by Marena Gibson
Let's start with the basics and look at some definitions.
United Nations Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal:
“Wastes are substances or objects which are disposed or are intended to be disposed or are required to be disposed of by the provisions of national laws."
The next one is less ambiguous, but more confusing.
United Nations Statistics Division:
“Materials that are not prime products (that is, products produced for the market) for which the generator has no further use in terms of his/her own purposes of production, transformation or consumption, and of which he/she wants to dispose. Wastes may be generated during the extraction of raw materials, the processing of raw materials into intermediate and final products, the consumption of final products, and other human activities. Residuals recycled or reused at the place of generation are excluded.”
At least this definition tells us what isn’t waste: materials that are recycled or reused. However, this only applies to materials that are recycled/reused at their “place of generation”. For example, if I drank a plastic bottle of water and put it in the recycling, that is considered waste. But if the water-bottling facility itself were to reuse/recycle their plastic bottles, that is not waste.
For the average person, waste can be best understood as anything that no longer has use to us, and is disposed of. Think of it as anything you throw away. Single-use items are common: Tissues, food containers, wrappers all end up in the trash. And even if the items you’re disposing of end up in recycling, these are still material objects that you’ve used and discarded, and the recycling process itself produces waste, albeit a different kind. Recycling trucks use fossil fuels, a nonrenewable energy, and recycling plants use electricity to power their facility. Even if the item you’ve used isn’t going to a landfill, it can have secondhand effects of waste.
From there it breaks down into other categories, each with their own definitions: Municipal, hazardous, radioactive, biomedical, etc…And those break down even further. See for yourself here.
For now, I'll focus on one very important type: food waste.
Food is likely your largest source of personal waste. Did your milk expire, and you had to dump it out? Did you only eat half of your sandwich, and tossed the rest? Growing up, I always assumed that since food was biodegradable, it wasn’t necessarily “trash”. Of course, I knew wasting food was a bad thing, but I didn’t think that it caused much harm.
Food waste is also the largest component of municipal solid waste (everyday items that end up in the trash). Wasting food packs several punches. Not only are you losing money, but you are essentially wasting the energy, freshwater, and land that is used to produce your food. The common estimate is that a whopping 40% of all food in the US goes uneaten. That’s the equivalent of $165 billion every year (NRDC 2012).
So where does all this food go? It’s not safely biodegrading. In reality, organic waste ends up in landfills, where it doesn’t have access to oxygen. Instead, it converts to methane as it decomposes, which is a greenhouse gas several times more powerful than carbon dioxide (EPA). The good news is that food waste is an easy problem to address, especially on an individual level. Apply the idea of reduce, reuse, and recycle: Reduce the amount of food you buy. Aim to purchase an amount that you are certain you will consume before expiration. Reuse your food scraps in creative ways, like using stale bread to make breadcrumbs and croutons. Recycle your remaining food by composting.
Waste & Sustainability
The concept of waste itself quickly becomes overwhelming. At Zoom Out Mycology, we focus on how it relates to sustainability: waste is any material or product used that is disposed of and never used again. This refers to used materials that cannot be reused, recycled, or broken down by natural means (such as composting). Most likely, this waste will end up in a landfill. Our method of attacking this problem is utilizing mushroom cultivation, consumption, and mycoproduct usage to assist people in living sustainably.
Here’s a short video that sums up what sustainability is:
Spotlight: Zero Waste
“Zero waste” isn’t a new concept, but it’s becoming more widespread. Through various means of reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting, the goal is to never produce or use anything that ends up in a landfill. It can be likened to the natural recycling of resources in nature, like the water cycle, or the law of conservation: nothing is created, and nothing is destroyed. All materials are able to be reused in some way.
Before I examined my own life, I had no idea how much waste I was creating. Food waste was the most obvious. As a college student, I'm constantly running back and forth all over campus, and sometimes am away from home for 12 hours or more. On those days I pack a few granola or cereal bars, or perhaps purchase an item from a vending machine. In every instance, a wrapper is produced that cannot be recycled, and ends up in the trash. And if I don't finish all of what I'm eating, I'll toss that too. The outcome is that I've wasted money, and created more waste that will wind up in a landfill forever, or decompose and release greenhouse gases.
I'm now planning out what I can do differently. First, I will prepare food at home ahead of time that I can bring with me throughout the day. Granola bars are my favorite snack, since they contain many nutritional calories in a small form. After some quick searching, I found I have no excuse to not be making my own . There are hundreds, maybe thousands of recipes for granola bars that use only five ingredients, or don't need to be baked, or only take ten minutes. For these, I can purchase the ingredients for myself in bulk, and create a larger yield than I'd ever get from store-bought pre-packaged bars, for the same amount of money.
Packaging will be eliminated, simply by storing the bars in a small, reusable container that I can use for several years. As a precaution, I will purchase a container that I know is recyclable. Bonus points if I find a container that's made from recycled material!
Food waste will be eliminated, too. If I don't finish all the food I've packed, I can seal it back up in the container, throw it in my bag, and eat it later. And I won't have to worry about smells, mess, or any other problems that go along with keeping unwrapped food in a backpack.
It's only a small step, but ultimately it will save me time (having to go to the store several times for small bars, rather than one trip for bulk ingredients), money (buying my own ingredients will be cheaper than the bars), and it will help me reduce my own waste production (no packaging or food waste). I'm looking forward to trying it out, and I'll definitely share my experience with you guys!
How do you define waste? What methods have you used to reduce your own waste production? Let us know in the comments! We’re always looking to expand our knowledge on waste output, and how we can limit it.
Zoom Out Mycology’s Environmental Awareness blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. Our team consists of a diverse group of scientists, policy experts, and engineers that help describe the science behind environmental issues that you see in the news and experience in your daily life. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle! If you are interested in being a guest contributor, please email us at: email@example.com