By Don Willmott
Most of us have become accustomed to sorting and recycling our trash, but how far are we willing to go with our recycling? Are we really ready to wrestle with rotting lettuce leaves and the remnants of last week's tuna noodle casserole?
As it turns out, food is the number one product in U.S. landfills, and one study found that 35 million tons of food were wasted in the U.S. in 2012, a shameful statistic when you consider the fact that one in six Americans (and 800 million people worldwide) are "food insecure." Not only that, but decaying food waste produces methane, which is 10 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. A 2013 UN study found that if wasted food were a country, it would be just behind the U.S. and China as a producer of greenhouse gas emissions.
There are many ways to deal with food waste in both the commercial and household realms, but one idea gaining traction is to put the onus on all of us. Would we waste less food if local governments charged us by the pound for food waste removal?
That's what's happening in a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, where 145,000 people are participating in a program that compels them to weigh their food scraps in special RFID-equipped containers that transmit the total to the local government. Exceed your allotment, and you pay a fine. The state-run Korea Environment Corp. has deployed automated canisters at apartment buildings around the neighborhood. Residents open the hatch using ID cards, and the canister weighs the food waste they drop in. (It's a more streamlined version of earlier programs that required residents to buy special plastic bags in which to collect and discard food waste.)
This video from Yale Environment 360 shows the system in action.
As it turns out, the idea works, with food waste down 30 percent in the neighborhood. Now the pressure is on to expand the program dramatically. Of course, one wonders if such an intrusive idea could ever take hold in the U.S., where the belief in personal freedom often trumps consideration of the common good, and the idea of government-issued ID cards and RFID tracking is often seen as suspect. Still, in densely populated urban areas where hundreds of residents share a single recycling space, it would be an easy program to test.
Meanwhile, France now bans grocery stores from throwing away or destroying unsold food. Instead, the stores will have to donate the food for use as animal feed or compost. It's a start, but only 11 percent of French food waste happens at grocery stores, so like Korea, France will also have to find a way to address food waste at home and in restaurants as well.
In fact, every nation needs to step up and face the issue. A 2013 report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that as much as 50 percent of all food produced around the world "never reaches a human stomach due to issues as varied as inadequate infrastructure and storage facilities through to overly strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free offers and consumers demanding cosmetically perfect food." Yes, global supply chains for perishable food are incredibly complex, but there must be ways to build in more efficiency. Food waste is one of the world's Grand Challenges, and we need a radical breakthrough.
Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.