentalism and mainstream liberalism, Eve Ensler’s new play O.P.C. (“obsessive political correctness”) asks important questions about what we throw away and why. In the play’s debate about where our food comes from — and where it goes when we don’t finish it — global politics meet advocacy efforts with close ties to Cambridge.

According to a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international research and lobbying group, forty percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. “This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year,” the report states, “but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste, where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.” The NRDC estimates that reducing food waste by just 15% would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans.

Enter Romi Weil, one of O.P.C.’s dueling protagonists, and a proud freegan. Freeganism, one of the topics at play in O.P.C., is a real movement that takes the NRDC statistics as a call for radical action. Combining “free” and “vegan,” freegans eschew capitalism as an irredeemable producer of environmental destruction. The group’s most ardent members renounce currency entirely and live off food unwanted by restaurants, supermarkets, and individuals — often edible, but unsaleable because of imperfections or sell-by dates.

Most of the press around freegans has centered on the fact that, often, this food comes from dumpsters. Freegan.info, the online hub of the grassroots movement, describes this practice as “urban foraging.” For freegans, urban foraging, or dumpster diving, is the ultimate condemnation of global capitalism: proving through their own lives that we throw away enough to live on when an estimated one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food. 

“Despite our society’s stereotypes about garbage,” freegan.info claims, “the goods recovered by freegans are safe, useable, clean, and in perfect or near-perfect condition, a symptom of a throwaway culture that encourages us to constantly replace our older goods with newer ones.” The website organizes “trash tours” in major metropolitan areas, which introduce converts to the city’s most bounteous waste sites. According to a New York Times profile of the movement, these sites frequently include bakeries and supermarkets which, as common practice, keep goods in-store for much shorter periods than their actual shelf life.

In O.P.C., Smith Weil (Romi’s mother and a Senatorial candidate) has a hard time deciding whether to be disgusted, frustrated, or sympathetic to her daughter’s lifestyle. Criticisms of freeganism have centered on the idea that, as scavengers in today’s urbanized economy, freegans are directly dependent on the system they revile. 

In a 2013 article about freeganism, NRDC project scientist Dana Gunders argues that the problem is more one of logistics than stereotypical cold, capitalist ideologies. Though stores and restaurants might like to donate their extra food, they don’t have the resources to coordinate the processing and delivery of perishable goods already beyond legal saleability. Gunders praises groups that focus their energies on bridging this organizational gap. Food Not Bombs (founded in Cambridge), partners with local stores to collect and distribute surplus food for free vegan meals in public places.

Smith Weil is reluctant to take any food Romi offers her (bruschetta is one of her daughter’s favorite freegan recipes), but as a progressive politician, she is at the same time interested in getting her country thinking about its food waste. Juxtaposing these two perspectives, O.P.C. asks if the freegans are right and it’s time for a more earth-conscious paradigm, or if there’s still time for existing institutions to make a difference.

The play comes at a timely moment in America’s national debate, but also as, on a local level, Cambridge has started to seriously consider these issues. Just this April, the city launched a pilot program for curbside composting. With 800 participating households in North Cambridge, the year-long pilot will test an organic waste removal program under consideration for the entire city. Participating residents sort their trash into three bins (a green organic waste one, in addition to the usual two), and the organic waste is taken to composting facilities outside the city, rather than landfills.

The initiative comes as one considered route to the city’s goal of reducing waste by 30% of 2008 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050. Should Cambridge implement the program, it will join Seattle, San Francisco, and Nantucket as a local government implementing environmental strategies long practiced on an individual basis. According to a 2010 article in the Boston Globe, Nantucket’s mandatory composting program has allowed the island to send only 8% of its waste to landfills, keeping more than 60 thousand tons of methane out of the atmosphere.

Hoping to help lead the next generation of thought about these issues, Harvard recently announced the introduction of a new secondary field in Energy and Environment. A coordinated effort between Harvard’s Environmental Science and Public Policy Program and the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the program will allow undergraduate students to explore issues surrounding energy and the environment from the perspective of their primary discipline.

Thinking about the environment from its own vantage point, A.R.T. has combined its production of O.P.C. with several off-stage initiatives. An art installation in the Loeb Drama Center’s public spaces engages with themes of environment and sustainability. A.R.T. is also curating a speaker series investigating the issues and questions at the core of the play. Engaging experts from Harvard and beyond, these post-performance events will actively involve audiences in discussions about some of the play’s central questions. Are we as a society doing enough about food waste? And if not, as recent figures indicate with alarming surety, how much do we need to change?


Robert Duffley is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

Robert Duffley
Publication date:
December 3, 2014

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