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Column: We throw a third of our food away - and it's polluting our country

As famine hits in Somalia, a mind-boggling amount of Irish food is literally piling up in landfills. Tara Connolly explains.

Image: sporkist via Flickr

The UN has warned today that famine is spreading further in Somalia and 3.7 million people are now in crisis. Meanwhile in Ireland, a huge proportion of the food we buy goes straight into the bin – and from there, to poisonous landfills. But there is a better way, as environmental campaigner Tara Connolly argues here.

IMAGINE THE SCENE: you come home from your weekly food shop at the supermarket. You unpack the food you have just bought and put it on a table. You divide the food into three piles and throw one pile into the bin. It sounds like an act of madness but this is, effectively, what the average Irish household does every week.

According to the EPA, a third of all food bought by households ends up as food waste. But the scale of the problem is much larger with food waste created along the food supply chain and in commercial enterprises, such as canteens and restaurants.

At a time when most households are facing financial difficulties, it is difficult to understand the widespread squandering of such a basic resource. The Irish League of Credit Unions recently reported that almost a quarter of Irish people have less than €20 left over per week after paying essential bills. And poorer households tend to spend a higher percentage of their income on food, which increases the importance of minimising food waste within the home.

But as with all kinds of waste, the economic costs of food waste extend beyond inefficient use of the resource itself: we also have to look at the cost of disposal. This is a cost that is borne not only by households and businesses, but also the state. Ireland still sends most of its waste to landfill and food waste presents significant challenges for local authorities.

When food decomposes in a landfill it produces methane, a significant greenhouse gas that is 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide. When not properly treated methane can build up, creating a serious fire hazard as demonstrated by the landfill fire at the Kerdiffstown landfill in County Kildare earlier this year. Nearby communities suffered weeks of toxic fumes and noxious odours with the HSE advising residents to stay indoors to avoid the smoke plume.

Landfilled food waste contributes to more polluted leachate levels (the polluted liquid that collects in landfills). Leachate is normally caused by rain percolating through landfills that becomes contaminated through contact with waste sources, although the embodied water in food waste can add to overall leachate levels. Leachate often consists of seriously polluting elements like heavy metals but food waste increases the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of leachate. This means that if the landfill leachate reaches a river, it reduces the amount of oxygen available for other aquatic life forms such as fish. Every landfill should have a proper leachate collection and treatment system in place to ensure the leachate does not pollute local water bodies, including underground aquifers. The proper management of all these issues costs a lot of money on top of what are already very costly waste facilities.

Fortunately, and frustratingly, food waste is relatively easy to dispose of correctly. Compared to other types of waste such as electronic waste, composite items like shoes and hazardous waste, food waste does not generally require advanced technology to be properly recycled or disposed of.

The cost of inaction

You can do it quite easily at home by setting up a home composting system. This could be as simple as buying a subsidised compost bin from your local authority or building your own compost bin. You will have the added benefit of producing your own compost that you can use in your garden. Or you could avail of a food waste collection service, normally called a ‘Brown Bin’ from your local authority where available. Unfortunately a Brown Bin service is only available to a quarter of Irish households. Making this service more frequent and widely available to homes and commercial premises would help divert household food waste away from landfills.

On farms, anaerobic digestion (AD) plants successfully convert food and other types of organic waste into biogas that can be used onsite to generate heat and electricity in what is effectively a form of renewable energy. The leftover residue can be used on the land as a fertiliser, thus closing the nutrient cycle and reducing our dependency on imported fertilisers.

The recycling of food waste is a classic example of “cradle-to-cradle” thinking, which replaces wasteful linear systems with cyclical designs that aim to close material loops, turning waste into a resource. Recycling food waste creates a set of products that can be sold onto consumers, for example in the form of compost.

Improving our national infrastructure to ensure better separation and treatment of food waste will require investment but it is clear that the costs of inaction are much greater. Local authorities can do better by offering the brown bin service to more households and educating residents on how to compost at home.

But we, as individuals, are the key to reducing the high levels of household food waste that are created today. Simple steps like sitting down to make a proper food shopping list, knowing a few good recipes for leftovers and understanding how best to store food could make a big difference to your shopping bill as well as the amount of food that ends up in a landfill.

Just as Irish households cannot afford to through away good food, Ireland cannot afford to keep filling landfills with food waste. The cost of running Ireland’s landfills is rising as is the price of imported fertilisers and energy that properly treated food waste can help offset. Not only that, the EPA has warned that we will run out of landfill space in 8 years if no new landfills are opened. When it comes to food waste prevention is better, and cheaper, than the cure.

Tara Connolly is a campaigner/co-ordinator at Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment (VOICE). For more information, see voiceireland.org.

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Tara Connolly

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