National Geographic: The End of Trash (2020)

By Robert Kunzig and Luca Locatelli

I was so delighted when the National Geographic devoted its March 2020 issue to waste, including its front page spread and mesmerising images from Luca Locatelli. I actually found out about it from following Locatelli on Instagram, and immediately ran out to the newsagent to buy a copy.

Food waste is just one conduit in a myriad of waste streams that stems from our exploitation of the Earth’s resources and ends up as environmental pollution. The following diagram illustrates that of the 100 billion tonnes of raw materials harvested each year, 67% becomes irretrievable waste, and only 9% is reused, or ‘circled back’.

Image by National Geographic Staff. Source: Circular Economy

The article explores this ‘circular economy’, defined as reusing materials to make new things or recapturing resources to cycle back into the economy, instead of stripping the planet of more raw materials. Examples of this include turning food waste into compost to help grow new produce instead of digging up peatlands.

Kunzig and Localetti delve into industries such as metals, energy and clothing to find where people were already using circular solutions, but conclude that embedding a worldwide circular economy would need a global effort on the same scale of the industrial revolution.

I flicked through the pages to find the food waste section, and discovered some inspiring innovations and fun anecdotes, but also some glaring gaps and unfinished business.

Inside the March issue of the National Geographic magazine The End of Trash

The opening line was promising: “People can’t go circular on their own; the system has to change. But individual choices do matter.” This could even be the tagline of my own blog! However, I felt a dearth of system-change ideas, especially for household-level food waste.

Some ideas were fascinating, for example, using artificial intelligence to record food waste. A London start-up Winnow has inserted smart garbage cans into 1,300 restaurants that weigh and take a photo of food that enters the bin, and estimates the financial cost of the waste for the business. “When you start measuring the problem, you start managing it”, its CEO says. Winnow says that its clients have cut their waste in half as a result.

But what about this other half? WRAP, the UK-based Waste and Resources Action Plan, has also hit a brick wall when it comes to reducing household waste. Kunzig interviews its global director who admits although progress was made with its campaign Love Food, Hate Waste, reducing food waste by a fifth – an admirable feat – the vast haul of food waste in the UK has been left unaddressed. What can we do to solve the rest?

Kunzig recognises that “no one ever thought common sense alone would end food waste”. I agree, as educational and awareness campaigns like WRAP’s can only go so far. But I do not think AI will save us completely either. Technology no doubt will help a great deal – think also of the mobile apps Olio and Too Good To Go – but system change means more than dealing with food waste after it has been created.

In the hospitality sector, one Dutch restaurant chain InStock improvises its menu based on surplus or “rescued” food. Its owner makes a great point, which is “The whole supply chain, including the customer—everybody wants everything in stock. We’re just spoiled, basically. The companies don’t want to sell ‘no.’ So they’ll always have a little bit too much.”

Was this the beginning of a discussion about system change? Is a solution to change our cultural norms of expecting surplus food? Kunzig sadly does not go further into this line of thought and moves on to the next section.

The solutions proposed in the food waste section of this article are based in the hospitality sector. Large-scale technologies are important, but most food waste comes from household level.

I would have liked to have seen more innovations around household food waste. Where does food waste go after it has been collected by the council? Are there opportunities there for the circular economy? Are there any individuals around the world who have embedded the circular economy into their own homes regarding food waste?

Overall, I was so pleased that food waste made it into this article, and that more attention is being paid to the unsexy subject of waste in general. Hopefully this issue of the National Geographic will inspire more action to look at root causes of waste, as well as solutions to deal with it after it has been made. Maybe we will all have AI garbage cans in our homes one day, but to solve the food waste problem completely we will need social and cultural revolutions as well as technological ones.

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

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