Our Modern Waste Land: Food, Facts and the Future

Source: David FedeleSource: David Fedele

When doomsayers warn of the various ways that humanity is expediting its own demise, they tend to focus on the twenty-first century trinity of overpopulation, food and water shortages, and climate change. And to some extent, they’re right. There’s no denying that these looming issues are desperate for attention from researchers and the public, both of whom must unite if anything effective is to be done about them. But more often than not this approach is simplistic: each constituent hogs the spotlight in isolation, as stand-alone problems that are being dealt with as such. The grim reality is that not only are they entangled in a nightmarish network of self-reinforcing tragedy, but they also breed more subtle problems that compound the entire situation – an ageing workforce, the treacherous rise of biofuels as an alternative energy source, extensive deforestation, or intensified economic inequality, just to name a few examples.

But one particular problem that these three issues spawn is less talked about, and for good reason. Waste isn’t exactly the most charming of matters. We efficiently hide all the unwanted by-products that civilization spews out, in part because of the diseases it harbours, but also because of how unsightly trash is to our eyes. And this discreet compartmentalization of garbage is mirrored by a widespread ignorance of the imminent management problem it presents not just locally, but across the globe. Just like our rubbish, we have tucked the matter out of sight and out of mind.

But what exactly is the bad news about waste?

As the world’s population climbs ever higher – the latest prediction by the UN estimates that we’ll be just shy of 10 billion by 2050 – our waste production is anticipated to escalate with it. A 2012 analysis from the World Bank’s Urban Development department quantified the magnitude of this increase. Presently, world cities produce roughly 1.3 bn tonnes of waste a year. By 2025, that volume is set to almost double to 2.2 bn. This garbage, or “municipal solid waste”, is the focus of the report, because it’s the world’s cities that are the primary generators of rubbish. City-dwellers make twice as much refuse as those living in rural areas. In fact, waste generation is growing faster than the rate of urbanisation, so as more and more people flock to the cities (about 1.3 bn more people will live in cities in the next twelve years), the situation only looks bleaker.

But whilst right now the upward trend is getting steeper, we will, eventually, reach a stage when it ceases. The point in time when global production of waste reaches its maximum rate is called ’peak waste’. The idea is that as living standards progressively rise across the world, waste output concomitantly slows, so eventually the global production of waste will climax. After peak waste, its production curtails. It’s analogous to the more familiar concept of ‘peak oil’, the moment when oil production enters terminal decline. Unlike peak oil, however, the aftermath of peak waste is a very good thing. It heralds the beginning of the end of our steady accumulation of rubbish, and it’s a sign that we’re no longer on a trajectory to a Wall-E-esque scenario of an Earth saturated with our waste. In essence, the sooner we peak, the better.

Unfortunately, the peak is a distant speck on the horizon. Models forecast that it’s not going to happen this century – a depressing and sober prophecy. If we don’t change our ways, by 2100 we’ll be generating waste at more than three times today’s rate. So what exactly can be done?

This is another area where the waste problem differs from your typical global dilemmas. Whilst individuals feel divorced from responsibility for crises like overpopulation, climate change and food security, when it comes to waste, everyone, at least in the UK, shares the blame. At the start of November, the government’s waste advisory body, WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), issued a report on the amount of food and drink wasted. Every year, UK households throw 4.2m tonnes of avoidable waste away, worth approximately £12.5bn.

A similar report last month by the supermarket giant Tesco released data on the huge amount of food thrown away every day. The statistics are nothing short of shocking. They estimate that 32% of food is wasted along the value chain, the sequence of activities that a company performs in order to deliver their product to market. And, according to their report, consumers waste 16% of the food produced for UK consumption, with another 16% loss due to the producers; interestingly, the retailers themselves waste less than 1%. A detailed examination of what exactly is being wasted unveils the severity of the problem: 40% of the total production of apples is unused; 47% for bakery; 68% for bagged salad. In each case, the largest proportion was due to the consumer. Food waste, perhaps more so than other forms of refuse, has a profusion of profound and harmful consequences, and unlike other forms of waste, it seems that individuals are the cause. The stats do not lie. It us who are at fault.

Evidence like this puts the issue firmly on the public’s shoulders. We can’t avoid this responsibility any longer. And the amount of food waste we are accountable for doesn’t just delay peak waste, but has a multitude of negative consequences. When we throw away food, we dispense with our money, too. In the UK, families waste £700 a year on binned food. On a larger scale, binning usable food drives the price of food up. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the price of cereals, central to both human diets and those of our livestock, tripled between 2000 and September 2012. Increasing food prices means more people struggling to eat. The Trussell Trust, a charity that runs a network of food banks in Britain, claim that the number of people using food banks has tripled to 350,000 this year. They pin the increase down to above-inflation prices, though they also claim a significant factor is the current squeeze on benefits due to the global recession. And whilst there’s no doubt that spikes in food prices aren’t entirely due to food wastage and are much more significantly determined by factors such as drought and other climactic phenomena, it’s obviously illogical and perhaps even unethical to treat a limited and expensive resource as a readily available, cheap commodity. The message is stark and clear: unnecessary food waste must end.

As if the unforeseen consequences of extravagant attitudes to food weren’t severe enough, excess food waste also causes staggering damage to the environment. The WRAP report revealed that in 2012, greenhouse gas emissions from avoidable waste was equal to roughly 17 million tonnes of CO2. And if we prevented all that waste forming in the first place, it would be equivalent to taking one in four cars off the road. Worldwide, GHG emissions associated with scrapped food are so significant that if they were a country, they’d be the third largest polluter, after China and the USA. There’s enormous environmental incentive for change. The volume of water squandered on growing food destined for the rubbish dump is equivalent to the world’s households’ water needs. The land required to make all the food and drink that is subsequently thrown away by UK households covers an area almost the size of Wales – and as food prices escalate, efficiently utilizing what land we have to maximize crop yields is going to become increasingly crucial. There’s no doubt about it: waste is a waste of space.

That last factoid harrowingly illustrates the convoluted nature of these problems. The buzzwords that define our modern era – overpopulation, agriculture, food security, greenhouse gases, water shortages, and climate change – all are enmeshed in an interconnected web, and a disturbance in one impinges upon the rest, which makes bringing peak waste forward ever so more complicated. And yet the data is unequivocal: the public is to blame, and thus the public is the cure. It is down to society, not just as a collective of individuals but also in tandem with government policy, to engage with the problem of how to reduce their waste output and advance peak waste.

The paltry actions an individual can take to combat food wastage may sound trivial, but when summed across entire populations, they accumulate, and they’re capable of real change. Awareness is key. If people are taught the ways in which they can minimize waste, such as learning which foods are still good to eat past their supposed “sell-by” date (and for the record, that’s an awful lot of produce – eggs, milk, chocolate, to name a few), then progress can be made. Furthermore, companies need to work alongside the public to engage them in this aim. Earlier this month, pharmaceutical company Janssen, in collaboration with plastics manufacturer Symphony Environmental, has developed a bag with anti-microbial chemicals embedded into the plastic, thus preventing the food inside from going mouldy. Similar technologies in this vein that are conceptually simple and target ubiquitous, everyday problems are ingenious and effective ways of mobilizing the public to reduce waste with minimal extra effort on the part of the consumer.

Critically, this is not an overnight revolution. Change on this grand a scale will always take time – but regrettably, time is not on our hands. We have immense environmental and economic benefits to gain by reducing waste, and the burden is on the individual. It would be madness to toss this issue on the rubbish heap.