The USA is way behind Europe when it comes to electric vehicles, with sales in Europe exceeding 1 million in 2018, while US figures stood at just 750,000. This is despite the giants of Silicon Valley, including Google, Amazon and Tesla, all making strides to offer electric vehicles to the mass market. The area where the contrast is most clear is in regards to vans. While Europe has many on offer, electric vans are almost non-existent on American roads. Where does this leave commercial enterprises looking to cut their carbon emissions?
Europe Leading the Way
Although hardly the norm, it isn’t uncommon to see fully electric commercial vehicles on European streets. German based DHL are selling over 5000 StreetScooters a year, allowing companies to offer battery powered deliveries. Meanwhile, the UK’s best selling plug in van is the Nissan e-NV200. This attractive commercial vehicle is on sale throughout Europe, selling more than 4000 a year. Unfortunately, it is not available in the US.
Don’t worry – it isn’t all bad news for the USA. With companies like Tesla offering their own electric pickup and semi vehicles, there could be a shift in sale trends soon. However, neither of these vehicles are yet to hit the mass market. Other electric truck or van options are few and far between. The likes of Google are focusing their efforts on creating self-drive vehicles rather than venturing into commercial electric automobiles that are wheelchair accessible as well..
Other Ways to Cut Carbon Emissions
Keep searching for the perfect electric van for your company. If Europe has them, then you can find one in America. In the meantime, however, consider other ways to cut your carbon footprint. For the running of any electronics, invest in solar power. This has really taken off in the USA and is one of the cheapest options available. You should also try to source products locally and remove plastic packaging from your goods.
Electric vehicles really can’t arrive soon enough, but commercial vans and trucks are yet to become mainstream. The USA needs to take a leaf out of Europe’s book and invest in electric vans. In the meantime, consider switching to solar power and taking other steps to reduce your company’s carbon emissions.
You know the saying: One person’s trash is another’s treasure. When it comes to recovering energy from municipal solid waste — commonly called garbage or trash— that treasure can be especially useful. Instead of taking up space in a landfill, we can process our trash to produce energy to power our homes, businesses and public buildings.
In 2015, the United States got about 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from burning municipal solid waste, or MSW. Seventy-one waste-to-energy plants and four additional power plants burned around 29 million tons of MSW in the U.S. that year. However, just 13 percent of the country’s waste becomes energy. Around 35 percent is recycled or composted, and the rest ends up in landfills.
Recovering Energy Through Incineration
The predominant technology for MSW-to-energy plants is incineration, which involves burning the trash at high temperatures. Similarly to how some facilities use coal or natural gas as fuel sources, power plants can also burn MSW as fuel to heat water, which creates steam, turns a turbine and produces electricity.
Several methods and technologies can play a role in burning trash to create electricity. The most common type of incineration plant is what’s called a mass-burn facility. These units burn the trash in one large chamber. The facility might sort the MSW before sending it to the combustion chamber to remove non-combustible materials and recyclables.
These mass-burn systems use excess air to facilitate mixing, and ensure air gets to all the waste. Many of these units also burn the fuel on a sloped, moving grate to mix the waste even further. These steps are vital because solid waste is inconsistent, and its content varies. Some facilities also shred the MSW before moving it to the combustion chamber.
Another method for converting trash into electricity is gasification. This type of waste-to-energy plant doesn’t burn MSW directly, but instead uses it as feedstock for reactions that produce a fuel gas known as synthesis gas, or syngas. This gas typically contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and water vapor.
Approaches to gasification vary, but typically include high temperatures, high-pressure environments, very little oxygen and shredding MSW before the process begins. Common gasification methods include:
Air-fed systems, which use air instead of pure oxygen and temperatures between 800 and 1,800 degrees Celsius.
Plasma or plasma arc gasification, which uses plasma torches to increase temperatures to 2,000 to 2,800 degrees Celsius.
