Waste production is at an all time high around the world. Every day, 3.5 million tons of solid waste is produced – ten times more than a century ago. As time marches on, this figure is only set to rise. Society had actually figured out how to bring it back down to a sustainable level decades ago – only to abandon the best model we had for the sake of convenience.
The Milkman Model
Milk delivery might not be hugely popular anymore – but some of us are old enough to remember waking up to fresh milk delivered to our doorsteps.
Milk deliveries cut down on waste in a number of ways; milk floats ran on electricity, and bottles were collected for reuse or recycling. There was a money saving incentive to return your bottles, too, which kept the process working smoothly.
And they were light-years ahead of their time.
The same subscription model is alive and well today – for streaming services and digital news – and while physical products can be ordered on a specific schedule, the transaction itself is still very one way. Products are delivered over land, sea and air with carbon-emitting vehicles, delivered in copious amounts of packaging – and the products themselves are generally disposable in nature.
Packaging and plastics can be recycled, of course. But there’s an upper limit to the number of times cardboard can be usefully recycled, and plastic recycling has become saturated, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of plastic waste.
Could adopting the milkman model for everyday items (fruit, vegetables and other items commonly packaged in supermarkets) reduce waste?
Without a doubt. But the knock on this would have on modern convenience culture – getting what you want when you want it – would probably be too great for consumers and businesses to tolerate.
What Else Can We Do with Waste?
We don’t just have to recycle waste – especially when it can’t be recycled any more. We could use waste for energy production. In some developing economies, waste is used as fuel to create electricity. By burning mixed waste in huge furnaces, turbines and generators are driven to generate power.
Environmentally and ecologically speaking, this practice takes with one hand and gives with the other. Sure, the waste is gone – but the atmosphere pays the price as acrid clouds of pollution are pumped out. Whether this is better on balance is still up for debate, although it’s clear this isn’t an ideal solution.
The future of waste to energy could be very different, though. Scientists might have developed a special strain of bacteria that can digest carbon-rich waste and make biogas out of it.
In 2018, Professor John McGeehan, a biologist at the University of Plymouth, discovered bacteria that digest plastic, with no harmful byproducts (unless you consider the CO2 output). It’s still not perfect, but the development of a solution needs these kinds of steps to happen – and one day, we hope to be supporting a waste management solution that’s ideal for the environment.