We’re wasting a lot and then wasting the waste — that is just plain wrong
We waste 30 to 40 percent of our food, 60 to 70 percent of our energy, and massive amounts of water. We are in a world of increasing resource stress, especially in energy, water, and food. We are wasting a lot, and then we waste the waste that we could reuse, recycle, or, at the very least, reduce.
Our food waste is astonishing given how many people go hungry in the world. Food waste in the world is worth well over $1 trillion. Massive tracts of good farmland grow food that we waste. Lots of water, fertilizers, energy, and human and machine efforts go into sowing, growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, storing, packaging, selling, cooking, and refrigerating all that food that is wasted. Food that is “ugly” is thrown out where it could be consumed — an “ugly” carrot, for instance, could be diced for a salad and boiled for a mash. About 15,500 liters of water are used to create each kilo of beef in a shop. This water is used to grow the food for the cattle, grow the cattle, for cleaning, processing, and more.
A lot of energy went into the making of cattle feed, transportation, processing, refrigerating, and so many other processes and products that happen along the supply chain that finally sees the beef on the shelf in the market. Then that kilo of beef is transported home or to a restaurant or warehouse to be refrigerated and cooked. A lot of the beef in the world goes to waste; lost in transport, in homes and restaurants awhen people do not finish eating it, or it goes bad and is tossed out. Now think of the water and energy that goes into that whole process, not to mention for apples, oranges, dates, cheese, coffee, tea, and the thousands of other things we eat, or waste and throw away.
We waste about 60 to 70 percent of the fuel we put into our energy systems. Much of the waste is in the form of waste heat from electricity generation, transport vehicles, and other processes and products that we rely on so much in the world. Try walking around in an electricity generation plant. They are hot from the waste heat they generate along with the electricity, and then use a lot of water to cool the waste heat, in turn wasting water.
Most of the petrol in your car and truck is lost to inefficient drive trains, the way we drive (stop, start, stop, start), and how the internal combustion engine, well, combusts. Do not touch the top of an engine after a long ride: It will be hot. Much of that heat is waste heat from combusting the petrol to run the engine. Air conditioning and heaters in cars use a lot of petrol to make the electricity in the car to run the air conditioning and heating, and the systems are very inefficient. The story of our energy waste is a much longer and more complicated one, but these examples can give you indications of where we need to go with these problems.
Our water waste is so astonishing it is hard to fathom. When we waste energy, we waste water. And we waste a lot of energy. When we waste food, we waste the energy that goes into the making, processing, cooling, and cooking of that food, as well as the water that went into making the food. And we waste a lot of food. We waste water through our irrigation methods in many parts of the world; we waste it to grow crops that should not be grown in dry areas with little rain. We also waste water in making clothing, electronics, building materials, fuels, and in mining and many industrial processes. A lot of water goes into making a shirt — which leads to an awful lot of waste when you consider most fashion in the developed world is fast, disposable fashion.
When we waste energy, we waste water. And we waste a lot of energy. When we waste food, we waste the energy that goes into the making, processing, cooling, and cooking of that food, as well as the water that went into making the food.
Dr. Paul J. Sullivan
Water, energy and food waste, by extension, create emissions for no purpose unless we can reuse that waste somehow. So, what can we do? One answer is to use biomimicry, mimicking what nature is already doing. Nature reuses and recycles — water has been for billions of years, through all manner of plants, animals, gravel, soil, and sand, and through the water cycle of evaporation to rain to groundwater and rivers, seas, lakes, glaciers and the like.
We, too, can recycle waste and sewage water to be reused, and we can extract fuels, fertilizers, feedstock, building materials and more from wastewater and sewage. We can recycle the food wasted as fertilizer and as food for animals, or we could use food waste and municipal waste to create biogas and electricity. Some food that might go to waste could even be given to the poor and hungry before it turns bad.
We can reuse energy though something called cogeneration — for example, we could use the waste heat from an electricity plant to dry crops, heat buildings, run air conditioning, and even create more electricity. We can use the CO2 from energy production to produce other things, like building materials, fuels, feedstock for chemicals, and even for cleaning. We can help create ammonia and hydrogen with waste heat and emissions, and then there is the energy we are wasting because we are not using it enough in the first place, such a geothermal.
We are wasteful; so wasteful that we are wasting waste. Instead, we should reduce, recycle, and reuse, creating circular economies in our homes, offices, regions, and countries. Trillions of dollars in revenues and profits, meanwhile, could result from innovating our way to reducing, recycling, and reusing waste. That ought to grab your attention.
• Dr. Paul Sullivan is a senior research associate at KFCRIS and non-resident fellow, Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council.