Syngas can be burned to create electricity, but it can also be a component in the production of transportation fuels, fertilizers and chemicals. Proponents of gasification report that it is a more efficient waste-to-energy method than incineration, and can produce around 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity from one ton of MSW. Incineration, on average, produces 550 kilowatt-hours.
Challenges of MSW-to-Energy
Turning trash into energy seems like an ideal solution. We have a lot of trash to deal with, and we need to produce energy. MSW-to-energy plants solve both of those problems. However, a relatively small amount of waste becomes energy, especially in the U.S.
Typical layout of MSW-to-Energy Plant
This lack may be due largely to the upfront costs of building a waste-to-energy plant. It is much cheaper in the short term to send trash straight to a landfill. Some people believe these energy production processes are just too complicated and expensive. Gasification, especially, has a reputation for being too complex.
Environmental concerns also play a role, since burning waste can release greenhouse gases. Although modern technologies can make burning waste a cleaner process, its proponents still complain it is too dirty.
Despite these challenges, as trash piles up and we continue to look for new sources of energy, waste-to-energy plants may begin to play a more integral role in our energy production and waste management processes. If we handle it responsibly and efficiently, it could become a very viable solution to several of the issues our society faces.
During the first quarter of 2017, workers installed a wind turbine somewhere in the US every 2.4 hours. Wind provided 5.6% of all the electricity produced in the US in 2016. That’s more than double the amount of wind power in 2010. The whole world is seeing similar growth. The wind industry isn’t without controversy. Critics blame it for the scope of a blackout in Australia. On the other hand, international oil companies have begun to build off-shore wind farms.
Critics’ case against wind energy
According to its critics, wind power is unreliable. The wind doesn’t blow all the time. It doesn’t blow on any predictable pattern. Wind turbines require some minimum wind speed for them to work at all. And if the wind is too strong, they can’t operate safely and must shut down.
Wind can cross one or the other of these thresholds multiple times a day. They operate at full capacity for only a few hours a year. So the theoretical capacity of a wind farm greatly exceeds its actual output.
The times turbines can generate electricity do not coincide with rising and falling demand for electricity. This variability creates problems for stabilizing the grid. Critics further claim that the wind industry can’t operate without massive government subsidies.
Wind power and South Australia blackout of 2016?
South Australia depends on wind energy for about 40% of its electricity. It suffered seven tornadoes on September 28, 2016. Two of them, with winds almost as fast as Hurricane Katrina, destroyed twenty towers that held three different transmission lines. Nine wind farms shut down. Within minutes, the entire state suffered a massive blackout.
What contributed the most to the blackout? South Australia’s high dependence on wind power? The weather? Or something else?
Renewable energy skeptics quickly claimed the blackout justified their position. The wind farms simply failed to provide enough electricity in the emergency. Wind and solar energy, they say, are inherently unreliable. South Australia’s heavy reliance demonstrates an irresponsible policy based on ideology more than technological reality.
Certainly, the weather would have caused a disturbance in electrical service no matter what source of electricity. People near the downed transmission lines could not have avoided loss of power. But prompt action by grid operators makes it possible to bypass problem areas and limit the extent of the outage.
On closer examination, however, the correct answer to the multiple-choice question above is C: something else.
Wind turbines have “low voltage ride through” settings to keep operating for brief periods when voltage dips below the threshold at which they can operate correctly. If low-voltage conditions occur too frequently, the turbines have a protection mechanism that turns them off.
Ten wind farms experienced between three and six low-voltage events within two minutes. But the turbines were operating on factory settings. No one performed any testing to determine good settings under local conditions.
The agency that regulates the Australian electricity market knew nothing about the protection feature. It blamed the wind farms, but surely someone on staff should have been familiar with the default operation of the turbines. After all, the agency approved purchase and installation of the turbines. It had all the documentation.
Two gas generating plants that should have supplied backup power failed to come online.
The weather caused a problem that became a crisis not because of technical limitations of renewable energy, but because of too many different organizations’ incompetence.
If the wind is too strong, wind turbines can’t operate safely and must shut down.
