Can Zero Waste Ever be a Commercial Reality?

Zero Waste and Carbon Neutral, are two brilliant catchphrases, but is much of this simply a ‘me too’ commercial puff or can it become a reality for enough companies to make a measurable difference to the reduction of greenhouse gases across our precious planet.

So often zero waste, or reduction of greenhouse gases, is not the Green solution that it at first appears. Apparently, when the massive Drax power station was converted from coal to biomass fuel, the local carbon footprint went down, but there is much controversy about this.

“Overall, while some instances of biomass energy use may result in lower life-cycle emissions than fossil fuels, in most circumstances, comparing technologies of similar ages, the use of woody biomass for energy will release higher levels of emissions than coal and considerably higher levels than gas.” (World Economic Forum)

Industrial scale burning of wood pellets to generate electricity receives ‘renewables’ subsidies approaching £1bn per annum, yet causes more air pollution even than burning coal. Yorkshire’s Drax power station alone pumps out more than 3m diesel cars worth of extra pollution since it converted from coal (information courtesy of Private Eye).

Some other startling facts which came to light during my research are:

  • It takes 2,700 litres of water to grow enough cotton to produce one t-shirt.
  • It takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pair of denim jeans.
  • Every second a garbage truck full of clothing is either burned or sent to landfill.
  • 8million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the oceans annually.
  • A third of all the food produced is wasted.

The food which goes to waste each year is enough to feed more than 2 billion people. According to many experts, by 2050 there will be 2 billion more people living on our planet. Based upon the latest figures available (2011), if the world enjoyed a typical North American diet then we would need 30% more land mass on which to grow crops. If we consumed a typical New Zealand diet, then we would need a further 90% of world land mass on which to grow crops. The general theory behind this seems to be that the more affluent a country becomes, the greater the percentage of meat products consumed. Yet, if the population by 2050 will be 9 billion, we can only assume that we will lose even more land mass to housing, etc.

Many people shudder at the thought of genetically modified crops (so-called Frankenstein foods) geared to increasing the quantities of food from the same land mass, so what can be done?

Finding Solutions to the ‘Plastic Problem’

There has been much demonising of plastic but plastic, as can be seen from the above few statistics, is by no means the whole problem. Finding alternatives wherever plastics are used can be extremely expensive and, in some areas, even create more waste. Short shelf life foods such as bacon and smoked salmon, to mention only two of many, cannot be packed in paper or cardboard without shortening shelf lives, possibly creating even more waste.

Plastics used in car manufacture, for example, have been a real revolution in maintaining the life cycle of bodywork (minimising rust) and lightening vehicles (improving fuel consumptions).

Without a doubt, a huge amount of good has come from the development and universal use of plastic, so much so that we cannot live our modern lives without it.

We can reduce its usage (e.g. eliminate single-use carrier bags), stop dumping plastic products in our rivers and oceans and become far better at recycling the many different kinds of plastic. Of all the plastic produced since its mass production started about 60 years ago, more than 90% of it still exists, much of it on the sea bed somewhere.

Recycling, even across the UK, is so confusing because every authority has a different set of criteria about what can and cannot be recycled. This clearly needs a unified government directive that makes clear the recycling categories that each authority must adopt, together with heavy penalties if we as householders fail to comply, assuming of course an ongoing centrally funded government advertising campaign to ensure that none of us have an excuse for being ignorant about the requirements.

Addressing Food Waste

Food waste, as has already been identified, is also a massive problem that we can no longer ignore. A third of our food produced goes to waste and that doesn’t even include what we leave on our plates.

Food manufacturers need to dramatically reduce waste. I know of one global manufacturer with multiple production sites that has embarked upon a target of zero waste and, of course, we shall be pleased to give them every possible help to achieve this. Many more need to follow their lead. Current levels of wastage are unsustainable, not only because of the reasons mentioned above but because manufacturers cannot pass on their rising costs to their supermarket customers who have their own problems competing with other retailers.

High Levels of Unseen Waste

One of the difficulties which we frequently experience, within the food manufacturing industry, is that the high levels of wastage go unseen by the workforce because they have lived with these high levels of wastage for so long that they treat the wastage, if they see it at all, as an inevitable consequence of manufacturing. Maybe some is but much is not.

In addition, there needs to be a better educational programme to help consumers understand the difference between Best Before Dates and Use By Dates. Nobody should be consuming food that has gone beyond its Use By Date and it is illegal for retailers to sell food beyond that date. Best Before Dates however are treated quite differently. If consumed beyond such BB or Best Before End dates the food might not taste quite the same, but it will do no harm.

A very encouraging trend, that our team at Harford Control are seeing much more, is manufacturers concerned enough about wastage reduction and future profitability to enlist our help even if that help goes no further than some pro-bono consultancy.

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