Waste has never been the sexiest of topics but it certainly made headlines in 2016. The issue of food waste in particular has taken centrestage in many countries around the world, while Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 debacle has drawn attention to the need to come up with viable solutions to how we dispose of our electronic gadgets.
Poop power in the Netherlands and Vietnam’s protests against pollution also made it to the top five stories on waste this year.
1. Cyanide-contaminated wastewater kills of fish and livelihoods in Vietnam
The shocking sight of some 115 tonnes of dead fish washed up on the shores of central Vietnam in April this year stole headlines as a classic case of nature versus industrialisation.
At the outset, evidence pointed to the release of toxic chemicals at Vung Ang bay that were then carried down the coastline, killing fish and seabirds, devastating the fishing and tourism industries, and sickening locals who had consumed the fish. In a rare display of anger, Vietnamese living in affected areas and major cities alike held protests and demonstrations for well over a month.
After weeks of denial Taiwanese-owned Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation confessed and apologised, offering US$500 million in compensation. The company had been building what was to be Asia’s largest steel mill, though its opening has now been postponed indefinitely.
2. Europe says no to food waste
After a long and vigorous grassroots campaign, activists were vindicated when the French parliament passed into law a ruling that makes it illegal for supermarkets to destroy or throw away food that is still fit for human consumption. The law also makes it easier for food producers to donate surplus food.
Since February, supermarkets with over 4,000 square feet of shop space must sign donation contracts with charities or food banks, or face a fine. They are also forbidden from deliberately damaging edible food in order to deter people who forage in the supermarkets’ bins for food. French councillor Arash Derambarsh was quoted in The Guardian saying that the next move is to have the entire European Union adopt such a law.
Italy followed suit half a year later with its own food waste laws by making it easier for food producers to donate foods that have been mislabelled or are past their sell-by date as long as they are still fit for human consumption.
On the other hand supermarkets selling excess or unwanted produce have sprung up in the UK and Denmark this year. The Real Junk Food Project has opened near the city of Leeds and allows shoppers to take groceries home on a “pay as you feel” basis.
At the global level, the World Resources Institute has served up the first-ever global food wastage standards to help governments, companies and other organisations keep track of how much food they are throwing away.
3. Samsung draws fire for Galaxy Note 7 smartphone
The enthusiasm that greeted the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 was very quickly extinguished when the phone was reported to be prone to overheating and literally bursting into flames.
The model has now been cancelled with Samsung issuing a global recall for all 4.3 million devices in existence. Environmental group Greenpeace issued a statement urging Samsung to “set an example to the industry” and recover and reuse the minerals in the smartphones which include some 20 metric tonnes of cobalt and one tonne of silver for a start.
The electronics giant has so far said it will dispose of the phones but is also “reviewing possible options that can minimise the environmental impact of the recall in full compliance with relevant local environmental regulations”.
One barrier to recycling is that the smartphones cannot be transported as they are considered a safety hazard and prohibited from air transport. The second is that the Galaxy Note 7 was designed to have its battery glued to its case, making refurbishing or repairment difficult.
The irony of it all? Samsung won the 2016 Design for Recycling Award from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries for its eco-friendly Curved Full HD TV earlier this year.
4. Good riddance to bad rubbish
We use more plastic disposables than we know what to do with and 2016 has seen a number of countries, organisations and individuals aiming to eliminate their use entirely or ensure they are returned to the circular economy.
The US Department of Agriculture is challenging the very notion of plastic by unveiling this year an edible plastic film that could be used in packaging one day.
On the other hand, France has become the world’s first country to bid plastic plates, utensils and cups au revoir. By 2020, disposable tableware must be 50 per cent composed of biologically sourced materials that can be composted within the home. By 2025, the figure must be 60 per cent. The French Association of Health and Environment reports that France throws away 4.73 billion plastic cups each year.
In Singapore, the ministry announced that it will soon be introducing regulations on disposable packaging. The country’s non-governmental organisation Zero Waste SG has meanwhile called on the government to levy a plastic bag fee to discourage their use while across the Pacific Ocean, California has banned plastic bags while imposing a fee for paper or reusable bags.
5. Tackling the Netherlands’ poop problem
The issue of livestock manure has been raising a bit of a stink in the Netherlands, where agriculture accounts for 10 per cent of the Netherlands’ greenhouse gas emissions and the livestock industry contributes 74 million tonnes of manure yearly.
Dutch dairy collective FrieslandCampina is working to change this through a new project called Jumpstart, according to a report on The Guardian. Launched this year, it aims to get 1,000 large farms to deploy on-site anaerobic digesters to break down the dung into biogas to produce electricity, while other machines will extract nitrates and phosphates to create fertiliser.
Anaerobic digesters will be leased to the farmers who will in turn sell the power they make to the grid for a fixed price for the next 12 years. The Dutch government has pledged 150 million euros to the programme.
This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 12 categories.