One homeowner in South Australia didn’t suffer from the outage. He didn’t even know about the blackout till he saw it on the news. He had to test the accuracy of the news reports by opening his oven and noting that the light didn’t come on.
It turns out he had installed solar panels just a few weeks earlier. And since power outages in his part of South Australia occur almost every month, he decided to install a Tesla Powerwall as well.
He can’t use it to power his entire house, but it takes care of the lights and the television. It stores enough electricity for 10 hours of off-grid power.
Big oil and wind power
International oil companies have not joined the chorus of wind-industry skeptics. Several of them, including Royal Dutch Shell, have begun to invest heavily in off-shore wind farms. Especially in the North Sea. Oil production there has steadily declined for about 15 years.
Exploring for new oil fields has become too risky and expensive. These oil companies have decided that investing in wind energy helps their cash flow and makes it more predictable.
Oil companies have more expertise in working on offshore platforms than do companies that specialize in wind energy. Instead of building a foundation for turbines on the ocean floor, at least one oil company has begun to explore how to mount them on floating platforms.
Traditional wind energy firms have been operating turbines in the North Sea for years, but the oil companies have begun to outbid them. Their off-shore expertise has helped them drive down their costs.
So far, American oil companies have shown less interest in wind farms. If they decide they’re in the oil business, they will eventually lose market share to renewable energy companies. If they decide they’re in the energy business, they’ll have to start investing in renewable energy. And if any decide to invest heavily in solar power besides or instead of wind, they will still be following the lead of Total, a French oil company.
For that matter, the coal business is dying. Perhaps some of them will have enough sense to invest in renewables to improve their cash flow.
This year has witnessed the U.S. Navy debut their “Great Green Fleet,” the first aircraft carrier strike group powered largely by alternative, nonpetroleum-based fuels, the British Ministry of Defence launch a competition to reduce its equipment energy spend and the Pentagon increase its investment in clean-energy technologies, including biofuels development. Could we be witnessing the start of the end of our reliance on “fossil fuel” petroleum?
In 2010, the MOD spent £628m on equipment energy and, for every 1p per litre rise in the price of fuel, the MOD’s annual equipment energy bill increases by £13m. These rising oil prices have once again positioned biofuels centre stage as a potential substitute to fulfil our global thirst for fuel.
With so many biofuel crops needing to compete for space and freshwater supplies with agriculture, algae are being seen as an ideal, sustainable alternative. Algae can be grown in areas where crops cannot, but until now, it’s been difficult to achieve the scale needed for commercial algal production.
Leading international authority on algal biotechnology and head of the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa (www.CCAP.ac.uk), Dr John Day, thinks it’s a major step forward. Dr Day has over 25 years’ experience in biotechnology and applied algal research and comments “Commercial confidence in the scalability of algal biofuel production is an exciting step forward in the journey towards sustainable, economic biofuel production using microalgae.
Algae Cultures at the Scottish Association for Marine Science
“A major driver for the development of algal biofuels has been fuel security and the US Navy has successfully tested nearly all of its ships and aircraft on biofuel blends containing algal oils — including an F-18 fighter flying at twice the speed of sound and a ship moving at 50 knots.”
“Scientists at SAMS and elsewhere have been contributing to the global development of knowledge on algal biofuel. It is this understanding of the biology of these enigmatic microbes and our capacity to successfully cultivate them that will be the key to producing algal biofuels and other products.”
Driven by the desire to reduce reliance on foreign countries for petroleum, and the constant pressure to reduce costs, Governments are taking sustainable fuels very seriously. (A recent report highlighted that Pentagon investment in green technologies rose to $1.2 billion, up from $400 million, and is projected to reach $10 billion annually by 2030.) The Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (which finances and monitors research into algae fuels,) says it has now managed to produce algafuel for $2 per gallon and that it will produce jet aircraft quality algafuel for $3 per gallon by 2013. Unsurprisingly, commercial aviation companies around the world are also taking an interest in algae biofuels to reduce their own costs and carbon footprints.
