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.  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  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



Food Waste

A monumental problem we face is a growing population. With a growing population comes questions of how will everyone be fed? At the root of the problem, it is not merely a production problem, rather, it is a distribution problem. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, one third of the food produced is wasted per year. That equates to 1.3 billion tonnes of waste! It costs industrialized countries $680 billion and developing countries $310 billion annually.

Knowing the excessive cost food waste provides, where does it come from? When we look at poorer countries we see a common theme…storage. In warm, humid climates it is hard to preserve food and with it comes rodents, parasites, and fungus. With a lack of refrigeration, means of transportation, and unsanitary markets, poorer countries lose food before it reaches the mouths who need it. Packaging practices are unlike those in countries like the US. There is no vacuum seal, flash freezing, or perfectly stacked crates. People make due with what they have like wicker baskets and nets. Though not all of this food is thrown away, it is wasted before it gets to the consumer.

In industrialized countries there are problems late in the supply chain. The first problem is the aesthetic appearance of the food. Do you ever wonder what happens to the rest of a ‘baby carrot?’ If carrots are blemished, bent at the incorrect angle or are not bright enough they are thrown away or turned into our ‘baby carrots.’ It is estimated that 30% of all carrots produced are discarded due to their physical appearance. Industrialized countries consume processed food in a much higher amount that developing nations. This creates waste from cutting food like potatoes for french fries, trimming scraps for perfectly proportioned meals, and byproducts of cooking or extracting foods.

A major cause of retail waste comes from poor dating, too hot or cold holding temperatures, and lack of staff to rotate foods. There is a common misconception that the best before date is the date to toss an item. It is actually indicating the peak quality the manufactures feels the food is at. After that date they cannot insure the quality is at their standards but by no means states that the food is trash. High income countries see food as a commodity rather than an energy source. Massive amounts of money are spent on bulk products, specialty food, and excess food for a home. Household waste becomes a huge factor as families over buy food, fail to prepare the food to store it longer, and toss food they do not like or find pleasing.

If one fourth of the food wasted was saved, it could feed 870 million hungry people in the world! With 40% of the world’s people working in agriculture and employing the highest percentage of jobs worldwide, you would think that there would be immediate changes made so these people benefit from their trade. Though many workers in developing countries see their food rot before them, the 1% of farmers in the US rarely see the food they make go to market. so what can be done?

In low income countries, there needs to be education and technologies made available to preserve food. Improvements and investments in marketing facilities can boost outcomes and benefit a growing population. In high income countries, awareness is key. With buying options in the hands of the consumer, it is crucial the consumer knows what is happening to their food supply if they are not growing it themselves. Improvements in purchase and consumption planning can reduce waste in homes and at stores.

Waste is not only seen in the food produced. It spans across the use of resources to grow, ship, and store the food, energy used to grow the food and the capital put forth to invest in the food. Between all these modern issues we are creating global warming and climate change through our food system.

To me it seems like an oxymoron. Food is a staple, organic, basic need that we all have but yet we throw so much of it away. If there was care and appreciation for each hand that touched the food, the energy from the sun, and the nutrients used to put forth a life giving product, there would be no waste. Going forward, make it a priority to know where your food comes from and how much energy it took for it to get to you. The next time you see an ‘ugly’ potato in the grocery store, keep in mind you may be the only person willing to buy it before it is thrown away.


Why do we have so much stuff?

Materialism is a key factor influencing waste worldwide. To understand the materialistic concept, we must first look at standard of living.  A standard of living is not an easy thing to measure as it is more about the perception of the life the individual has. The higher the standard of living the higher the perceived quality of life there is. When materialists experience dissatisfaction in life from non-material things, they tend to turn to material things to cope. Their goals turn from a need basis to a “I feel I deserved this” basis. Much of the ideals that materialists experience are related to their relationships and social expectations they experience. Material can mean things like wealth, status, and make or break a relationship for them. If someone has more possessions, it is seen that they have more money or a better life than another individual. This leads to over-consumption as others try to exude their status to compete with the one above them.

If we are in this vicious cycle of buying things, how do we know when to stop? Well, we don’t. We go, go, go, until we get to the top and then what? Ride it out? Spend more money? Buy more things to “make us happy?” Research has shown that no matter how many possessions you have, money you make, and how big of a house you have, your quality of life may be worse than a person living in a hut in the middle of a dessert. There are so many things we try to cover ourselves in: food, jewelry, fancy clothes. But those all have a much greater cost, an environmental cost and a mental cost. Not only are you draining your bank account, you are depleting the earth’s resources, and depleting your mental state.

Every impulse buy is one strike against Mother Nature. You don’t need that product, what you really need are relationships. You need a network of support and a reason to live rather than for status, wealth, or beauty. 20 tons of waste is produces per ounce of gold causing water, soil, and air pollution. Are those earrings worth harming the ecosystem? Is your perceived misfortune the reason our capitalist economies decide to keep selling us things we don’t need to be happy?

People across the globe are living on no money to millions of dollars. To compare a person making nothing to a person making a million dollars, you will see distinct differences in clothing, appearance, and hygiene. What you won’t see is the quality of their life. The person with no money may be the happiest person on the planet and has nothing to show but his attitude. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it certainly buys us more trash. From small to large, purchases made globally eventually end up in landfills to sit and decay for centuries. Whole livelihoods are built around making things for consumers from factories to facilities where people can search out enjoyment. What if the solution to this waste was not to find sustainable material for the product, rather find a sustainable mind set change? Go from a place of needing things to finding solace in a peaceful walk or talking to a friend. Imagine to depth of changes that would be made if it was that simple to change a mindset from “I need” to “I have all I need.”

Live simply. The key point I am trying to get across from my quaint life is that you don’t need to surround yourself with things. You don’t need 20 pairs of shoes to be happy, you may only need two to play a crucial role in your life. Living simply is shifting your mindset from I want this and this and this to…I can live with just this and this is all I need.

See, once you get rid of the things, you leave yourself open to feel what is happening. You open your mind as you discover that if you buy less food, you feel better, if you watch less TV, you have more time to read, think, and dream. When you have that time to dream, there is no telling where your story will end.



Sirgy, M.J. Social Indicators Research (1998) 43: 227. doi:10.1023/A:1006820429653

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