Environment: Health, budgets and the environment, all damaged by food and plastic waste

Dec 10, 2023
A lake in the shape of a recycling sign in the middle of untouched nature. An ecological metaphor for ecological waste management and a sustainable and economical lifestyle. 3d rendering.

Food loss and waste harm the environment, human health and wallets. Chemical recycling of plastic not living up to its promise. Concerns about dead solar modules are unfounded.

Food loss and waste cause 10% of greenhouse gas emissions

One-third by weight and a quarter by calorie content of all food produced globally is lost or wasted between ground and gums. Yet 10% of the world’s population are malnourished. Lost and wasted food costs the global economy US$1 trillion every year.

Food loss occurs in the supply chain from farm to warehouse and might be caused by inadequate equipment, transport systems, technology or packaging. Food waste occurs at the retailer and after sale and might be due to poor stocking, inadequate food preparation skills or consumer behaviours (wanting only perfect looking fruit, say, or confusion about sell, best and use by dates).

Clearly there would be many individual and social benefits from reducing food loss and waste but everyone along the food chain (producers, processors, manufacturers, distributers, retailers, restaurants and households) and governments would have to play their part. That inevitably means that success won’t be easy or quick. But reducing global warming, improving nutrition and saving money sound like three good reasons to try.

Chemical recycling of plastic – all hat and no cattle!

Most of us are concerned about the amount of plastic going to landfill or ending up as (potentially lethal) litter in streets, countryside, coastal areas, rivers and oceans. Most of us would like to see less plastic produced and more recycled. But currently less than 10% of plastic produced is recycled and many questions have been asked about not just the effectiveness of recycling programs but also the honesty and integrity of their operators. One of the problems for members of the public is the vast array of different plastics that we encounter daily and knowing which can and cannot be recycled.

A program that accepts all forms of plastic – hard, soft, Styrofoam, bubble wrap, etc. – sorts it and uses chemical, or ‘advanced’, recycling methods (as opposed to the more traditional mechanical recycling) sounds like a good idea. Even better that it’s being pioneered in oil country by the City of Houston and a consortium of recycling and chemical companies including ExxonMobil who, to give them due credit, do know a thing or two about the chemistry and properties of plastic.

Unfortunately, things aren’t going to plan. When an environmental group dropped Apple Airtag tracking devices in the plastic collecting bins, they all ended up at an outdoor stockpile instead of the new plastics chemical recycling facility nearby. It was difficult to discover the reason as the City and the companies were unwilling to provide much information but one factor seems to be that a ‘planned’ plastics sorting centre hasn’t even been planned yet.

On top of that, there are serious problems with the whole idea of chemical recycling: the hundreds of chemicals, many toxic, contained in new plastic products; multiple past failures to make the technologies work; public health risks from the toxic chemicals and heavy metals produced during the recycling process; and the costs involved in the collection, sorting and processing. Unfortunately, producing new plastic is cheaper.

Environmentalists are suspicious that chemical recycling programs are both greenwashing and a fig leaf for oil and gas companies to keep producing virgin plastics, more of a public relations exercise than a solution.

According to one activist, ‘As the Texas saying goes, they are all hat and no cattle when it comes to what is really happening’.

Solar farm in Virginia, USA, 2022

What about all the waste from solar modules?

… there’s going to be so much of it and it also contains lots of toxic metals and chemicals, say the detractors.

But what are the facts?

Yes, we are going to see a massive increase in solar technology between now and 2050.

Yes, some if it will inevitably reach the end of its working life and be decommissioned, and some will end up as waste.

But No, we aren’t going to be submerged in a sea of decommissioned solar panels. As the figure below demonstrates, currently and even in 2050 the waste from photovoltaic modules will be very small compared with municipal waste and the waste generated by fossil fuel production. This is largely a result of the rapidly increasing lives of solar modules and more reuse and recycling.

Best case = long-lived, high quality modules. Worst case = ageing technology modules.

And No, apart from trace amounts of lead in the solder used in some modules, current solar technology does not contain toxic materials, unlike the waste produced by the fossil fuel industry.

Oil and Gas emissions

While it’s the actual burning of coal, oil and gas that generates most of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the production, transport and processing of oil and gas alone (their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions) produced 5.1 gigatonnes of GHGs (Gt CO2-e) in 2022. This is 15% of all energy-related GHG emissions – not by any means an insignificant amount.

The sources of the emissions from the oil and gas production lines are shown in the two pie-charts below. Fugitive and vented methane accounts for almost half of all the GHG emissions from oil and gas operations. The ‘Energy’ category below refers to the power required for the drilling rigs, pumps, equipment and heat that are required to get the oil and gas to the surface.

The amount of GHGs emitted during production depends on multiple local factors including the ease of extraction, the proximity of production and refining sites and the methane content of the oil and gas. The result is that some countries generate 5-10 times as much GHG per barrel of oil equivalent (boe) as others. Norway is easily the best performer for the production of both oil and gas.

World War III: Now vs The Future

The Australian quotation of the week award goes to Julian Cribb for this pithy observation in last Tuesday’s P&I:

‘According to a recent estimate, somebody will die for every 1000 tonnes of fossil fuel burned. By 2050 deaths from fossil fuels will be nearly 50% greater than the annual death toll in World War II. This makes it plain that war has been knowingly declared on all future humanity. Our children are its main victims.’

We (the adults alive now) are winning that war, of course. The future seems to lack any capacity to fight back. Funny that.

Gore vs Oil and Gas

Darren Woods is the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company. ExxonMobil has known for decades that its products cause climate change and has actively hidden the evidence from the public. So, the comments by Woods at the current COP meeting are no surprise (search using ‘UN climate talks have focused on renewable energy for too long says Exxon chief’):

‘Woods said the discussions had “put way too much emphasis on getting rid of fossil fuels, oil and gas, and not . . . on dealing with the emissions associated with them”. He said there would be “continued demand” for oil and gas, and advocated for a “continuum where in some places you will completely replace the combustion of oil and gas and coal, and other places you’ll deal with the emissions associated with it.”

‘It’s not fossil fuels we need to get rid of, it’s their greenhouse gas emissions’ is a mantra I think we can expect to hear frequently from fossil fuel industries and their shills.

Al Gore, once the ‘next President’ of the USA, wins the COP quotation of the week award for his response to Woods:

‘Don’t trust the oil and gas industry to report their actual carbon pollution. They’re much better at capturing politicians than they are at capturing emissions.’

Gore followed this up with some acerbic observations about the conflicted interests of Sultan Al Jaber who is the CEO of the United Arab Emirates state oil company and the current COP President.

Mouse bites albatross

Marion Island occupies 335 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean about halfway between South Africa and the Antarctic. European house mice were accidentally introduced to the island about 200 years ago and have thrived, with devastating effect on the island’s natural wildlife. Warmer, drier conditions in recent decades have led to explosions of the mouse population in summer and the consequent shortage of food has led them to develop new gastronomic tastes, particularly for seabirds, including albatrosses. And not just for the eggs and young, also for adults. Nineteen of the 28 species of seabirds that breed on the island are predicted to be rendered locally extinct if nothing is done.

The Mouse-Free Marion Project is planning to use helicopters to spread rodenticide bait across the whole island during coming winters to eradicate the mice. This approach has been successful on other large islands but Marion will, hopefully, be the biggest success yet. It seems that Marion Island has no raptors. Otherwise the use of rodenticide would have presented a problem.

This 7-minute video provides an excellent introduction to the island and the eradication project (some of the images are a little less exuberant than the one below of Wandering Albatross on Marion Island).

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