Welcome back GFZ's! Did you tune into episode 2 of The War on Waste on ABC this week? This week’s topic was food waste, and as composting and waste-saving nerds, this one stoked the fire in our bellies!
Australia is known for its natural beauty, but there's a growing concern about the waste we generate, particularly when it comes to food. Did you know the average Australian household throws out $2,500 worth of groceries yearly? That's one in every five shopping bags of food! This shocking statistic is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the war on waste in our country.
The Scale of Food Waste in Australia
Australians generate 7.6 million tonnes of waste annually, with over half of our landfill bins being filled with food waste, garden waste, and organics. This organic waste in landfills contributes to approximately 10% of the planet's greenhouse emissions, making it five times more harmful than the emissions generated by the global aviation industry.
The good news is that it does't take much to reduce our food waste. More on this later.
Oz Harvest and Foodbank Australia: Fighting Food Waste and Food Insecurity
Craig is joined by Ronni Kahn (one of our personal heroes). Ronni founded Oz Harvest, Australia’s leading food rescue organisation.
“ It’s obscene, it’s painful, it’s unconscionable. And it’s … it hurts my body and my soul. We lost the value of food and lost how to use it.”
Ironically, while food waste is rampant, an increasing number of Australians struggle to put food on their tables. The cost of living crisis has left one in five Australian children living in households grappling with food insecurity.
"Currently, 500,000 people require food relief daily, yet only 360,000 receive it. To address this gap." says Brianna Casey from Foodbank Australia. Her solution to this issue is a change in tax laws. By incentivising farmers to donate surplus food could lead to a transformative impact on food waste and food insecurity.
The Impact of Food Waste in Landfills
Science communicator, Lee Constable, demonstrates the impact through a scaled-down model, highlighting the dangers of improper waste disposal. When landfill bins, including food waste and non-recyclables, are compacted with soil, organic matter like food waste is deprived of oxygen. As a result, instead of decomposing aerobically (in the presence of oxygen), it undergoes anaerobic decomposition, producing methane and other potent greenhouse gases.
So for example, when disposing of a banana peel in the garden, the banana would break down in oxygen and let out the same amount of carbon dioxide as it took in its life. So that is neutral. However, when it goes to landfills, it is compacted without oxygen, which means it is breaking down and making methane and other gasses instead. These gasses are 26 to 38 times more powerful in trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2). Yikes.
Australia has more than 1000 landfills, with only 169 advanced enough to have methane capture technology where they burn off methane or create electricity with it.
As consumers, it is our job to keep as much as possible out of landfills because the food in landfills creates many problems.
South Australia's Leading Role in Food Recycling
In SA, food scraps are diverted to an advanced industrial facility (instead of landfills). A combination of heat, liquid, and machinery breaks down food waste, converting it into high-grade compost. This compost is rich in vital nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are crucial in fostering healthier crops and supporting vibrant gardens. Peter Wadewitz highlights that when we turn our food scraps into compost, it enhances the quality of fruits and vegetables, wine and gardens, but also saves 30% water and fertiliser.
The main challenge Peter Wadewitz encounters in the food waste collection is the contamination of plastics and forever chemicals (PFAS), as these never break down in the composting process. Many states have implemented bans on compostable packaging going into composting bins and for a good reason.
Compostable Plastic and PFAS: Unraveling the Hidden Risks
Compostable takeaway containers and plates are often coated with PFAS, a group of chemicals used to deal with liquids and heat around food. Unfortunately, PFAS do not break down in the environment or the human body, earning them the nickname "forever chemicals."
The concerning finding is that we as consumers ingest PFAS from these containers through high-temperature exposure or abrasion. While acute exposure to high doses of PFAS has shown health implications, the long-term effects of low-level PFAS exposure are still under investigation.
The challenge is knowing which 'compostable' products contain PFAS. Craig sends off some takeaway samples to a lab to get tested. PFAS levels should be below 100 parts per million to be considered safe. Let's take a closer look at the readings of some popular takeaway compostable containers:
Fishbowl takeaway container: PFAS reading of 1,433 parts per million, so 14x what is considered safe
Generic clam shell takeaway container (sugarcane): Very high PFAS content
Nando's takeaway container: PFAS reading below 100, indicating the absence of PFAS
McDonald's takeaway container: PFAS reading below 100, indicating the absence of PFAS
SAVU sugarcane pulp plates: PFAS reading of 989, so 10 times what is considered safe
Biopack sugar cane dinner plates: PFAS reading of 786, so 8 times what is considered safe
SAVU bamboo pulp plates: PFAS reading of 33, making it a safe and eco-friendly choice
Both sugar cane plates show elevated PFAS levels, while the bamboo option emerges as a favourable alternative free from PFAS.
