We humans use a lot of resources and, in the process, create a lot of waste — far more than you might imagine. In her book “Waste,” University of California Berkeley Environmental Science Professor Kate O’Neill provides a deep look at all the stuff that gets tossed. Some of what she reports is surprising, some scary and much of it pretty damn sad.
Technically speaking, waste is what we do not want, or fail to use. But it’s also more than that. Waste is a global resource, a livelihood and a source of risk — to our health, the environment and to waste workers.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have created 30 trillion tons of waste. We are running out of space to put waste, and we will not reach “peak waste” until the next century. As long as it’s cheap and easy to impose our waste on others living thousands of miles away, technology will not solve our waste problems.
There are many different streams of waste, including municipal, industrial, agriculture, forestry, construction, mining, hazardous and nuclear waste. Industrial waste is 18 times greater than municipal waste. Globally, the largest waste category is green waste, including food waste, at 44 percent.
O’Neill describes the dynamic global waste economy. Globally, there are more than 20 million informal waste workers. At many huge global dumpsites, thousands of “waste pickers” live among the trash. These workers face extreme health hazards, including toxicants, smoke and chemicals.
Discarded electronics are a cornerstone of the global waste economy. Workers dismantle old electronics for valuable metals while facing exposure to mercury, lead and other toxicants. A surprisingly large amount of e-waste gets refurbished and resold, allowing many in the developing world to afford technology. However, built-in obsolescence in non-repairable gadgets shortens product life and makes refurbishing extremely hard, adding to our waste problem. O’Neill argues that new policies to make manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products, including take-back, recycling and final disposal, are very much needed.
Food waste is a growing problem. Waste occurs all through the food chain. Roughly one-third of food produced for humans is wasted, valued at close to $1 trillion a year. Fruits and vegetables have the highest waste percentages, at over 50 percent in the U.S. Also, 20 percent of meat and dairy and 35 percent of fish are wasted. Over one-quarter of the world’s agricultural land produces food waste. A tremendous amount of fresh water is wasted, and the carbon footprint of wasted food is huge. Only 3 percent of food waste gets composted.
This really surprised me: Date labels are the most common reason people toss food. These labels are voluntary and meant as an indicator of flavor as much as spoilage. Labels are not standardized and can be very confusing to consumers. O’Neill stresses that changing date labels would greatly help avoiding food waste.
The plastics industry touts its role in preventing food waste. Yet, much of the plastic most difficult to recycle comes in the form of food packaging, especially soft films and plastic bags.
Plastics have flooded the oceans and worked their way into our bloodstreams. Plastic products take anywhere from five to 1,000 years to break down, and even then, the resulting microplastics basically last forever. In the Pacific Ocean, in an area about twice the size of Texas, lies a pool of at least 79,000 tons of floating plastic.
In 2017, the U.N. declared plastics in the oceans a planetary crisis. Some actions are being taken, but not nearly enough. O’Neill discusses different solutions, such as worldwide bans and restrictions for single-use plastics, or the quest for alternatives and substitutes. But replacing plastics is going to be extremely hard. Clearly, people like to use plastics, and old habits are hard to break. Plus, big businesses produce plastics, including chemical companies such as Dow and DuPont, and oil companies such as Exxon. These highly polluting industries have the deep pockets to fight off change that would lower their profits.
Deviously, it was the plastics industry that lobbied hard for the labeling system we see on the bottom of plastics, numbering from 1 to 7. Only those labeled 1 and 2 are easily recycled. The others likely won’t ever get recycled, yet consumers feel good when we toss them into our recycle bin, not realizing they are effectively contaminating the recycle and heading for a landfill.
We love plastics. Over 300 million tons of plastic waste are generated annually.
In 2018, China changed its policy and prohibited imports of plastic waste, citing a new policy of “no more foreign garbage.” This has caused a problem for American recyclers. Currently, in the U.S., less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled. About 15 percent is incinerated, and the remaining 75 percent goes to landfills. Simply put, recycling of plastics isn’t working. The real solution is developing substitutes and alternatives to fossil-fuel-based plastics of all kinds.
O’Neill concludes her book with some optimism, including describing many governance innovations and experiments currently in work, albeit with only marginal success. As consumers, O’Neill provides us several options. We can modify our consumption habits to reduce waste. We can keep a close eye on what’s happening within our government, and not let big business prohibit governmental action to reduce waste and restrict single-use plastics. We can lobby to allow for electronic devices to be repaired. “Zero waste” communities have succeeded in a few places, proving we can do it. But like most everything, changing habits will take time and effort from us all.
Although a bit academic, “Waste” is definitely not a waste of time.
Read more in the June 10-16, 2020 issue.