As interest grows and more funding becomes available, the industry is blossoming and more skilled people are needed. Could we witness a global shift to sustainable fuels in our lifetime? We certainly hope so.
Food waste is an untapped energy source that mostly ends up rotting in landfills, thereby releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Food waste is difficult to treat or recycle since it contains high levels of sodium salt and moisture, and is mixed with other waste during collection. Major generators of food wastes include hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, residential blocks, cafeterias, airline caterers, food processing industries, etc.
In United States, food waste is the third largest waste stream after paper and yard waste. Around 13 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated in the country is contributed by food scraps. According to USEPA, more than 35 million tons of food waste are thrown away into landfills or incinerators each year, which is around 40 percent of all food consumed in the country. As far as United Kingdom is concerned, households throw away around 8 million tons of food each year. These statistics are an indication of tremendous amount of food waste generated all over the world.
Food Waste Management Strategy
The proportion of food waste in municipal waste stream is gradually increasing and hence a proper food waste management strategy needs to be devised to ensure its eco-friendly and sustainable disposal. The two most common methods for food waste recycling are:
Composting: A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste by naturally occurring micro-organisms with oxygen, in an enclosed vessel or tunnel;
Anaerobic digestion (AD): A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen, producing a renewable energy (biogas) that can be used to generate electricity and heat.
Currently, only about 3 percent of food waste is recycled throughout U.S., mainly through composting. Composting provides an alternative to landfill disposal of food waste, however it requires large areas of land, produces volatile organic compounds and consumes energy. Consequently, there is an urgent need to explore better recycling alternatives.
Anaerobic digestion has been successfully used in several European and Asian countries to stabilize food wastes, and to provide beneficial end-products. Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Germany and England have led the way in developing new advanced biogas technologies and setting up new projects for conversion of food waste into energy.
Of the different types of organic wastes available, food waste holds the highest potential in terms of economic exploitation as it contains high amount of carbon and can be efficiently converted into biogas and organic fertilizer. Food waste can either be used as a single substrate in a biogas plant, or can be co-digested with organic wastes like cow manure, poultry litter, sewage, crop residues, abattoir wastes, etc.
Food waste is one of the single largest constituent of municipal solid waste stream. Diversion of food waste from landfills can provide significant contribution towards climate change mitigation, apart from generating revenues and creating employment opportunities. Rising energy prices and increasing environmental pollution makes it more important to harness renewable energy from food wastes. Anaerobic digestion technology is widely available worldwide and successful projects are already in place in several European as well as Asian countries which makes it imperative on waste generators and environmental agencies in USA to strive for a sustainable food waste management system.
The major techno-commercial limitations of existing biofuels has catalyzed the development of advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol, biobutanol and mixed alcohols. Biobutanol is generating good deal of interest as a potential green alternative to petroleum fuels. It is increasingly being considered as a superior automobile fuel in comparison to bioethanol as its energy content is higher. The problem of demixing that is encountered with ethanol-petrol blends is considerably less serious with biobutanol-petrol blends.
Besides, it reduces the harmful emissions substantially. It is less corrosive and can be blended in any concentration with petrol (gasoline). Several research studies suggest that butanol can be blended into either petrol or diesel to as much as 45 percent without engine modifications or severe performance degradation.
Production of Biobutanol
Biobutanol is produced by microbial fermentation, similar to bioethanol, and can be made from the same range of sugar, starch or cellulosic feedstocks. The most commonly used microorganisms are strains of Clostridium acetobutylicum and Clostridium beijerinckii. In addition to butanol, these organisms also produce acetone and ethanol, so the process is often referred to as the “ABE fermentation”.
The main concern with Clostridium acetobutylicum is that it easily gets poisoned at concentrations above 2% of biobutanol in the fermenting mixture. This hinders the production of biobutanol in economically viable quantities.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in biobutanol due to increasing petroleum prices and search for clean energy resources. Researchers have made significant advances in designing new microorganisms capable of surviving in high butanol concentrations. The new genetically modified micro-organisms have the capacity to degrade even the cellulosic feedstocks.
