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We as humans are incredibly wasteful. Just by reining in this waste, we could do much for the world's pressured ecology.
Areas of waste.
In a survey done of more than 1600 households in Australia in 2004 on behalf of the Australia Institute, it was concluded that on an Australia wide basis, $10.5 billion was spent on things that were never used or thrown away. This amounts to more that $5,000 per capita per year. By far the largest component of this was for food as shown in the following table:
Young people wasted more than older people, higher income households wasted more than lower income households and parents with young children threw out the most fresh food (Hamilton 05). There appears to be little incentive to correct this as it is relatively good for business.
A report by CNN in 2007 produced some startling statistics on food waste (Oliver 07):
"The developed world chucks out a lot of food. Such is the volume that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), if just 5 percent of Americans' food scraps were recovered it would represent one day's worth of food for 4 million people.The U.N. World Food Programme offers another way of looking at it: It says the total surplus of the U.S. alone could satisfy "every empty stomach" in Africa (France's leftovers could feed the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Italy's could feed Ethiopia's undernourished). Proportionately, the UK and Japan have traditionally been among the worst offenders worldwide in recent years when it comes to food waste, discarding between 30 and 40 percent of their food produce annually. The figures for how much the U.S. throws out, however, vary considerably depending on whom you ask. According to the USDA, just over a quarter of the country's food -- about 25.9 million tons -- gets thrown in the garbage can every year. But according to a study conducted by the University of Arizona, that figure could be as high as 50 percent, as the University claims that the country's supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores alone throw out 27 million tons between them every year (representing $30 billion of wasted food). Either way, it still costs the U.S. around $1 billion every year just to dispose of all its food waste, according to the EPA."
:Increasing prosperity leads to increasing waste as there is little financial pain. One thing is clear, the world suffers. This is an issue that has to be taken on by governments driven by public demand as businesses by and large have no incentive to rein this in.
Food waste that goes to land fill undergoes anaerobic digestion (breakdown in the absence of oxygen) to produce methane instead of CO2 if we ate it as food. Methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Because of the amount of food going to land fill, the contribution to global warming is very significant. WRAP (Waste and Resource Action Program) a UK based group estimates that if food were not discarded in this way in the UK, the level of greenhouse gas abatement would be equivalent to removing 1 in 5 cars from the road (WRAP 07). A study done by Timothy Jones of the University of Arizona, if Americans cut their food waste by half, the environmental impact by such things as land degradation, water depletion, habitat loss, greenhouse gas production, would be reduced by 25% (Oliver 07).
You can do much to avoid these problems:
The UK is not alone in this. Many other developed countries such as the US, Canada and Australia have similar or worse statistics.
Let's stop kidding ourselves over plastic food packaging. The biggest single market for plastics is for food. Recycled plastics are not used in this because of the fears of contamination. The vast bulk of this ends up in land fill since much of this wrapping cannot be recycled at all. There are many other challenges to the use of recycled plastics in this setting: the recycled feed stock has to be manufactured to tightly controlled specifications something which is difficult to do and still be competitively priced compared to virginal plastic. The best solution all round is to vastly reduce our consumption:
Beverage containers are a major
Many people have a mistaken belief that large amounts of our waste materials from drink containers are recycled. They aren't in many areas of the world. The Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org) estimates that more than 2 tons of PET bottles end up in land fill each year in the USA with a recycling rate of only 23.1% in 2005 (Press release May 9, 2007). Much could be done to improve matters such as deposits on containers and refilling but above all, we should reduce consumption of these food items. They add so much to waste beyond the containers and most people seem unaware to these problems:
A far better approach is to drink ordinary tap water. It is far better for you and far cheaper. Look at this web site for an excellent review of this: http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/
Just how much energy is wasted if we fail to recycle aluminium cans? It takes about 0.22k/hr of electricity to make one can. To recycle the can uses only 4% of this figure. Hence every time an aluminium can goes to land fill we waste 0.21k/hr of electricity. In the US this year, around 140 billion cans will not be recycled, which represents around 25 billion kWh of electricity, enough electricity to power New York City households for more than six months.
