Agricultural Waste

Agriculture is one of the leading culprits of waste in the world. Waste is coming from manure, poultry houses and slaughter houses, harvest waste, fertilizer run-off, pesticides that go into the air, soil, and water, and topsoil erosion from fields. As with many issues that arise with global warming, our food system has proven to be one of the largest challenges.

Modern agriculture is far from what farming used to be. Today monoculture farming seems like the only technique used along with CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation). Monoculture is planting one crop on a large field year after year. This diminishes the nutrients in the soil and causes more soil erosion when there is a lack of cover crop.Soil erosion results in less viable land to cultivate and increase sediment going down river, disrupting the ecosystems within them. Β A CAFO, as shown in the photo above, comprises of the majority of meat production in industrialized countries. Animals can be kept in confined spaces, force-fed, given growth hormones and antibiotics, and live a horrendous life just for people to get meat from them.

As with industry (a post soon to come), there is an enormous amount of waste generated from a system that is treated as less than natural. Here are some of the effects of waste in agriculture that will paint a better picture. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area with low to know oxygen spanning nearly 7,000 square miles. The lack of oxygen is due to agricultural runoff from fertilizers and pesticides coming from the Mississippi River. The results of the dead zone has resulted in a loss of thousand of jobs for people in the fishing industry and a near irreversible event to strike the Gulf of Mexico aside from the BP oil spill.

Runoff is one problem in the cycle of agricultural waste. If we take a step back we can see a full-fledged cycle occurring from agricultural waste. Step 1: A large company comes into a small town and plants a single crop on much of the viable land. The seeds being planted are likely genetically modified and contain their own pesticides. Step 2: The fields are tilled by large machinery emitting excess carbon. The tilling of the soil makes it more prone to erosion and they will likely see all their topsoil disappear before they are done farming this land in 10 years. Step 3: The seeds are planted in rows by the machinery (more carbon) and irrigated by a less than efficient system which can waste up to 40% of water due to evaporation before it gets to the plants. Step 4: Larger weeds that mutate overtake a field and more pesticides are needed to irradiate the issue (more carbon, and more runoff). Step 5: The plants mature and are harvested (again by machinery) and sent to mills to be sorted by, take a guess….more machines. Step 6: The products go into production, are shipped to buyers, and arrive on shelves. This can be thousands of miles of traveling, tons of energy to convert potatoes into potato chips, or wasted before they even get to the shelves due to improper storage or imperfections.

Now this all sounds like a lot to get an apple, right? But this is what happens to the majority of our food as it is industrialized. A whopping 60% of the world is farmers, but less than 2% in the US and Canada are farmers. The difference? Industry. So what about the other 60%? They too are contributing to agriculture waste but at a lesser degree than industrialized farms. The UN stated that 45% of all food produced was for human consumption. This means the rest was for animal use, energy, or wasted. The 60% that farms the world involves diverse methods of farming that are good and bad in and of themselves.

In poor countries, subsistence farming is the main way people get their food. Many times people disregard environmental issues when the goal is to feed their family. This results in deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, and overusing the land. All of these are large contributors to global warming and environmental wasting as a whole. The main reason for deforestation in South America is for cattle ranching. Cows produce the most methane of any greenhouse gas emitter. Methane is a powerful green house which is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A single pound of beef takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce, roughly 10 times as much as wheat. Western diets are a big contributor to Β the increase in animal farming worldwide and result in an increase in environmental waste.

As this has been a broad overview of agricultural waste, I encourage you to look at what can be done to reduce global agriculture waste. Education is needed for farmers and consumers. The cost of industrialized food does not reflect the true environmental costs of food production. Some ways to combat this is to support local agriculture, begin urban farming, expose industrial agriculture and advocate for polyculture forms of farming, and to shut down CAFOs and industrial agriculture. Farming has been around for thousands of years and there once was a respect for the land that was unquestioned. We need to question it now, advocate for ethical products, and fair pay to farmers.

To learn more, visit the following links:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma-Michael Pollan



Wrapped in Plastic

Plastic. The convenience product used to protect, ship, and mold our lives is made from petroleum and natural gas. From the 1950s to 2010 there has been a 100 million ton increase in plastic production. It is the leading source of ocean pollutants killing 1 million sea birds per year and 100,000 mammals. As part of my waste journey I have vowed to reduce my plastic purchases by 90%. Why 90%, you may say? Living in the US, it is hard and sometimes impossible to find necessity products that are not wrapped in plastic. My exceptions to buying plastic have been emergency items (ie. car parts), medicine, and plastic caps on glass milk bottles. To my surprise, it has not been that hard to stick to this as long as I plan ahead. What makes it so hard for everyone to reduce their plastic then?