Compostable plastic are often referred to as a solution to the plastic waste crisis, but the presence of PFAS poses hidden risks. Governments are adopting proactive approaches to reduce PFAS usage due to their persistent nature and potential health risks. As consumers, we play a pivotal role in advocating for a ban on PFAS in compostable products.
Ok, now back to food waste at home…
Reducing Food Waste Without Local Food Waste Pick-Up
Only 142 out of 563 councils provide a collection service for food and organic waste (FOGO). When you live in an area without local food waste pick up like us, there are small & simple things you can do.
Plan your meals ahead of time and only buy what you need. This will help us to avoid buying too much food and wasting it. We share some awesome waste-saving recipes here too! My tip is also to avoid going shopping when you are hungry hahaha. I tend to buy more when I'm starving.
Keep a 'use it first' container. This container is a reminder to eat items with a shorter shelf life before spoiling. It's a simple but effective method to cut down on unnecessary waste. I do this after going to the market and putting new produce in my fridge.
Eat your leftovers. Yes, mum!
Store food properly so that it lasts longer. This means storing food in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer, or have you heard of The Veggie Saver? It's all in the name. Check it out here.
Compost food scraps. As you know, we are compost enthusiasts over here and love sharing our knowledge and answering any of your composting questions. Composting is such a great way to recycle food scraps and turn them into nutrients for plants. On the show, we learned about Hannah Chiron, the "worm monger". She has set up a community compost hub at her home. Hanna uses old bathtubs she salvaged from subsides around Brisbane; what a legend. Worms do all the hard work. They eat your food scraps, and their castings (poo, yep, you read that right) have the microbial continent and nutrients that is moist, rich soil. (give her a follow here), she could inspire you to start it on your street. You can learn how to compost on our stories here and here. We loooove the Urban composters (great for apartment living) and Subpods (great when you have a little bit of garden).
Donate food that we don't need to food banks or charities. Find a local charity. You can impact someones life, how amazing.
Why are certain food refused by supermarkets?
Did you know that a staggering 25% of all fruit and vegetables in Australia never make it to the supermarket shelves? This isn't solely due to poor weather or insect spoilage; instead, it's because of strict cosmetic standards imposed by supermarkets. Too wonky, too long, too skinny, ...
Among the horticultural items commonly discarded in Australia, potatoes top the list.
"Every day, around 15 to 20% of freshly picked potatoes fail to meet the supermarket's appearance standards." says Renee Pye from Pye Farms. Many farmers resort to feeding this rejected produce to animals to manage waste.
Carrots face a similar fate, with approximately 30% not qualifying as "premium" carrots according to supermarket standards. This amounts to a staggering 20 tonnes of carrots being discarded daily. However, these seemingly imperfect carrots are still suitable for other culinary purposes, such as shredded carrots, carrots for salad, and more.
So the good news here is that it does not get thrown away. Did you know there are a lot of food delivery services who use produce that is not accepted by tghe supermarkets? A few are Funky Food, Harris Farm, Good & Fugly, ...
UPDATES FROM EPISODE 1
What to Do with Soft Plastics in Australia
In the first episode of War on Waste, we learned that Australians discarded around 5 million pieces of soft plastics with Redcycle. Many Australians can't do anything with their soft plastics right now; however, a trial program called "Curby" in South Australia is rolled out to tackle the soft plastics waste crisis. Here's how it works: you can collect your soft plastics in a designated yellow plastic bag and attach a Curby sticker (available at supermarkets). Once your yellow Curby bag is full, you add and scan the sticker, and the yellow Curby bag goes directly into your recycling bin, bypassing the supermarket.
So how are the Curby soft plastics recycled? A $10 million soft plastics recycling machine separates the different soft plastic, shreds it and then optical sorters sort the different polymers. This is used for injection and extrusion molding and mixed with virgin plastic to create builders' materials. Additionally, some soft plastics are transformed into durable fence posts and bollards. However, about 30% of collected through Curby still ends up in landfills due to the complex nature of soft plastic packaging, posing recycling challenges.
Can Coloured bottles be recycled?
Nope! PET bottles, such as Sprite and Mountain Dew, must be clear to be recyclable (as mentioned in the previous episode). So watch out, while some bottles claim they can be recycled into another bottle, coloured bottles cannot be recycled into new ones.
Cottee's Cordial bottles update. Cottee's Cordial bottle is one of the only ones in the household waste bin made from PVC. This is a lousy contaminant because it can’t turn back into food-grade material (it has chlorides, yikes). Craig emailed them, and they responded that they have removed the recycling logo from the bottle and plan to switch to recyclable PET bottles by 2025. Still 2 years…
Ok, that was a lot of information. I know. But when we know better, we do better. By making small changes to our habits, we can all help to reduce food waste in Australia and make a difference in the environment. Do you have another tip to share? We always love hearing from you.