Is the spoiled milk in my fridge waste

A random train of thought about systems and our relationships with waste.

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
4 min readApr 23, 2023

A few days before I left for a short vacation, I went to the supermarket and decided to start eating breakfast again. Like in general. I got granola (which was BOGO) and some Hokkaido milk (my favourite). In fact, I bought two types of milk in small glass containers (recyclable! I thought); one a whole milk variety that lasts until after my vacation and one a lactose free version that expires right before my flight out.

The mere fact that I’m writing this means that I did not drink the lactose-free milk.

I had an 8 am flight (with 5 am pick up from home), which was far too early for a milk and cereal or any kind of breakfast because I’m not an eater when I’m tired. I let it roll uneasily pass it’s expiration in the fridge.

And having the obsessive behavior that I do, I worried. About throwing food away. About all the energy and water and food that fed the cows, only to let the products of those resources not go into my body and make useful ATPs (I think that’s how that works). I overthink, clearly, about things losing utility.

Like any overthinking mind or a politician running for office, I try to rationalize myself out of this moral (!) dilemma and guilt by posing a question: Is spoiled milk a waste?

As an individual, I am certainly wasteful. I went to the supermarket and spent hard-earned currency on a product that I thought I would derive some utility from in the form nutrition and enjoyment — and then I didn’t. It’s time, money, and resources misused for me, a productive person in the machine of capitalism.

For the dairy farmers and factories and distributors along the supply chain, their efforts and outputs are already rewarded with money. So even though there are inefficiencies in the course of production due to thermodynamics — waste heat, packaging, emissions, and so on — no “waste” was generated because value is being created for consumers like me. We can safely assume that the stakeholders used resources to the best of their abilities under the current production-based system driven by profits.

My action of letting the milk spoil is my own loss. Can I try to blame something else?

If we take a materialistic perspective, what happens to this statement? In our linear, cradle-to-grave world, yes absolutely, the milk will go into the sewers and treatment system. What is potentially useful organic substances is taken out of the cycle of materials and is no longer useful to anyone, anything, anywhere. (This part is probably an exaggeration in that the waste from wastewater plants is probably going to good use, but I’m sticking with assumption for now).

What if I use technology to resolve this guilt? Let’s say this spoiled milk is poured meticulously into a digestor that composts it along with other food waste (though a Google search will reveal this process is rather challenging). The output of which can be a fertilizer that is then integrated back into the system of growing new foods. The glass can be recycled, minus the plastic labels and all, if it’s picked up and separated properly. All good — no more waste, even for me.

All good, right?

There seems to be two simple conclusions at the last stop of this train, neither of which I particularly like.

First, the system that we live in is what allows waste to exist at all. If only, we change our waste management to one of circularity, then we can account for individual mistakes (like buying milk without foresight!) and take care of them by putting materials to good use again. I’d be essentially paying for a highly indirect system utility of making fertilizer.

Second, and this is related, is that if we just take a different perspective by shifting from consumer-centricity to one of systems thinking, we can also remove our responsibility without changing our relationship with natural resources. If only we improve something else — not me, no, I’m a good, rational actor — then our planet will be fine.

So after all this, it turns out that the answer I liked the most is yes, spoiled milk is waste. Because it didn’t live up to its utility. What else is “spoiled milk” in our society? The fruits and leftovers from dinner, the tea leaves from yesteryear and cosmetics left in too much humidity, the recycled A4’s and the clothes rarely worn, perhaps — just to name a few things at my place.

I want to believe that spoiled milk and all the other “spoiled milks” out there is waste, because this challenges our self-perception, and encourages us to consume more mindfully. And to treat our resources like the precious materials that they are.



Paricha 'Bomb' D.

Socially-conscious design educator and instigator in search of challenges that will help us thrive in the 22nd century.