Biobutanol production is currently more expensive than bioethanol which has hampered its commercialization. However, biobutanol has several advantages over ethanol and is currently the focus of extensive research and development. There is now increasing interest in use of biobutanol as a transport fuel. As a fuel, it can be transported in existing infrastructure and does not require flex-fuel vehicle pipes and hoses.
Fleet testing of biobutanol has begun in the United States and the European Union. A number of companies are now investigating novel alternatives to traditional ABE fermentation, which would enable biobutanol to be produced on an industrial scale.
The concept of biomass energy is still in its infancy in most parts of the world, but nevertheless, it does have an important role to play in terms of sustainability in general and net-zero buildings in particular. Once processed, biomass is a renewable source of energy that has amazing potential. But there is a lot of work to be done to exploit even a fraction of the possibilities that would play a significant role in providing our homes and commercial buildings with renewable energy.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), only about 5% of the total primary energy usage in the U.S. comes from biomass fuels. So there really is a way to go.
The Concept of Biomass Energy
Generally regarded as any carbon-based material including plants, food waste, industrial waste, reclaimed woody materials, algae, and even human and animal waste, biomass is processed to produce effective organic fuels.
The main sources of biomass include wood mills and furniture factories, landfill sites, horticultural centers, wastewater treatment plants, and areas where invasive and alien tree and grass species grow.
Whether converted into biogas or liquid biofuels, or burned as is, the biomass releases its chemical energy in the form of heat. Of course, it depends on what kind of material the biomass is. For instance, solid types including wood and suitable garbage can be burned without any need for processing. This makes up more than half the biomass fuels used in the U.S. Other types can be converted into biodiesel and ethanol.
Biogas forms naturally in landfills when yard waste, food scraps, paper and so on decompose. It is composed mainly of carbon dioxide
Biogas can also be produced by processing animal manure and human sewage in digesters.
Biodiesel is produced from animal fats and vegetable oils including soybeans and palm oil.
Ethanol is made from various crops including sugar cane and corn that are fermented.
How Biomass Fuels Are Used
Ethanol has been used in vehicles for decades and ethanol-gasoline blends are now quite common. In fact, some racing drivers opt for high ethanol blends because they lower costs and improve quality. While the percentage of ethanol is substantially lower, it is now found in most gasoline sold in the U.S. Biodiesel can also be used in vehicles and it is also used as heating oil.
But in terms of their role in net-zero buildings:
Wood and wood processing waste is burned to heat buildings and to generate electricity.
In addition to being converted to liquid biofuels, various waste materials including some crops like sugar cane and corn can also be burned as fuel.
Garbage, in the form of yard, food, and wood waste, can be converted to biogas in landfills and anaerobic digesters. It can also be burned to generate electricity.
Human sewage and animal manure can be converted to biogas and burned as heating fuel.
Biomass as a Viable Clean Energy Source for Net-Zero Energy Buildings
Don’t rely on what I say, let’s look at some research, specifically, a study published just last year (2018) that deals with the development of net-zero energy buildings in Florida. It looked at the capacity of biomass, geothermal, hydrokinetic, hydropower, marine, solar, and wind power (in alphabetical order) to deliver renewable energy resources. More specifically, the study evaluated Florida’s potential to utilize various renewable energy resources.
Generating electricity from wind isn’t feasible in Florida because the average wind speeds are slow. The topography and hydrology requirements are inadequate and both hydrokinetic and marine energy resources are limited. But both solar and biomass offer “abundant resources” in Florida. Unlike most other renewable resources, the infrastructure and equipment required are minimal and suitable for use within building areas, and they are both compatible with the needs of net-zero energy.
The concept of net-zero buildings has, of course, been established by the World Green Building Council (GBC), which has set timelines of 2030 and 2050 respectively for new and all buildings to achieve net-zero carbon goals. Simplistically, what this means is that buildings, including our homes, will need to become carbon neutral, using only as much renewable energy as they can produce on site.
