Waste bags

How we handle waste is a hot topic within society. From the food we’re disposing to the ongoing fight with plastic waste, action needs to be taken to ensure sustainable practises are being undertaken and the future of the planet can be safeguarded.

Here, UnSUBURBIA has looked at some of the key areas where waste is highly problematic and the solutions that could help solve the issues at hand.

Wasting what we eat, from field to fork

Food is a necessity to our everyday lives – simply put, without food we would struggle to exist. Yet we often take our food for granted, and wasting this precious resource is sometimes just an after-thought. For a sustainable future, however, we must tackle this issue head-on to help save on money, resource and labour.

The battle against food waste isn’t just about scraping last night’s leftovers into the bin – it’s an issue facing the entire supply chain. Figures suggest that over 1.9 million tonnes of food is wasted every year by the industry in the UK – this includes all touchpoints, such as farmers, manufacturers, retailers and food service companies (i.e. restaurants). The supply chain also wastes 250,000 tonnes of surplus food (food that isn’t going to be sold, but which is still edible) on an annual basis, enough food for 650 million meals.

A report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee described the level of household food waste in the UK as ‘unacceptable’, with its research finding 7.3 million tonnes of food is thrown out each year. On average, food waste costs a person £200 each year – a staggering amount, caused by not managing our food more efficiently.

Yet with these massive figures around food waste, some members of society are struggling to afford to eat. According to reports, 8.4 million people in the UK do not have the finances to comfortably buy food on a regular basis – to put this into context, that approximately equates to the population of London – with 4.7 million of these people living in “severely food insecure homes”, where food intake is greatly reduced.

In 2019, society should not be struggling to meet the costs of a daily meal. Through being more proactive with our food waste, we can not only help support those in need but also ensure the supply chain can improve its yields and efficiently manage its output.

The fight against single-use plastics

The topic of plastic pollution is at the forefront of society like never before. Footage shown on BBC documentary Blue Planet and initiatives such as Sky Ocean Rescue have helped showcase the impact that plastic waste is having on our oceans and marine wildlife.

During her keynote speech at the 2016 World Economic Forum, Dame Ellen MacArthur told the assembly she predicted that there would be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050, and the total weight of the pollution would also outweigh the amount of marine wildlife. Even with this warning, the issue of plastic waste shows no sign of slowing down.

Reports suggest that over eight million pieces of plastic waste are falling into our oceans each year, and that there are currently over 269,000 tons of plastic visibly floating on the surface. The sheer scale of the plastic waste problem can be further emphasised by the finding of a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest point of the ocean, with a depth of 36,000ft.

But the figures around the production and recycling of plastics are more staggering. Since plastic production became a mainstream practice in the 1950s, over 8.3 billion metric tons had been produced, according to reports in 2017. Worryingly, just over three-quarters (6.3 billion metric tons) has become plastic waste, and of this waste figure 79 per cent (4.97 billion tons) has ended up in landfills or entered our oceans.

If we continue at this rate of production and waste, by 2050 there will be over 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste. To put that into perspective, that’s the same weight of 35,000 Empire State Buildings.

Innovation and initiatives helping combat waste

To protect and create a sustainable future for the planet, we must become more efficient and take responsibility for how we manage our waste.

As the stats show, food waste is a huge area for concern, and initiatives are being introduced to ensure this figure can be reduced and improve sustainability. A simple yet effective approach, supermarkets have started selling off the ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables at a cheaper price to eliminate the risk of them being wasted. The perceived ‘imperfect’ appearance can put customers off, yet the nutritional value remains as high, so can help keep food on our plates and out of the waste.

Food banks are also becoming a way to reduce food waste in an ethical manner. Nearly four million people in the UK have been forced into using food banks for feeding themselves and their family, so with retailers providing these locally-run initiatives with the food which would originally be wasted, a more efficient use of resource can be adopted.

Councils across the UK are introducing food waste recycling boxes, where residents are able to keep their food waste out of the general waste. This kerbside collection is operated in a similar way to existing waste disposal service but allows for the food waste to be used in other sustainable ways, such as compost and as a source of energy.

The supply chain too can benefit from innovation to cut back on the waste it produces. The Internet of Things can help process data like never before, ensuring crops in the field are being seeded in the right place at the right time. Sensor-based sorting technology can grade the produce going through it, ensuring only the highest quality passes inspection – those that don’t make the grade can then be used for other, less quality products. The rise of drones can also help farmers manage their land more efficiently to ensure they are doing all they can to grow quality products and reduce the risk of waste.

Our use of plastic bottles is an area of concern, but the UK must take its lead for its European counterparts on efficiently recycling beverage containers. Deposit return schemes (DRS) enable a greater rate of plastic recycling and is used in the Nordic countries. By adding money onto the costs of a drink (i.e., the deposit), the consumer is incentivised to take the bottle back as, once returned, they’ll get their initial deposit back.

These systems work in both a return-to-retail model (where you take the container back to where you bought it from) or a reverse vending machine (RVM), which automatically takes the bottle and gives you your deposit. The latter of these two is also used widely in Australia and in parts of the USA. The world leader in the field of reverse vending, TOMRA say its RVMs collect over 35 billion plastic bottles, cans and bottles each year – just think of the impact we could make if systems like this were used on a larger scale around the world? It would help society become more sustainable and efficient with our plastic resource.

A different mindset for the future of waste

For a sustainable future, new methods and approaches need to be taken when we’re tackling waste. Both plastic and food waste are increasing at staggering speeds, and it’s our responsibility as a society to create, implement and adhere to new systems to limit the impact that the waste is having on the environment.