Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Sustainability, as we have established many times over, is a prime example of a wicked problem. Wicked problems as defined by Jonathan Pryshlakivsky and Cory Searcy, 2 professors at Ryerson University in Toronto, are “ ill-defined, with an undetermined number of possible approaches to solution, no way to test possible solutions without real-world consequences, and no clear endpoint at which the problem can be said to be solved” (NRES 439: Environment & Sustainable Development).
What this essentially means is that a systems-thinking approach is needed to scrutinize sustainability concerns and formulate solutions that are tailored to their unique context. Ultimately, this requires focusing on solving issues locally as opposed to sweeping one-size-fits-all policies or technologies. Focusing locally while considering insight from global innovation is perhaps the best way to effect change environmentally and socially.
This can seem simple enough in the abstract. In the grand scheme of things, how hard can it be to solve an environmental issue on a hyperlocal scale, like a degraded wetland or a eutrophic stream? As it turns out it can be very challenging despite a small geographic scale. Let’s dig into it with an example.
Food waste is a sustainability issue that plagues pretty much every corner of the globe, but it is surprisingly misunderstood--perhaps because it is so dynamic and multi-causal. Every year, my university’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment hosts a conference on a pertinent sustainability topic, and this year Circular Food Systems was the theme. Speakers held webinars on a wide array of topics from “Under-Canopy Cover Crop Planting with Robots” to “How Can We Reduce Waste from Agricultural and Food Systems? The Pivotal Role of Consumers” to “Innovative Products Using Biochar Derived from Agricultural Waste Resources.”
Clearly, there is a lot to unpack under the umbrella of what we call “food waste,” and in any given country or region, the cause of that waste may differ drastically. For instance, in so-called developing countries, the farm and early food supply chain is responsible for relatively more losses due to “financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques as well as storage and cooling facilities” according to the UN Environment Programme. On the other hand, so-called developed nations’ food waste tends to stem from consumer behavior — whether that be the rejection of non-perfect produce, over purchasing, or throwing away “spoiled” ingredients for fear of food safety (UN Environment Programme).
So what would happen if you tried to solve food waste in a developing country by modifying food labels? Or in a developed country by building more cooling and storage facilities?
Sure, these advancements would most likely decrease the absolute amount of food waste being produced, but it also probably wouldn’t make nearly as much of an impact as alternative solutions that directly address the primary areas of concern. In other words, why try to reduce food waste from harvesting by tackling consumer-facing labels when you could target education and support of the farmers themselves? This is the fundamental issue with making broad recommendations on sustainability solutions. No matter how impactful and positive they may seem in theory, their suitability in a local context might not make sense, which is why we need to take a case-by-case approach.
Another way to justify this sort of localized problem-solving in the context of food waste is the costs associated with exporting our waste someplace else. By outsourcing environmental solutions and shipping our waste “away” — whatever that means — this incurs both greenhouse gas emissions from transport and the risk of uncertainty in results (similar to what we saw with the US recycling coalition with China, where much of the supposedly recycled material was simply incinerated). So rather than shipping our food waste elsewhere to have someone else deal with the problem, it is best environmentally and economically to take full, untainted ownership of it.
Karma Trade, a local clothing swap near me, is another stellar example of full life-cycle responsibility. As a small business, they have completely eliminated textile waste in their operations by accepting all clothing donations and partnering with Phoenix, an upcycling education program, and Students Against Fast Fashion, a student-led non-profit collecting clothing donations in residence halls and hosting pop-up events bi-semesterly to discourage students from shopping online. This coalition of local sustainable fashion activists has been imperative to reduce apparel waste in our community — not only by redistributing clothing pieces bound for the landfill but also by educating and activating other students, staff and community to carefully consider the ecological impact of their closet.
In both the case of reducing our carbon footprints draped on our hangers and piled on our plates, acting locally and forming supportive communal relationships has proven to be extremely beneficial. Overall, by maintaining a local scope we can not only effectively mitigate waste by working together closely, but we can also be incentivized to “turn off the tap” of disposable materials that might otherwise end up in our own backyard, for the sake of our friends, family, neighbors and ecosystems.
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