But nothing is simplistic when it comes to net-zero energy buildings (ZEB) ). Rather, different categories offer different boundaries in terms of how renewable energy strategies are utilized. These show that net-zero energy buildings are not all the same:
ZEB A buildings utilize strategies within the building footprint
ZEB B within the site of the property
ZEB C within the site but from off-site resources
ZEB D generate renewable energy off-site
While solar works for ZEB A and both solar and wind work for ZEB B buildings, biomass and biofuels are suitable for ZEB C and D buildings, particularly in Florida.
Even though this particular study is Florida-specific, it indicates the probability that the role of biomass energy will ultimately be limited, but that it can certainly help buildings reach a net-zero status.
There will be different requirements and benefits in different areas, but certainly professionals offering engineering solutions in Chicago, New York, London (Canada and the UK), and all the other large cities in the world will be in a position to advise whether it is feasible to use biomass rather than other forms of eco-friendly energy for specific buildings.
Biomass might offer a more powerful solution than many people imagine.
Waste-to-Energy is the use of modern combustion and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity and steam, from urban wastes. These new technologies can reduce the volume of the original waste by 90%, depending upon composition and use of outputs. The main categories of waste-to-energy technologies are physical technologies, which process waste to make it more useful as fuel; thermal technologies, which can yield heat, fuel oil, or syngas from both organic and inorganic wastes; and biological technologies, in which bacterial fermentation is used to digest organic wastes to yield fuel.
The global market for waste-to-energy technologies was valued at US$6.2bn in 2012 which is forecasted to increase to US$29.2bn by 2022. While the biological WTE segment is expected to grow more rapidly from US$1.4bn in 2008 to approximately US$2.5bn in 2014, the thermal WTE segment is estimated to constitute the vast bulk of the entire industry’s worth. This segment was valued at US$18.5bn in 2008 and is forecasted to expand to US$23.7bn in 2014.
The global market for waste to energy technologies has shown substantial growth over the last five years, increasing from $4.83 billion in 2006, to $7.08 billion in 2010 with continued market growth through the global economic downturn. Over the coming decade, growth trends are expected to continue, led by expansion in the US, European, Chinese, and Indian markets.
By 2021, based on continued growth in Asian markets combined with the maturation of European waste management regulations and European and US climate mitigation strategies, the annual global market for waste to energy technologies will exceed $27 billion, for all technologies combined.
Asia-Pacific’s waste-to-energy market will post substantial growth by 2015, as more countries view the technology as a sustainable alternative to landfills for disposing waste while generating clean energy. In its new report, Frost & Sullivan said the industry could grow at a compound annual rate of 6.7 percent for thermal waste-to-energy and 9.7 percent for biological waste-to-energy from 2008 to 2015.
The WTE market in Europe is forecasted to expand at an exponential rate and will continue to do so for at least the next 10 years. The continent’s WTE capacity is projected to increase by around 13 million tonnes, with almost 100 new WTE facilities to come online by 2012. In 2008, the WTE market in Europe consisted of approximately 250 players due in large to the use of bulky and expensive centralized WTE facilities, scattered throughout Western Europe.
By 2075, the United Nations estimates the global population will peak at 9.5 billion, an extra 3 billion mouths to feed by the end of the century. Meanwhile, while we produce about four billion tonnes of food annually, it is estimated that 30-50% of this never reaches our plates. Of the food that does reach us, some western societies throw away up to a third of all food purchased. This has enormous implications for the global environment, from wasting the water used to grow the food to adverse effects on climate, land and biodiversity.
The drivers behind these phenomenal levels of food waste are complex and include food pricing, logistical and storage issues. However, given the significant level of waste that happens within the households of societies like the UK and US, it is useful and informative to consider those behaviours that drive this level of waste.
