No more time to waste

A look at the role of organic waste in the climate change crisis 

The year is 2050 – Dundee F.C have retained the UEFA Champions League for a record 5th time in a row, while radical innovation, global collaboration and collective responsibility have ensured we live in a carbon negative world that has successfully mitigated climate change. 

Ok, so the first statement may be a bit farfetched, even for an avid Dundee fan like myself. Unfortunately, the rest of that vision is looking equally as unlikely. The 6th IPCC climate assessment report released last month concludes a hotter future is essentially locked in. We are at a point of damage limitation – how hot is up to us. 

The impacts of global warming are already evident across the world. The almost apocalyptic recent images and videos of devastating fires, heatwaves are likely to become the norm – it may not be too long before it’s your phone that’s recording such events. 

A climate emergency has been declared, but the response has been anything but an emergency. The latest report from the IPCC declares what scientists have been telling us for decades - the world’s nations have delayed for too long in curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As I type these words, the Concordia climate countdown clock states we could have only 11 years before the average global temperature passes the widely acclaimed irreversible threshold of 1.5 degrees. However, scientists believe there is a glimmer of hope. If the nations of the world can collectively achieve net zero by 2050, we can stabilise average global increase to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. Time is something we can no longer afford to waste. 

With the upcoming COP26 event in Glasgow, the UK as hosts have an opportunity to take accountability and show leadership by persuading the world the time for talk is over – we literally cannot afford more hot air.  

The role of waste 

Waste management has a critical role in addressing the climate emergency. By 2050, the world is on course to generate 3.4 billion tons of waste annually. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with poor waste management, a key contributor to climate change, are likely to increase to 2.6 billion of CO2 equivalent by 2050. 

3.5 billion people currently lack access to proper waste management and that figure is expected to extend to 5 billion by 2050. If you’ve ever been frustrated at not having your bins collected for one week imagine what no waste management service would feel like. 

The ineffective management of waste has a direct consequence to everyone living on the planet now and to future generations. Over 90% of global waste is openly burned or dumped in low economic countries which disproportionally affect the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

From the summit of our tallest mountain to the troughs of our deepest oceans, there’s no escaping waste. Every day people consume tiny particles of plastic via our food chain, our water and the air we breathe. Microplastics have even been discovered in the placentas of unborn babies.  

Wasting food feeds climate change

Organic waste (food and green) accounts for 44% of global waste produced annually. The food we grow, trade, eat and waste uses huge amounts of water, land and energy. 15% of food produced globally never even leaves the farm. Our broken relationship with food has devastating effects for our environment, economy and social equality. 

Shockingly, 10% of the global population live in food poverty, while a recent study by WWF and Tesco indicates 40% of all food produced goes uneaten. That’s 2.5 billion tonnes every year and a contribution of around 10% of ALL greenhouse gas emissions. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US. 

For every dollar spent on food it’s estimated that society pays double in health, environmental and economic related costs. These alarming statistics clearly demonstrate the need for a radical change to our broken food system. Fixing this has the potential to be one of the most impactful mitigation measures we can do to create fairer, greener, healthier, more inclusive cities and communities. 

We have a collective responsibility to get this right – working our way back from the point food becomes ‘waste’. Waste needs to be recognised as a resource and showcased in a way which benefits people and planet. 

The UK’s Courtauld Commitment 2030 aims to enable a collaborative action plan across the entire UK food chain. The objective is to deliver reductions in farm to fork food waste, GHG emissions and water stress across the food and drink and sector.  

The annual 2021 report shows good progress has been made across the sector with 220 million meals being redistributed and saved from being wasted. The agreement has been pivotal in spearheading a collaborative approach across the UK food chain, providing tangible results that are addressing the climate emergency, but also acting as a blueprint to adoption across the world. As rapid urbanisation and population growth continues, there will be further strain on our resources – by 2050 80% of the world’s food will be consumed in cities. Cities, therefore, can play a pivotal role in reimagining our relationship with food. 

Bristol’s food waste revolution 

Here in Bristol, the city is leading the way as a sustainable food city and is only one of 2 cities in the UK heralded as a ‘Gold Sustainable City’. Bristol was recently awarded Gold Sustainable Food City status because of the innovations in the way the city is fed, reducing waste, and in reducing inequalities and the impacts of food on health, nature and climate change. Bristol is a great example of a city-wide collaborative approach to reducing food waste that focuses efforts on 1. Prevention 2. Redistribution 3. Recycling. There are some amazing initiatives going on in the city that focus on education and empowerment to bring positive change through hyperlocal, sustainable food growing practice, redistribution and transforming institutional food culture. This hyperlocal approach is easily replicable across our cities and must be embedded in how we live our daily lives to a create fairer, greener, healthier food system.  

The driver must always be to reduce avoidable food waste in the first instance - working back up the supply chain from fork to farm, but when there is unavoidable inedible food waste, it’s crucial this resource is managed in the most sustainably efficient way. We need to design out the concept of waste and ensure our cities and communities have access to technology that can capture these resources locally and turn them sustainably into new, useful products.  

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is widely regarded as the most sustainable technology solution for organic waste streams by helping to decarbonise energy, transport, agriculture and waste management sectors, while also improving energy and food security for local communities. The AD industry therefore can help play a critical role in achieving net zero by 2050. 

The process turns organic waste resources such as food waste into green gas that can power homes and businesses, bio-CO2, low carbon vehicle fuel and nutrient rich biofertiliser.  

GENeco are very proud of the work we do in working with producers across the South West of England and beyond to reduce, redistribute and recycle food waste into useful products that benefit the communities we serve. Our low carbon Bio-Bee collection fleet are powered by the very waste they are collecting. The inedible food waste resource is then treated through our anaerobic digestion facility in Bristol (essentially a giant mechanical stomach) that creates biomethane to sustainably power our low carbon vehicle fleet and is injected into the national gas grid to power local homes and businesses. A nutrient rich biofertiliser is also produced which is spread back onto local farmland, completing a circular economy. 

As hosts of COP26, the UK has a real opportunity to take a lead in supporting waste and resources technologies such as AD, and to encourage their adoption across the world. By developing a long term, circular bioeconomy based on the recycling of all organic wastes into valuable energy and soil restoration resources we have a successful blueprint that can be used to create jobs, provide energy and food security and reduce GHG emissions. 

As much as we will need innovation through technology it alone will not be the panacea to unmanaged and increasing waste production. Our governments and business leaders have a duty to act to change the world for good. But by far the biggest impact we can make, both individually and collectively, is by simply consuming less in the first place – starting today.