Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Wasting the World

You have heard the figures: 30-50% of all food globally is wasted or lost, in retail and grocery chains, at home, or between field and market. Food waste has become a pet issue for companies, for local environmental groups, for food security and development organizations. It's no surprise that among those arguments to cut food waste - the ethics of hunger; the waste of water; the price of lost goods - climate change has surfaced. 

National Geographic recently ran an article entitled: How Reducing Food Waste Could Ease Climate Change. It posits that the emissions embedded in the production, harvesting, transportation, and packaging of all that wasted food is on the order of 3.3 billion metric tons, or the third largest emitting country. And the crazy thing is, out of all of our options for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, for mitigating human-induced climate change, it's one of the low-hanging fruit. The article suggest things like consumer awareness, better industry practices, and effective storage technology for transporation. 

What it doesn't seem to consider is the inevitability of some food still being wasted, and that wasted food goes to the landfill, contributing not only to a literal pile of garbage but also methane emissions. Well, the Seattle has come up with a solution to that problem. As an add-on to their municipal compost programme starting January 1st, the city will now place a red tag (and a small fine) on those bins with wayward items: orange peels in the rubbish and plastics in the compost. 

But this move comes with a couple of questions. First off, such a programme will require considerable enforcement effort. That may be an understatement, considering that Seattle's population exceeds 600,000 (and we all know how good people are at sorting the rubbish). Second - and perhaps of most importance philosophically - is whether this is the direction needed to encourage more sustainable behaviour. Must we resort to regulation and punishment, or are there other means to naturalize such simple changes as sending organic matter back to the land? I don't know, but these are considerations as we try to pick this low-hanging fruit.

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