The quality of data around food waste, as with much of waste data, has historically been poor. To this end, WRAP commissioned groundbreaking research in the UK in 2006/7 to act as a baseline to their Love Food Hate Waste campaign. This came up with the alarming statistic that 1/3 of food bought by a UK household was thrown away. Until this time, there had been no comprehensive research, either by food manufacturers, retailers or interest groups, suggesting the importance of government, or some other dis-interested party, taking a lead on the issue.
Back to Basics
There may be a link between the amount of time spent preparing food, and the skill and effort that goes into this, and the amount of food waste produced. This has led to a loss of confidence in the kitchen, with individuals losing basic skills that allow them to cook with leftovers, understand food labeling, including Best Before and Use By, even basic storing. WRAP had found little evidence of best practice storage advice so carried out the research themselves – leading the (surprising for many) conclusion that fruit such as apples and pears are best stored in the fridge wrapped in a plastic cover. However, this has masked a larger trend of less time spent in the kitchen, due to demographic changes. This of course begs the question – how should we use this when trying to reduce food waste? Should we encourage people to cook from scratch as a principle?
Although waste prevention and recycling are clearly separated within the waste hierarchy, there are apparent links between the two when considering food waste. There is an urgent need for legislation to enforce separate food waste collections, not only to ensure it was diverted to anaerobic digestion or composting, but also as it led to greater self awareness around food waste. WRAP research has clearly showed a fall in food waste when separate food waste collections were introduced.
Role of Packaging
Historically, packaging has always been a high priority to the public when asked about priorities for reducing waste. However, as awareness of food waste has grown, a more nuanced position has developed among waste managers. While excess packaging is clearly undesirable, and, within the UK for instance, the Courtauld Commitment has helped reduced grocery packaging by 2.9 million tonnes of waste so far, there is a realization of the importance of food packaging in preserving food and hence reducing food waste.
Making food easily accessible and affordable by many, it could be argued, is one of the crowning achievements of our age. Over the last century, the proportion of household income that is spent on food has plummeted, and there is a direct link to malnutrition and food prices, particularly for children. But does cheap food mean that it is less valued and hence greater wastage? Is the answer expensive food? The evidence from WRAP in the UK is that food waste is still a serious economic issue for households, and underlining the economic case for reducing food waste a major incentive for households, especially as food prices are not entering an era of increase and instability, providing added economic urgency
Different political persuasions often differ in the approaches they take to changing behaviours and food waste is no different. In the UK, the Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement aimed at encouraging major retailers to take responsibility mainly for packaging, later growing to encompass food waste, voluntary and so far has seen a 21% reduction in food waste post-consumer.
Meanwhile Wales (in the UK) effectively banned food waste from landfill. Scotland has ensured that businesses make food waste available for separate collection – again it’s only once you see it, you can manage it. Campaigns like the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste have been successful but measuring food waste prevention, as with all waste prevention, is notoriously difficult. But, people are now widely aware of food waste as an issue – we even see celebrity chefs actively talking about food waste reduction and recipes involving leftovers or food that is about to go off.
There is clearly a balance between food waste and food safety, with a commitment to reducing food waste throughout the retail and catering world, not just at home. By engaging environmental health officers to help deliver this, a potentially conflicting message can be delivered in a nuanced and balanced way. Indeed, environmental health officers in Scotland will be responsible for ensuring that Scottish food businesses present their food waste for separate collection.
Role of Communication
It is worth considering how the message should be communicated, and by whom. The community sector are more trusted by the public than government and the private sector are more effective at imparting personal, deeply held beliefs – the sort of beliefs that need to change if we are to see long term changes in attitudes towards consumption and hence waste production.
Furthermore, communications can engage wider audiences that hold an interest in reducing food waste that is perhaps not primarily environmental. The health and economic benefits of issues and behaviours that also result in food waste prevention may be the prevalent message that fits with a particular audience. So whilst the main aim of a training session might be food waste prevention, this is may not be the external message. And this has wider implications for waste prevention, and how we engage audiences around it.
