Is the most sustainable option always as it appears?

I think a lot about waste. I suspect it’s because of all the cleaning up I had to do caring for the menagerie of animals I kept when I was younger. As a society we have a complex relationship with waste, in all forms, and it has some major implications for the sustainability movement. But what exactly is waste? It seems like an odd question, but the answer isn’t as simple as most of us would like to believe. Waste is, after all, relative and largely determined by our aesthetic ideals.

When we talk about a relationship between consumption, waste, and aesthetics I suspect what most of us think of first is the fashion industry. In recent years the environmental impacts of an industry built on product turnover rather than product longevity have been placed in the publics’ focus by documentaries and books such as Dana Thomas’ Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. When we talk about reducing the environmental impact of fast fashion I think it’s easy for us to understand repairing, reusing and retrofitting an item of clothing to extend its lifespan, because this is a practical experience that we can be involved in. This type of recycling certainly has a place within our drive to reduce our environmental impacts, but in order to create a closed-loop economy we need to urgently improve our ability to capture and reuse all forms of textiles that are already in circulation. This is obviously not unique to the fashion industry. In The case for… never demolishing another building Oliver Wainwright provides compelling insight into how we can radically change our approach to architecture by shifting how we choose and reuse building materials. It’s this shift in perception, to see value in what would traditionally be perceived as waste, that most interests me as an agricultural scientist.

Recycled brickwork (Source)

One of the most complex forms of wastes society needs to tackle is food waste. In South Africa, one third of all the food we produce is never eaten, with fruits, vegetables and cereals accounting for 70% of this loss. This is both a moral failure (with almost 20% of South African households having insufficient access to food) and an environmental catastrophe. Globally there has been a renewed discussion around the role of aesthetic standards in food wastage, focused particularly on misshaped but perfectly edible fruits and vegetables. Thankfully in South Africa this type of food wastage is largely avoided as misshaped fresh produce is absorbed by and sold through the informal sector at reduced prices. Instead, middle-class South Africans have focussed their attention on a different aspect: Food packaging.

Packageless fruit and veg (Source)

Packaging from all sectors accounts for almost half of the world’s plastic pollution, and there is little question about whether or not we need to reduce our excessive dependence here. In South Africa recent strong anti-packaging public sentiments have resulted in supermarket chains such as Pick n Pay beginning to trial package-free-zones and “nude” fruit and veg. While I applaud any effort to reduce waste of all forms, these shifts will not inherently reduce waste. As one of my favourite science communicators James Wong pointed out in a recent Twitter thread, completely eradicating packaging from our fresh produce can have unintended consequences that may actually increase food wastage. A simple example is climacteric fruit, such as bananas. These fruits are typically packaged in ethylene-removing plastic bags, which significantly extends their shelf life by slowing down the rate of ripening. Similarly, most soft-fruit packaging is designed to prevent damage such as bruising or abrasions during transport thus increasing shelf life and decreasing the likelihood of post-harvest disease. There are obviously plenty of fruits and vegetables that can be distributed without the need for packaging, and many others whose packaging can either be reduced or redesigned to be reusable. But, while bunches of bananas and piles of peaches laid out in supermarket displays may be more visually appealing to us than bagged or boxed fruit, we need to see the hidden waste of our choices and opt for the most sustainable choice on a case-by-case basis. Not all forms of waste are equal, and as a society if we’re going to significantly reduce our consumption and unavoidable wastage to fall within the planetary boundaries we need to make evidence-based decisions.

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