The Kritic

One person’s trash is another person’s breakfast.

One person’s trash is another person’s breakfast.Sascha Kohlmann CC BY

Each year, Australian households throw out some A$8 billion worth of edible food, with those aged 18 to 24 reported as the biggest wasters.

However, this household figure is likely far outweighed by the value of food waste generated by commercial retailers. In truth, our youth are but one contributor to what could be deemed a massive market failure.

But some people are looking for different ways to approach food and waste. Over three months I interviewed 21 young environmentalists from Melbourne, exploring how and why they began “dumpster diving”: searching waste bins for food.

While there are many reasons why someone might choose – or be forced by economic circumstances – to investigate trash, the young people I spoke to cited a range of motivations: to reduce waste; to create a sense of community; and because they did not want to support unsustainable food markets.

Dumpster divers, like these young Montrealers, are all over the world.

Dumpster divers, like these Montrealers, are all over the world.Stéphanie Vé CC BY-NC-SA

Understanding dumpster diving

Food waste is estimated to cost the Australian economy A$20 billion a year (this includes commercial and industrial sector waste, as well as waste disposal charges).

The Australian government is developing legislation with the aim of halving food wastage by 50%. Effective solutions could result in tremendous savings and considerable environmental benefit.

While dumpster diving is obviously not a wholesale solution to the problem of food waste, young consumers’ changing attitudes are an important part of our national conversation.

My findings show that Melbourne’s young environmentalists regularly visit dumpsters at vegetable markets, supermarkets and bakeries.

My interviewees were motivated to dumpster dive by a range of factors besides the obvious gain of free food and goods. Framing the deed as economic necessity fails to capture a variety of incentives.

It’s worth noting that the limited demographic I studied means these results cannot be associated with those who dumpster-dive out of genuine need. Rather, those I interviewed wanted to reduce food waste and avoid supporting the “mainstream” food economy. One young environmentalist told me:

I never in my childhood and afterwards had a shortage of food in my life. I think the reason that I started [dumpster diving] and one of the main reasons that I continue it is because I think it’s environmentally a good thing to do […] I am not buying things. I am not contributing to unsustainable food production.

Several participants said they refused to buy from companies with unacceptable environmental credentials. For them, dumpster diving is not an occasional activity but a planned and ongoing way of life. They attempt to create an alternative “free” food economy based on minimising waste and sharing resources.

However, members of the group are aware of opposition to the practice. Several had experienced confrontations with retail staff, security guards and members of the public. One interviewee said:

I think they [supermarket authorities] worry about losing business [as] people get food from their bins, not from the supermarket; it’s a part of their worry as well. They ask me to leave. I ask, ‘Why?’ It’s ridiculous. Why can’t they let me have this food that will probably end up in landfill?

Feel-good and fun

Dumpster divers are also motivated by the emotional bonds they form as a group. They’re part of a broader subculture of “alternative” consumers, who commonly share food; they describe themselves as “a community of free food people”.

Several expressed a “feel good” and “fun” dimension to the activity. Acquiring unpredictable “finds” created a sense of novelty and surprise, and a feeling that the rewards were “worked for”. They mirror more traditional shopping habits like “treasure-hunting”, or the thrill of finding a bargain.

Retailers’ perspective

Businesses have a mixed attitude towards dumpster divers.

Businesses have a mixed attitude towards dumpster divers.Bruce Flingerhood CC BY

From a retailer’s perspective, dumpster diving presents a different face. Although one interviewee accused retailers of protecting their profits, there’s also the risk of a dumpster diver being injured, or getting sick from unsafe food.

While some companies actively support or are empathetic towards dumpster divers, others call for the prosecution of divers whom they believe to be stealing. Diving is illegal in many developed countries such as Germany and New Zealand (although prosecutions are rare).

Everybody involved in the food chain has a role to play in reducing food waste. Retailers can work to optimise their supply chain, reduce the amount of produce on display or accept less-than-perfect produce from farmers. Products approaching expiring should be heavily discounted, or donated to charities (although food banks aren’t a panacea).

