This week we saw Trashed – a hard-hitting film exposé of the global waste crisis and its impact on our world. Food contributes to the problem (our "cheap" meat culture has devalued our diet to such an extent that food is routinely thrown away), but the waste crisis may also reduce the quality of our food. We explain why.
Trashed offers a haunting snapshot of the way in which rubbish is ruining the planet’s finest and most fundamental asset – the natural world. It’s presented and narrated by Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons, who takes us on a journey around the globe, from Britain to Lebanon to the Pacific Ocean, to see the crisis first hand. Just where does all our rubbish go, he asks, and what damage is it doing?
What unfolds is a jaw-dropping sequence that moves between scenes of breathtaking nature to the unimaginable pollution that’s tainting it. The eerie soundtrack couldn’t be more fitting for a film that portrays a world that’s fast becoming one big landfill site.
Waste not, want not
Every year, the film tells us, we throw away 58 billion disposable cups, 200 billion plastic bottles, billions of plastic bags, and billions of tons of household and toxic waste. This human detritus is either dumped in landfill or burnt in incinerators, both of which pose a threat to the environment (more on this later). But how have we got here?
The truth is that we live in an unashamedly consumerist society; the buying of things – things that are usually packaged to the hilt – has become part of the fabric of daily life.
"We produce too much waste", says Will Kirkman, Director of the engineering firm Burdens. "We’ve become profligate by nature; we’ve learnt that it’s OK to waste. We don’t think about the consequences when we throw stuff away".
But what’s the link with factory farming?
Factory farming is partly to blame for the global waste crisis. "Cheap" meat, which is readily available and packaged in layers of squeaky-clean plastic, has helped to cultivate an unthinking, "throwaway" food culture.
Many of us buy more meat than we really need, and then throw it (and its abundant packaging) straight in the bin. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), about a third of all food produced in the world gets lost or thrown away. Much of this food is meat, and much of it goes straight into landfill. In England alone, WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) estimates that we throw away around two million slices of ham every single day.
What’s more, most of us have little idea how the meat we’re eating gets from farm to fork; and if you don’t know where it comes from, it follows that you might have little concern for where it ends up.
Dishing the dirt
So why does all this waste matter? Because, in some cases, the methods of disposal are far from safe, and are affecting the health of humans, animals and our precious planet.
In landfill, chemicals from the putrid, decomposing waste can leach into the ground; methane (a greenhouse gas) is released, threatening human health and heating up the planet; and liquid run-off can seep into rivers and the sea, harming aquatic plants and animals.
Incinerators are also a concern. Fumes released from burning waste, much of it plastic, contain dioxins – noxious chemicals that have been found to build up in humans and animals, and are linked to a multitude of diseases, Trashed claims, from diabetes to cancer.
A lighter note?
The problem might be endemic, Irons concludes, but we can do something about it. It’s true that more and more of us are being exposed to these toxins, either directly through proximity to them, or indirectly through the food we eat. But there is a huge amount that can be done to stop the crisis in its tracks.
We can all consume less and dispose of our rubbish more responsibly. We can become better at recycling plastic, one of the main landfill culprits. And critically for us, we can all ensure that we understand where our food comes from, savour it and waste less.
As Jeremy Irons says: "...we can all be the agents of such change; we don’t need to wait to be told by politicians what to do".