Definition of Waste

Waste, or rubbish, trash, junk, garbage, depending on the type of material or the regional terminology, is an unwanted or undesired material or substance. It may consist of the unwanted materials left over from a manufacturing process (industrial, commercial, mining or agricultural operations,) or from community and household activities. The material may be discarded or accumulated, stored, or treated (physically, chemically, or biologically), prior to being discarded or recycled. It is also used to describe something we use inefficiently or inappropriately.

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The Problem

Waste can be regarded as a human concept as there appears to be no such thing as waste in nature. The waste products created by a natural process or organism quickly become the raw products used by other processes and organisms. Recycling is predominant, therefore production and decomposition are well balanced and nutrient cycles continuously support the next cycles of production. This is the so-called circle of life and is a strategy clearly related to ensuring stability and sustainability in natural systems. On the other hand there are man-made systems which emphasize the economic value of materials and energy, and where production and consumption are the dominant economic activities. Such systems tend to be highly destructive of the environment as they require massive consumption of natural capital and energy, return the end product (waste) to the environment in a form that damages the environment and require more natural capital be consumed in order to feed the system. Where resources and space are finite (the Earth isn’t getting any bigger) this is ultimately not sustainable.

The presence of waste is an indication of overconsumption and that materials are not being used efficiently. This is carelessly reducing the Earths capacity to supply new raw materials in the future. The capacity of the natural environment to absorb and process these materials is also under stress. Valuable resources in the form of matter and energy are lost during waste disposal, requiring that a greater burden be placed on ecosystems to provide these. The main problem is the sheer volume of waste being produced and how we deal with it.

Food Waste: A problem we cannot ignore

Global oil and food systems are both operating near full capacity, and demand is on the rise. As a result, rising prices are hurting Americans today, and the United States is at risk of food and fuel shortages in the future. To help head off an impending food and fuel crisis, Sustainable America aims to reduce U.S. oil consumption by 50% by 2030 while increasing U.S. food availability by 50% by 2035. Several solutions are within reach. Tackling the growing problem of rampant food waste is one way to increase food availability and create a more secure and stable food supply. Here’s a little background:

Population Trends Drive Increased Demand, Increased Food Insecurity.

As the global population surges from 7 billion (2012)1 to approximately 9 billion in 20352 and demand from growing middle and upper classes in emerging market nations increases, the amount of food needed to feed people will grow from approximately 20 trillion calories per day to 25 trillion calories per day3, a 25% increase that will strain already stressed food systems. Already, we’re able to see the pressure on the food system and food prices here in the United States, as reflected by the nearly 50 million Americans living in a state of food insecurity, meaning that they cannot always meet their basic food needs.

Food Waste: Unsustainable by Any Measure.

America’s food waste problem is out of control, with waste estimates ranging between 27% and 50% of food produced. To compound the problem, a recent study showed that roughly two-thirds of food waste goes to landfills, leaving only one-third diverted to other useful purposes such as composting, energy and fuels generation, animal feed, and redistribution to people.4 Digging deeper into the statistics renders yet a more startling picture: While diverting food waste to compost and animal feed are worthwhile endeavors, only about 1% of food waste generated makes it to the food banks, soup kitchens and shelters that distribute food to Americans in need.5 Likewise, only between 2% and 6% of food waste is composted or recycled, compared with 62% of paper, meaning that potentially rich soil amendments which could help grow more food are not utilized.

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How is Waste dealt with?

Most contemporary waste management efforts are focused at local government level and based on high tech / high energy waste disposal by methods such as landfill and incineration. However these methods are becoming increasingly expensive and energy inefficient. The financial costs of managing the long-term environmental impacts of waste disposal are many times what is actually charged for this service and in many cases corrective action is not remotely feasible. The purely environmental costs such as negative effects on habitat, wildlife and biodiversity are also recognized. In other words waste disposal is not sustainable and will have negative implications for future generations.

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What can we do?

Clearly, more appropriate and sustainable approaches to waste need to be adopted. To be sustainable we need to move the emphasis toward a system that is local, community based, makes use of low tech / low energy systems and is focused on waste minimization. Other methods of managing waste include:

• Waste minimization is an approach that aims to reduce the production of waste through education and the adoption of improved production processes and less wasteful practices.

• Recycling, by separating certain materials within the waste stream and reprocessing them. The recycling of many materials is currently not financially viable.

• Waste processing is treatment and recovery (use) of materials or energy from waste through thermal, chemical, or biological means.

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We believe that the ultimate goal of waste management efforts should be waste minimization, however, waste processing and waste recycling play an important role in improving production processes and in dealing with ‘waste’ in a manner that is more environmentally and economically beneficial. Flows of materials and energy from producers and consumers to processers / recyclers must be encouraged as happens in natural ecosytems, and the elements of the system should be located in close proximity to one another. This approach has actually been implemented on a very large scale, the classic examples being the Kalundborg industrial complex in Denmark and the Jyvaskyla industrial complex in Finland. Here a web of exchanges in materials and energy exist between companies, effectively creating ‘industrial ecosystems’. While nations should aspire to such urban and industrial ecosystems, as individuals we can start practically at a household level through recycling, energy efficiency and environmentally beneficial technologies such as vermicomposting, grey water systems, biogas generation, solar power and heating systems and so forth.

Organic waste is easily processed at domestic and medium to industrial scale by means of vermicomposting and composting. Vermicompost, vermitea and compost greatly improve the fertility and health of our soil, and will become increasingly important resources to ensure our food security, as we reduce our dependance on inorganic fertilisers produced from fossil fuels.