What a Waste
01 June 2005

After guiltily throwing away a half used carton of soup last night, I woke up this morning to the headline that Britons discard £20 billion worth of food every year. Between a third and two-fifths of all produce is binned-by producers because it doesn't meet supermarket standards, by retailers because it has passed its 'sell-by date' or by consumers like me who have shopped unwisely or too well. The money we spend on producing or buying food we don't need could lift 150 million people out of starvation. The value of the food each Briton throws away each day is more than the sum half the world's population has to live on each day.

Waste, like obesity, is a by-product of the consumer society. Packaging, glass, disposable nappies, tyres, yesterday's miracle gadgets: the UK generates enough rubbish every two hours to fill London's Albert Hall. In Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, half of this waste is recycled: in Britain less than a fifth.

Meanwhile the greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere by factories, power stations, cars and domestic heating are changing the face of the Earth as the climate changes, droughts increase, storms and floods intensify, sea levels rise and polar ice melts.

'Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,' wrote Wordsworth. Today, he might have written 'lay waste our world'. Of course, the throwaway ethos is partly a result of a different style of life. 'Make and mend' takes time: 'buy and bin' suits our hectic lives today. Tighter food standard regulations, with 'use-by' dates on the package, may protect us from food poisoning but undoubtedly increase wastage.

And what about relationships? Sex as a commodity; multiple short-term partnerships; the divorce and abortion rates all suggest that 'make and mend' has lost its grip here too. Our society throws away lives and relationships every day. This is not to deny the pain involved in a marriage break-up or in many decisions to terminate a pregnancy, but to question the values we take into our relationships.

According to Friends of the Earth, if everyone in the world was as wasteful as we are in Britain, we would need eight planets to supply all our wants. I wonder if it's too late to fish that soup out of the bin?