The incorrect disposal of food waste from an ever-increasing population is having a significant effect on the global economy and environment. More than 8% of the greenhouse gases heating the planet are caused by food waste rotting in landfill. In Australia alone, eliminating this food waste from landfill would save 9.5 million tonnes of C02 emissions per year, the equivalent of taking one in three vehicles off the road.
From a global standpoint, one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted - around 1.3 billion tonnes of food - costing the global economy close to $940 billion each year. In Australia alone, the Federal Government estimates food waste costs the national economy $20 billion each year.
As cities and countries around the world continue to grow and develop economically, food waste and its emissions are becoming increasingly concerning. In search of work and opportunities, people are attracted to major cities. The urban spread and ever-increasing population of these locations mean that current generations are living in much denser conditions than their parents before them. Some cities are becoming so densely populated that people are beginning to adopt extremely tight living spaces known as ‘micro-apartments’. This is something that we have seen to a lesser extent in Australia, especially in major capital cities such as Melbourne and Sydney. These cities on average are increasing by 100,000 people annually. With insufficient transport and infrastructure to support the spread to suburbia, our major cities are building up rather than out.
Over the last 25 years, the number of occupied apartments (including flats, units and excluding townhouses) in Australia has increased by a staggering 78% to 1,214,372 dwellings as of the 2016 Census. Of the 1.2 million people residing in apartments, 70% are within Melbourne and Sydney. In 1991, for every occupied apartment, there were 7 households. This has now increased to 1 apartment for every 5 households. High-density living is truly the way of the future and is something that will continuously become more prominent as populations inevitably increase.
Waste management has needed to become more specialised to cope with the increase in recycling and the resulting number of bins required. Where there may have been three households with up to three bins each, the increase in density means we can no longer have individual collections. The bins simply could not fit on to the street. The undeniable increase in apartment living creates a significant issue with food waste in particular. Many councils around Australia are introducing food & organics collections which in some cases has seen an increase to 4 bins. This is simply not possible in multi-unit dwellings.
Victorian households alone throw away 250,000 tonnes of edible food each year
(a quantity large enough to fill the Eureka Tower), costing the average Victorian $2,200 per annum. This unquestionably large quantity of food waste is largely being transported and stored in landfill sites across Victoria, which rots and produces methane gas which is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. In fact, every tonne of food waste generates 1.9 tonnes of ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ in addition to half a tonne of leachate. This is an alarming issue. Food waste accounts for nearly the same amount of emissions as road transport globally. This is something that governments are now recognising and beginning to take action on, albeit slowly.
Ultimately, the limited space afforded to apartment residents makes it difficult for them to be ‘sustainable’. For a lot of apartment owners, this is a frustrating reality. According to a study by Jenni Downes of the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, 80% of apartment dwellers hate food waste and want a solution.
This concern is something that has been forced upon countries globally, but only a few have enacted legislative means to prevent it. South Korea is one of the nations that have begun to combat this environmental and economic issue. This is a country with extremely dense urban areas, not much land for farming and with large cities where the population lives predominantly in apartment blocks. Seoul alone has just under 10 million people in an area of just 605 square kilometres.
Since the 1980's the South Korean Government has made significant efforts to reduce food waste. Most notably in 2005 when the government banned sending food waste to landfills and again in 2013 when legislation was established requiring households and other residential dwellings to dispose of organic waste through monitored recycling systems, that log the weight against each resident's account. Seoul has managed to reduce the amount of food wastage by 400 metric tonnes per day. This alone has had positive effects on the environment and the South Korean economy.
South Korea is now recycling more than 95% of its food waste, up from less than 2% in 1995. The example set by South Korea is something that can be easily mirrored in Australia and beyond. Now that solutions are readily available, there is no excuse for us to send this harmful waste to landfill. There are many technologies available to process food waste. Some are used to create energy, others are used to create soil amendments such as fertilisers or compost. It is Eco Guardians’ belief that the latter is the most sustainable option which returns nutrients to our vulnerable soils.
Avoiding the emissions is only half of the battle however, as we do not want to see recycled organics being stockpiled the way plastics and glass have been in the past. Fortunately in Australia, we have an expansive landscape that allows us to reuse and re-purpose recycled organics by getting it back onto the land. Furthermore, arable land in Australia represents only 6% and has been showing year on year declines. It seems then there is an opportunity to solve two looming issues by simply changing the way we do things.
Eco Guardians have been working with business operators to divert food waste from landfill for a decade. Looking at the challenges ahead, there is now a solution uniquely suited to multi-user dwellings and the particular difficulties associated with managing their waste while not disrupting the residents amenity.
Because of the vast characteristics of the Australian landscape, the benefits of recycling organics within our cities cannot be underestimated.
It is becoming harder to ignore the environmental and economic issues created by the rapid urbanisation we are experiencing in major Australian cities. The necessity to implement food waste solutions has never been more crucial. It is time for both us and our regulators to be accountable and take steps to better our environment.