(Costing the earth, BBC Radio 4, 9.9.2013; podcast available)
There could be around two billion tonnes of waste sitting in landfills. In the Flemish half of Belgium quite close to the Dutch border, at a conventional-looking landfill site for rubbish, contractors are starting to mine the landfill. "We believe that it contains materials and energy that we can give back to society." There are a lot of usable materials which can be recovered.
In Victorian times food was fed to pigs and other stock, human waste was used on the land to grow better crops, things were repaired, reused and very little was thrown away; many small industries and individuals were involved in these trades, so dumps uncovered today contain bits of pottery, porcelain, bone and ashes and little else. Looking forward to the 1960s and onwards waste starts to include card and paper waste, plastics and not so much food (in this post-war period). By the eighties we were very profligate as a society and household and industrial, particularly construction, waste went through the roof. Or into holes in the ground.
By the eighties it was said that the best legacy your distant, rich relative could leave you was a hole in the ground, such were the profits to be had from charging people to fill it up with rubbish. With landfill taxes and greater recycling (and a global recession), our society has today started to come to its senses and we waste less than we did thirty years ago. Scarcity of materials and resources today is leading us to value what we once threw away without thinking. It is estimated that over five thousand million tonnes of waste exist in Europe.
Rubber, plastics, wood, metal, precious metal, all can be reclaimed. Some layers contain paper, card, textiles and old food residues and light plastic films and have potential as fuel extracted using gas plasma technology which doesn't produce further landfill waste.
However, within a couple of weeks of the BBC Radio 4 Costing the earth programme covering landfill mining, Tesco (heard of them?) announced that more than two-thirds of produce grown for bagged salads, just under half of bakery goods and four out of ten apples are thrown away.
Tesco, working in conjunction with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), calculated the food waste "footprint" for 25 of the supermarket's best-selling products - looking at what was wasted both inside its supermarkets and in the homes of its customers. The retail giant admitted that 28,500 tonnes of food waste were generated in its stores and distribution centres in the first six months of 2013. 'Sell by' and 'Use by' dates on so many foods must have an impact on consumer behaviour; 'Buy one, get one free' offers only compound over-buying and discarding of 'out-of-date' food.
It also estimated that uneaten food costs families about £700 a year each. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization director-general Jose Graziano da Silva: "In addition to the environmental imperative, there is a moral one: we simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste, when 870 million people go hungry every day".