The problem of waste management has changed over time and now requires a systemic solution that includes harnessing waste for good
Waste is big business. Councils introduced dustbin collections as part of their public health function early last century, when waste disposal then meant tipping into a hole or the sea; anything to get rid of it. We now call this pollution.
From the 1930s scientists argued that waste reduction would follow from improved microbiological skills and management. Food rotting on farms, ships, quaysides and shelves was the rationale for agrichemicals.
But as new ways to tackle waste have been developed new forms of waste have appeared. I was shocked by how bad things were when working on the Sustainable Development Commission report on government's dealing with supermarkets.
Retailers proclaim good intentions, and have reduced their waste, but consumers are still throwing out 6.7 million tonnes of food and 5.6 million tonnes of packaging. Food is a fifth of our domestic waste.
Some 90% of households don't believe they waste much food, yet a fifth of our climate change emissions are food-related.
Some argue this madness is down to attitudes. My mother used to say: "If you'd gone through the war, you young people would be more thrifty about daily practices."
But blaming consumers doesn't help. If bogofs and price promotions entice them to over-buy, who's really to blame?
The answer, of course, is everyone. We all need to collectively recognise that waste is systemic. We need systemic solutions too.
Science teaches us that waste is merely a transfer from one state to another. Besides prevention, waste can be harnessed, hence the belated interest in farm methane generation.
As I listened this week to pig farmer protests at rising feed prices, was I alone in thinking we need to revisit the draconian rules on food waste and pigs introduced after foot and mouth disease outbreaks? After all, as Chairman Mao once said, the pig is a walking fertiliser factory.
The new madness is that cereals are grown for pigs which ought to be for humans. Some 60% of UK cereals go to animals. If that isn't waste, what is? For ecological and health reasons, we need to reduce meat and dairy anyway.
So let's welcome renewed interest in waste, but stop trivialising or moralising it.n
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University