We as consumers should also be willing to adjust our expectations of perfect produce, something explored in the ABC program War on Waste and campaigns like the United States’ Ugly Fruit and Veg.

More fundamentally, we need to change our attitude to food. Thinking about why and how we create waste and exploring different perspectives – like dumpster diving – are all part of this process.

The ConversationUltimately, the purpose of dumpster diving is to highlight and provide an alternative to the food waste embedded in everyday business models. At the end of the day, the way forward is for each of us to consider and reflect on our own habits of consumption.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
By Chamila Perera, Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology
Read the original article.

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A white fleck of plastic is engulfed by a coral polyp.Source: Alex Seymour, Duke Univ.

Scientists have long known that marine animals mistakenly eat plastic debris because the tiny bits of floating plastic might look like prey. But a new Duke University study of plastic ingestion by corals suggests there may be an additional reason for the potentially harmful behaviour. Visual cues, such as a resemblance to prey, don’t factor into the appeal, the researchers noted, because corals have no eyes.

This new study suggests there may be an additional reason for the potentially harmful behaviour: The plastic just plain tastes good.

“Corals in our experiments ate all types of plastics but preferred unfouled microplastics by a threefold difference over microplastics covered in bacteria”, said Austin S. Allen, a PhD student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “This suggests the plastic itself contains something that makes it tasty.”

“When plastic comes from the factory, it has hundreds of chemical additives on it. Any one of these chemicals or a combination of them could be acting as a stimulant that makes plastic appealing to corals”, said Alexander C. Seymour, a geographic information systems analyst at Duke’s Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Centre, who co-led the study with Allen.

Further research will be needed to identify the specific additives that make the plastic so tasty to corals and determine if the same chemicals act as feeding stimulants to other marine species.

Microplastics, tiny pieces of weathered plastic less than 5 millimetres in diameter, began accumulating in the oceans four decades ago and are now ubiquitous in the marine environment. They pose a major threat to foraging sea animals, including many species of birds, turtles, fish, marine mammals and invertebrates.

Because plastic is largely indigestible, it can lead to intestinal blockages, create a false sense of fullness or reduce energy reserves in animals that consume it. “About eight percent of the plastic that coral polyps in our study ingested was still stuck in their guts after 24 hours”, said Allen.

It can also leach hundreds of chemical compounds into their bodies and the surrounding environment. The biological effects of most of these compounds are still unknown, but some, such as phthalates, are confirmed environmental estrogens and androgens – hormones that affect sex determination.

Allen and Seymour conducted their two-part study using corals collected from waters off the North Carolina coast. In their first experiment, they offered small amounts of eight different types of microplastics to the corals to see if the animals would eat the bite-sized bits versus other similarly sized items offered to them, such as clean sand.

“We found that the corals ate all of the plastic types we offered and mostly ignored sand”, Allen said.

In the second experiment, they put groups of coral into separate feeding chambers. Each group was offered the same amount of “food” — weathered plastics — for a 30-minute period, but some groups got only particles of unfouled microplastics while others got only particles of weathered microplastics fouled with a bacterial biofilm. This experiment verified that the corals would eat both types of plastic, but preferred the clean type by a three-to-one margin.

The researchers hope their findings will encourage scientists to explore the role taste plays in determining why marine organisms ingest microplastics.

“Ultimately, the hope is that if we can manufacture plastic so it unintentionally tastes good to these animals, we might also be able to manufacture it so it intentionally tastes bad”, Seymour said. “That could significantly help reduce the threat these microplastics pose.”

Allen and Seymour’s peer-reviewed study was published October 23, 2017 in the online edition of journal Marine Pollution Bulletin. You can access the study free of charge until December 10, 2017 by clicking here.

Daniel Rittschof, Norman L. Christensen Professor of Environmental Sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School, co-authored the new paper. Funding for the research came from the Oak Foundation. Allen and Seymour both earned Master of Environmental Management degrees from the Nicholas School in 2016.

CITATION: “Chemoreception Drives Plastic Consumption in a Hard Coral,” Austin S. Allen, Alexander C. Seymour, Daniel Rittschof, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Oct. 23, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.07.030