The Image of Green

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.

Blue skies and burnt trees

The Cape is a special place to do just about anything; surfing, whale watching, brewing, foresting and field tripping. On the 19th of August, I set off on a 3800 km journey to and around the Southern and Eastern Cape with one of FABI’s extension officers, Sandisiwe Jali, and two graduate students, Bianca Jardim and Sydney Sithole. The purpose of this field trip was to collect insect specimens and investigate various pest and disease issues in commercial forestry plantations. It isn’t often that the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme (TPCP) finds itself in the Cape, when compared to the much closer Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, which made this trip quite distinctive.

Field trips around South Africa are always memorable; you get to see more of this beautiful country, you get to interact more closely with other students, meet the people in the forestry industry, and put your finger on the pulse of plant health in SA. Our first stop was to Stellenbosch, wine country, to meet Deon Malherbe, a researcher at Stellenbosch University. Deon is monitoring a Eucalyptus (gum) trial, which was setup by Camcore–an international tree breeding organization–to look at the performance of various hybrids across different sites. This valuable trial is under attack by a number of Eucalyptus pests, which we helped Deon identify. Together, we worked out a scoring system for better assessing the damage caused by these insects.

From there, we set off east to Riversdale, about 50 km north of Still Bay, to collect a few pine logs containing the larvae of a woodwasp, Sirex noctilio. The larvae and adults of this wasp will be examined at FABI for the presence of a tiny worm, Deladenus siricidicola—a bio-control agent developed at FABI that has saved the South African forestry industry more than 400 million rand. Here we paused to take in some of the sights while we thought about what R400 million could buy you.

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The next day, we continued east–towards Knysna–to meet Awelani Netshituka, a forester working for PG Bison at the Ruigtevlei office. Many parts of the Cape have been, and still are, at the mercy of a severe drought—the worst in 100 years. We were often reminded about using water sparingly by the little notes stuck on the walls near the taps and toilets of our accommodation. While the drought meant one couldn’t take long showers anymore, it also meant that much of the vegetation hadn’t had a good shower either. The dry conditions, high winds speeds and building fuel load led to the fires that swept through Knysna and the surrounding areas, claiming seven lives.

Awelani showed us some of the areas that had been devastated by the fires and the recovery operations under way to try and salvage some of the burnt timber. In the valley below the Ruigtevlei office, in front of thousands of dead trees, there are long lines of what looked like neatly stacked mounds of charcoal. When we asked what those lines were, we were told that they were the burnt logs they had harvested after the fire. They have harvested so much, the market is flooded. Now they have to try and store it! The arrangement of theses logs under sprinklers are called wet decks, which helps keep the wood moist until they can be used.

While many trees were harvested, the lesser-affected younger stands were left to recover. Awelani took us to some of these compartments. The prolonged drought has had a significant impact on these trees. They are trying to recover but without good rains they are being attacked by a number of different secondary or opportunistic pests and fungi, killing those too weak to put up a fight. And this wasn’t isolated to a single company or region. We saw more examples of this at a number of sites we visited.

For any industry growing plants and selling their products, climate is going to be a more important part of planning; for South Africa, a water scarce country, even more so. We are going to have to be smart with how we collect, store and recycle our water. For our plants, we are going to have to develop more efficient breeding strategies, develop and implement possible GMOs, and we are going to need more scientists to understand the effects of climate on pests and diseases because we are going to have many more blue sky days (no rain) and more burnt trees (any crop plant, really) if we don’t.