Killing seabirds with plastic waste. Sixty six to eighty percent of marine litter is plastic which is very long lasting. One study showed that 44% of seabirds ingest plastic waste (Hutton 04). A study of albatross chick mortality in the remote Midway Atoll showed that dead chicks had around a third of their stomach contents made up by plastic debris, from cigarette lighters, bottle caps, plastic bags to parts of children's toys (Shogren 07).
Non-seasonal produce come at a price to the environment. We have become very spoilt in recent times. No longer are fruits and vegetables seasonal, they show up in our supermarkets all year round. However, this choice comes at a price. Many highly perishable things are air freighted from distant parts of the world such as exotic fruits, vegetables and flowers. Much more is transported in refrigerated shipping containers by sea. It is easy for me to buy "fresh" grapes and oranges which were grown on the other side of the world when the local produce is out of season. In many parts of Europe and North America, much produce is transported by truck for huge distances. This represents a huge waste of our energy resources and adds substantially to our ecological foot print. Air freighting produce should be viewed as a crime against nature.
Corporatization of farming has led to produce travelling large distances. In the pursuit of ever more profits in an ever more competitive market, farms have become huge to allow for the economies of scale necessary to remain profitable. This has meant that many small local producers have been eliminated. Add to this the fact that large supermarket chains don't want to deal with small operators. More often than not, food grown in many areas is shipped to a central facility and then distributed back out to the local supermarkets. In many parts of the developed world, this has meant that fresh produce has travelled many thousands of kilometres before it gets to you.
Free trade agreements has opened up markets at the cost to the world's environment. My local supermarket sells common ordinary everyday commodities which are sourced from all parts of the globe and are often the cheapest available. What is not included in the price is the cost to the environment associated with the multi-national trade. If it were then they would not be the cheapest any longer. They have been discounted against the sustainability of the world.
Large ships transporting consumer goods are increasingly become a substantial source of greenhouse gas and other types of pollution. Transport of goods excluding the major dry bulk goods and oil has increased by a factor of four from around 3 billion metric ton kilometres to over 12 billion mtk in the last 35 years. Emissions of SO2 and NOx from international shipping are predicted to exceed the those from the whole of Europe in the next 15 years or so. The total emissions of CO2 from international shipping exceeds those from the majority of Annex 1 countries listed in the Kyoto Protocol (Friedrich 07).
Some countries have introduced laws to regulate local shipping with some success but the overall problem remains largely unchecked. Getting global action is difficult because the majority of ships sail under flags of convenience making enforcement of regulations difficult. Reducing the amount of sulphur in bunking oils which have sulphur concentrations thousands of times greater than land based vehicle fuels would be a good start. Putting new more efficient engines in ships is a very slow long term solution (Friedrich 07).
What can you do?
(Friedrich 07) Axel Friedrich, Falk Heinen, Fatumata Kamakaté, Drew Kodjak. Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Ocean-going Ships: Impacts, Mitigation Options and Opportunities for Managing Growth. International Council on Clean Transportation March 2007 www.theicct.org
(Hamilton 05) Clive Hamilton, Richard Denniss, David Baker. Wasteful Consumption in Australia. The Australia Institute. Discussion Paper Number 77 2005. Downloadable from www.tai.org.au
(Hutton 04) Ian Hutton.Plastic perils for seabirds. Nature Australia; Spring 2004:52-59
(Lang 02) Tim Lang, Geof Rayner, Editors. Why Health is the key to the future of food and farming. 2002 Downloadable from the web using Google.
(Oliver 07) Rachel Oliver. CNN report. All About: Food Waste. 2 October, 2007 http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/09/24/food.leftovers/#cnnSTCText
(Sanigorski 07) Sanigorski AM, Bell AC, Swinburn BA. Association of key foods and beverages with obesity in Australian schoolchildren. Public Health Nutrition 2007; 10:152-157
(Shogren 07) Elizabeth Shogren. National Public Radio (US) 2007. Remote waters offer no refuge from plastic trash. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14859155
(WRAP 07) Dominic Hogg, Josef Barth, Konrad Schleiss and Enzo Favoino. Dealing with Food Waste in the UK. March 2007. http://www.wrap.org.uk/downloads/Dealing_with_Food_Waste_-_Final_-_2_March_07.ba7b425f.3603.pdf