The first part of 2008 saw significant increases in the prices of food and oil, increased use of bioplastics, and large scale introduction of biofuels. It is no understatement to say that the effects have been felt globally. Any long-term global strategy to ensure sufficient, affordable, sustainably-produced food and energy has to encompass a large number of interacting issues including our use of oil, use of land and ocean, methods of agriculture, renewable energy, and waste management.
Unfortunately, the media tends to pick up on single issues, treat them in isolation, and then add sufficient spin to create a story. At Vegware, we welcome an open and rational debate, and have assembled a few thoughts on these matters.
Vegware is committed to providing environmentally-friendly options for food service and packaging. We are constantly monitoring the available materials and associated impacts, and will update our offerings according to what we believe gives the best option. We are not tied to one material, though currently, we consider that annually-renewable and recycled materials which are suitable for commercial scale composting offer by far the best solution.
In the UK, as in much of the world, landfill is used as a primary option for waste disposal. Currently, a large proportion of the waste which goes to landfill is organic matter and suitable for commercial composting. One of the main barriers to this is the expense of sorting waste streams. Once materials such as those provided by Vegware become the norm, all food waste and packaging will be processed together, making large-scale composting economic.
The potential value of compostable and renewable materials does not exist in isolation from wider trends in waste management, and there is inevitably a lag between the production of particular materials and the capacity to recycle them on a large scale. It would clearly be inappropriate to attribute any problems with the management of recyclable and compostable materials to the materials themselves, rather than the treatment processes that are available. We have assembled thoughts on a number of the related issues.
Methane in landfill
One of the criticisms of the use of bioplastics, is that if they wind up in landfill and break down anaerobically, methane (a significant contributors to the greenhouse effect and therefore global warming) is produced. Firstly, this is a somewhat spurious argument, as nothing breaks down in landfill, indeed this is the point of landfill. Rather than being an open dump, a landfill site is lined with plastic or clay, and waste is compacted and covered with topsoil in order to provide an oxygen-starved and dry environment. This prevents harmful leachate seeping into groundwater.
In fact the rate of degradation in landfill was found to be even slower than expected by researchers from the University of Arizona, who excavated a site and found 50-year-old newspapers in readable condition, along with 25 year-old hot dogs, corn cobs and grapes which were also in recognizable condition.
The UK lags way behind many European countries in terms of waste management, and few would suggest that landfill can provide a long term solution. Even if methane was an issue, an interim period in which some bioplastics wind up in landfill is inevitable. This is nothing new – it is commonplace for the popularity and availability of a material to force the creation of infrastructure around it.
We are now in the position of having a number of new materials which are suitable for commercial-scale composting, and it is up to the waste management industry and the Government to evolve to meet these new challenges. It is necessary that the industry improves labelling to help to reduce consumer confusion – this issue is being dealt with in an ongoing basis.
Oil-based plastics have properties which make them ideal for numerous applications. Sensible recycling of these materials is essential and should be part of a wider strategy on tackling waste. However, we advocate compostable bioplastics for food applications, as the food and packaging can be processed together.
Food prices have increased significantly over the past 12 months, and this is due to a multitude of factors. Without doubt, biofuel production has contributed, though the economics of biofuel production have been seriously distorted by the subsidies which are in place. By contrast, bioplastics have not been subject to this. Another major factor which is commonly overlooked is the global surge in demand for meat over the past decade – producing meat for consumption is a very inefficient use of primary grain stocks and has lead to increased demand. Friends of the Earth state that meat and dairy consumption has reached a record high, quadrupling in the past 50 years, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from the global livestock industry – which is more than the entire transport sector.
The early part of 2008 saw a crunch in food prices. In very recent memory, Europe was sitting on food mountains, and as many other parts of the world, large scale dumping of food and incentives to leave agricultural land fallow were in place. The nature of food production is that there is a lag where supply catches up with demand. We may have reached the end of an era of cheap food, though with good management, hopefully the situation can be taken back on track. No doubt this will be difficult for net importers of staples, such as Egypt, though there are few commodities which have been subject to such convoluted trade barriers and tariffs.
It is also worth noting that the cost of food production depends on oil, which is used to power farm machinery, transport crops, and produce fertilizer.
Food waste and packaging
A huge quantity of food is wasted in the first world. Food packaging methods have moved on significantly in the past two decades. The result is that food takes much longer to perish, and therefore the amount of waste due to spoiling in transit has been significantly reduced. However, a recent study by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), suggested that this was as much as one third of food purchased by consumers in the UK, a figure which has been steadily increasing over the past decade.
Despite initially appearing to offer a long-term solution, the use and subsidy of biofuels has attracted mounting criticism. In addition to the impact on food pricing due to subsidised crops, biofuel production requires significant quantities of water which has other associated impacts.
Whilst it is extremely concerning that inflated food prices are undoing the progress in poverty reduction over the last decade, it is worth keeping the development of bioplastics in context. They provide an alternative to the use of oil, which as a commodity can be linked to environmental catastrophe, global unrest and human misery on an epic scale.