Let’s look at plastic bags. In the US, 380,000 billion plastic bags are used per year compared to 1 trillion used globally.The people benefiting from plastic bags are petroleum companies, the bag producers, and consumers. The convenience of a plastic bags outweighs the environmental impact to most consumers. The same goes for items individually wrapped in plastic for quick on-the-go people. 26 of the 50 states in the US have plastic bag bans, proposals, or taxes. This is not to say the entire state has these proposals in effects, rather it is larger cities within in these states that are going to a lower plastic community. San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic bags in 2006, nearly all of western Europe has bans or taxes in place to fight against plastic bags. China has saved 1 million tons of oil by banning plastic bag use and Australia has refused it’s 7 million bag per year average by banning bags. Overall, this does not mean single use bags, including paper have been phased out completely worldwide but there is an evident push away from them.

At the off chance you are able to recycle #2-7 labeled/unlabeled plastics, there are few who know where they end up. We toss our plastic in a nice green container thinking we did good by it. I think it is time to take off the blindfold of where these plastics are going besides the landfill. China has taken it upon themselves to import the plastic other industries in more developed countries are willing to use. They are breaking it down to use in China’s industries for cheap cosmetics and parts for technology. You may think “hey, this sounds great,” but let’s look a bit deeper.

Countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and vast majority of Europe are selling their cheap plastics to China. These plastics come by the shiploads to small facilities to be processed by hand. When I say processed I mean picked up piece by piece by workers, sorted into different bins, and burned to identify the type of plastic. As we know, the burning of plastic is toxic and these workers are breathing it in every day. A growing pile of trash forms from the discarded plastic which does not reside in contained landfills, rather they pile up wherever there is space. This means plastics are free to flow in the wind, are floated down rivers, and are contaminating the waters supply in the areas where plastic processing is occurring. For the few dollars people in developed countries would have to pay for a reusable bag or make the extra effort to bring a reusable cup, the workers in these facilities make as little as $0.02 a day. They feed their families from the streams polluted with plastics, they farm the land which is fed by the contaminated ground water, and they grow livestock who die after their stomachs fill with plastic. They are too poor to afford a health check up let alone deal with the health issues they will face and they have no voice in the matter.

When you think of some of your favorite foods, are they wrapped in plastic? Most food are, processed or fresh. The convenience of buying a bag of apples is cheaper than buying an individual apple. For some reason, we have decided more is better, and when more is better we package it up to sell. Countries across the world have laws and regulations on food products to have plastic for safety purposes. Our food is processed on plastic equipment, packaged in plastic, and often shipped in plastic containers. Questions swirl around how safe it is to have that much plastic swirling around our food supply. BPA, leaching, and phthlates are products brought into question for human health. Though these have not been deemed unsafe, they have not been called safe either. About 6 million pounds of BPA (Bisphenol A, hard lightweight plastic) are produced per year. The CDC has shown that more than 90% of us have BPA traces in our bodies from food consumption. This can cause problems in our bodies, especially in estrogen. Though levels may be low now, as more food eaten is packaged, the higher the risk of reproductive issues, an potential heart problems.

If there is a push away from plastic, why do people still use the product? Well, plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong, and less expensive than alternatives. The downfall is the amount of energy used to make most single use products. Plastic is unlike other materials we can recycle and on average only 6% of what is produced is recycled. Many items are single use only whereas glass containers can be used indefinitely. When plastics are recycled, they are sorted and shredded into pellets. These pellets can be melted and made into new products. PET, the plastic used in products like single use water bottles is the easiest to reuse. It is estimates 100 million pounds of PET are produced per year. If the products it is used for like carpet, clothing, and packaging, are recycled, PET can be used over and over again. But, like I stated earlier, 6% of all plastic is recycled so more plastic is constantly being made one other plastics in the system are lost.

Recycling is an expensive venture and many countries cannot afford to recycle their plastic. Their plastic use is diverted to landfills where it may not decompose for 400-1000 years while leaching harmful chemicals into the ground. In places recycling is not abundant, shipping across seas takes place to get rid of plastic pollution. This adds more fossil fuel use to the equation, worsening the effects plastic has on the environment.

What can be done or what should be done? The logical response would be to eliminate plastic completely to save ocean environments and land contamination. A global problem is not an easy problem to fix. Some suggestions to reduce plastic pollution are to shop locally, buy products in bulk bins, bring reusable bags when shopping, buy less products, refuse products with plastic on them, research, and advocate for plastic bans or taxes. Below I have listen some resources to help reduce plastic use and organizations that are making a difference.

Green Dot: Companies pay for environmental impact



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