News of the plastics crisis has exploded in recent months – as well it should. The statistics around plastic production and waste are frightening. Joel Makower pointed to several in a recent post: Global consumers purchase about 20,000 plastic bottles every second. By 2025, the world’s oceans are expected to contain a ton of plastic for every three tons of fish. By 2050, the weight of plastics in our oceans could exceed that of fish. And little plastic is recycled – only about 9% of the total.
The broad parallels between plastics and the food waste crisis are strong. We waste between 30 and 50% of global food production annually. And we redirect – to people, animals, or composting operations – just a fraction. ReFED notes, for example, that only 1.7 million tons of food are rescued and redistributed annually in the U.S. And we continue to waste enormous amounts of food despite the fact that nearly one billion global citizens are hungry, two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, and the environmental impacts of that waste throughout the chain – from resource consumption to landfill disposal – are extreme.
And at a more granular level, the twin problems of food waste and plastic waste share numerous drivers. Food is relatively inexpensive; perceived as “cheap” by many. Its low cost limits large-scale efforts to redistribute (i.e. recycle) it – it’s simply too easy to produce more and discard the excess as waste. And food is everywhere – it surrounds us – and that ubiquitous nature reinforces a culture of take-make-waste. Much of our food is encased in plastic packaging – so by extension plastic is viewed as easily disposed and easily replaced, too. And as with food, these factors deter large scale efforts to recycle it.
Both food and plastic share the “problem of small.” With so much food and plastic waste occurring every day, it is easy for individuals to consider that their own efforts won’t have any impact – so they continue to discard both without changing behavior. And the activity of others, along with the focus of the overall system (i.e. use and dispose), strongly reinforces that behavior.
Labeling is a problematic issue leading to both food and plastic waste. Multiple descriptors on food packages (best by, sell by, best before, use by, etc.) have long been a source of confusion for consumers, leading to a mindset geared toward “when in doubt, throw it out” rather than using common sense and good judgment. Similarly, consumers remain confused over the recycling codes on plastics and what they mean for sorting. That confusion leads to poor sortation, and ultimately breaks down into a lack of effort to sort at all – sending far too much plastic to landfill, or the oceans.
Food and plastic waste harm the environment for the long term. Food waste decomposes slowly in landfills, emitting methane gas which has more than twenty times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. We’ve all heard, for example, the startling point that a head of lettuce can take 25 years to decompose in a landfill. Similarly, aside from filling our oceans and entering our food supply, plastics emit greenhouse gases (methane and ethylene) as they decay in air, thus advancing global warming.
Both food waste and plastic waste can be recovered and recycled (i.e. “redistributed” in the case of food). Both processes require significant infrastructure investments, however, such as food banking facilities, construction of composting facilities, and construction of storage and processing facilities for plastics – not to mention the logistics involved in transporting excess food and plastic. And both processes are challenging. Redistributing food requires cold storage to ensure safety, along with rapid movement due to limited product shelf lives. Conversion to animal feed requires sortation and heating of food to a high temperature to kill bacteria. Recycling of plastics requires sortation and processing complexities associated with typical manufacturing operations.
On the plus side, both involve a “feel good” element when it comes to recycling. The food banking system involves countless organizations and millions of individuals with a strong commitment to capturing and redirecting excess food for the hungry. Such work is tangible and brings immediate reward to donors and volunteers. Similarly, many individuals that make the extra effort to recycle plastics are positively energized. To some extent, however, the feel good factor associated with recovery (mitigation) detracts attention from a more impactful focus on prevention.
In a sense, food and plastics are perfect together. Plastics protect our food end extend its life, and make it easily stored and easily transported. The attraction of plastics for food packaging is easily understood. But given the extent to which we waste food, they can also be viewed as imperfect together. By wasting millions of tons of food annually, we’re wasting millions of tons of plastic, too.
Despite rising awareness for both food and plastic waste, the future holds serious concerns. The rise of the middle class in the developing world is shifting dietary preferences to the more resource-consumptive Western diet – further expanding the cost of food waste. The degree to which we value food must change, and yet the trend toward on-line food purchases may result in more waste as consumers feel less invested in their food as they expend less effort to attain it. More food wasted leads to more food production, which in turn leads to more plastics production (global plastic production is expected to double in the next twenty years).
Both food waste and plastic waste are serious global challenges that lie at the heart of many of the Sustainable Development Goals. For both, more emphasis to date has been on mitigation, such as food recovery or development of less environmentally-harmful bottles, versus prevention. The statistics are alarming (daunting, really), and we need much greater reduction in food and plastic waste, urgently.
The link between food waste and plastics implies a huge plus for the theme of food waste prevention (i.e. source reduction), however. By preventing food waste in the first place – which involves addressing systemic overproduction throughout the global food system – we get the added benefit of avoiding the needless production of millions of tons of plastic. It’s a multiplier effect we must embrace.
There are some positives in the regulatory arena. States are developing organics bans to landfill. France has banned supermarkets from disposing edible food, seeking to create donation partnerships instead. California has set aggressive goals to reduce organics to landfill by 2025, with a requirement to increase donations of edible food. Cities are banning plastic bags, and organizations are banning plastic straws.
Awareness and momentum behind food waste and plastic waste reduction are on the rise. The recent image of a sea turtle with a plastic straw impaled in its nasal cavity has ignited a global movement to eliminate the use of plastic straws. Similarly visceral pictures of piles of food waste have helped launch a growing movement to cut food waste in half by 2030.
We are in need of systemic solutions to the global food waste problem which center on prevention, and we have a long road ahead. We have plenty of motivating factors, but let’s not forget the multiplier effect – the more we prevent food waste, the more we also prevent plastic waste.