A nostalgic tale of polyethylene wonder and weird food

waste

Collectively, we haven’t always been this wasteful – waste is clearly a modern thing, but has this ‘sign of the times’ finally run its course?

My mom always tells the story of how my grandmother used to treat plastic bags when they first came into our country – Portugal in the 50s or 60s was an impoverished dictatorship that shunned anything modern. People got quite excited about plastic bags!

Every time my grandma got herself a bag, she’d wash it, hang it to dry with the laundry and reuse it as many times as it would last. They must have seemed so versatile and lightweight compared to the glass or raffia containers she’d take down to the grocers on foot to fill up with rice, flour, beans, potatoes… heck, maybe some salted dry cod if the rationing allowed it. There was nothing disposable in the whole food-purchasing experience.

One truth that the second half of the twentieth century has bestowed upon us, besides ‘no rock band will ever be as cool as the Rolling Stones’, is that everything comes in packaging. Some supermarkets don’t even offer you the opportunity to grab two zucchinis and a garlic head out of a pile. If that risotto is going to happen, you’ll also have to take home a plastic tray covered in cling wrap.

Never mind the risotto (who wants to stir a hotpot all night?), let’s order in. Half an hour later, fish and chips get delivered in a paper bag inside two large cardboard clamshells. Refined eateries will also gift you with an individually wrapped toothpick and bamboo cutlery.

Unlike my grandma’s precious plastic bags, all these containers are disposed of without hesitation.

How did we get to this point?

My grandma lived in fairly waste-free times. People were poor, there was a lack of disposable objects and everything was scarce.

Many Portuguese (and European) delicacies are the fruit of scarcity. Pig’s ears salad (it’s a thing), cow tongue, stomach cassoulet, stuffed goat stomach, potato skin chips, battered boiled fish ovaries, sausages and chorizo, smoked meat, cheese, pickled vegetables, tomato sauce, chewy sea creatures like squids and mussels, cabbage flowers, the liberal use of chilli – these are all solutions to food wastage and scarcity that define gastronomy in many countries in the Old Continent.

The UN claims that if global food waste was a country, it would have the world’s third largest carbon footprint (after China and the US, with India sitting fourth). Every week, the average NSW citizen generates almost 9.4kg of waste: 35% of this is food and another 41% is paper, glass, plastic and metals combined. Even though these can all be reused, half of all household waste generated in NSW goes to landfill.

But here’s the thing with rubbish: rubbish is materials. Production of materials requires energy and resources. Humanity invests tonnes of finite resources and incurs billions of dollars of social and natural capital losses through pollution, so it can manufacture, then dispose of, billions of tonnes of materials that are used once (like packaging) or not at all (like that lettuce-turned-goo in your fridge’s veggie drawer).

We are literally cultivating and manufacturing things so that we can throw them in the bin. And we all collectively pay for it. The cost of each carrot includes the price of its packaging and the price of all the carrots that perish along the supply chain. And then we pay someone to take our uneaten carrots and their packaging to landfill.

Rubbish is only waste when we waste it. Whatever rubbish we can recycle, reuse and even mine out of a landfill is a resource. Our government knows it, and many companies do, too. Edge works everyday with the public and the private sectors to realise this.

Nobody wants to be a coal-seam gasser

Wastefulness has its own economy: for some, it’s a source of income; for a lot of us, it’s a comfortable habit. But until we consider all the externalities from running a wasteful society, we can’t know whether there’s an overall cost-benefit. Think of economic activities where we’ve drawn the line between fair and unfair for society: stealing, slave-trading, coal-seam gas mining (one day). Wastefulness is a collective activity of our society that deserves reflection and attention – check out the ABC program War on Waste and its inspiration hub website.

No one wants the food supply chain to steal our future from us, like the fossil fuel industry is doing. Bang your fists on the table with me: “We want our food to be sustainable!” Sustainable in the sense that it won’t run out and that getting it to our fork doesn’t do great damage. Especially if that damage might feed back onto food supply itself, like the effects of climate change, water scarcity or the monopolisation of plant genetics.

There’s an opportunity here and many companies are taking it. They’re designing impact-lean packaging, they’re reusing materials in surprising ways, they’re running complex algorithms to optimise animal feed to sustainable standards, they are growing crops mindfully, they are going through lengthy complex processes to transform retail operations to match impact and waste reduction goals, they are mining landfills, they are opening up grocery stores my grandma would find familiar.

Edge knows a thing or two about reducing environmental and social impacts so if you have an idea for your business, we might be able to help you make it happen.

 

 

 

 

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