Municipal authorities tasked with waste prevention will need to engage with new groups, in new ways. They will have to consider approaches previously considered to be beyond their powers to engage new audiences – should they be partnering with public health authorities with an interest in nutrition, or social housing providers that are focused on financial inclusion.
Should waste prevention even be a discipline in itself? After all, across material streams it is a motley assortment of behaviours with different drivers. Furthermore, with the knots that one can tie oneself in trying to measure waste that doesn’t get generated, – therefore doesn’t exist – should we integrate waste prevention in to other socio-economic programmes and position it as an “added benefit” to them?
Note: The article is being republished with the permission of our collaborative partner be Waste Wise. The unabridged version can be found at this link. Special thanks to the author Mike Webster.
Municipalities and organisations are facing a growing problem in disposal and recycling of EPS foam packaging and products. EPS foam (Encapsulated Poly-Styrene) packaging is a highly popular plastic packaging material which finds wide application in packaging of food items, electronic goods, electrical appliances, furniture etc due to its excellent insulating and protective properties. EPS foam (also known as polystyrene) is also used to make useful products such as disposable cups, trays, cutlery, cartons, cases etc. However, being large and bulky, polystyrene take up significant space in rubbish bins which means that bins becomes full more quickly and therefore needs to be emptied more often.
Polystyrene is lightweight compared to its volume so it occupies lots of precious landfill space and can be blown around and cause a nuisance in the surrounding areas. Although some companies have a recycling policy, most of the polystyrene still find its way into landfill sites around the world.
Environmental Hazards of EPS Foam
While it is estimated that EPS foam products accounts for less than 1% of the total weight of landfill materials, the fraction of landfill space it takes up is much higher considering that it is very lightweight. Furthermore, it is essentially non-biodegradable, taking hundreds perhaps thousands of years to decompose.
Even when already disposed of in landfills, polystyrene can easily be carried by the wind and litter the streets or end up polluting water bodies. When EPS foam breaks apart, the small polystyrene components can be eaten by marine organisms which can cause choking or intestinal blockage.
Polystyrene can also be consumed by fishes once it breaks down in the ocean. Marine animals higher up the food chain could eat the fishes that have consumed EPS, thus concentrating the contaminant. It could be a potential health hazard for us humans who are on top of the food chain considering that styrene, the plastic monomer used in manufacturing EPS has been classified by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a possible human carcinogen.
Styrene is derived from either petroleum or natural gas, both of which are non-renewable and are rapidly being depleted, creating environmental sustainability problems for EPS.
Trends in EPS Foam Recycling
Although the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers have reported that the recycling rate for post-consumer and post-commercial EPS in the United States have risen to 28% in 2010 from around 20% in 2008, this value is still lower than most solid wastes. According to USEPA, auto batteries, steel cans and glass containers have recycle rates of 96.2%, 70.6% and 34.2% respectively.
Because it is bulky, EPS foam takes up storage space and costs more to transport and yet yields only a small amount of polystyrene for re-use or remolding (infact, polystyrene accounts for only 2% of the volume of uncompacted EPS foams). This provides little incentive for recyclers to consider EPS recycling.
Products that have been used to hold or store food should be thoroughly cleaned for hygienic reasons, thus compounding the costs. For the same reasons, these products cannot be recycled to produce the same food containers but rather are used for non-food plastic products. The manufacture of food containers, therefore, always requires new polystyrene. At present, it is more economical to produce new EPS foam products than to recycle it, and manufacturers would rather have the higher quality of fresh polystyrene over the recycled one.
The cost of transporting bulky polystyrene waste discourages recyclers from recycling it. Organizations that receive a large amount of EPS foam (especially in packaging) can invest in a compactor that will reduce the volume of the products. Recyclers will pay more for the compacted product so the investment can be recovered relatively easier.
There are also breakthroughs in studies concerning EPS recycling although most of these are still in the research or pilot stage. Several studies have found that the bacteria Pseudomonas putida is able to convert polystyrene to a more biodegradable plastic. The process of polystyrene depolymerization – converting polystyrene back to its styrene monomer – is also gaining ground.
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