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The extraordinary history of waste

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Waste does not exist in nature — all materials are part of a cycle of use and reuse. When a plant or animal expires, every part of it goes back to nourish something else. In short, there is no such thing as a worthless material in nature — there is no such thing as waste.

The concept of waste is something created by humans to describe the items we create but no longer need and discard. Merriam-Webster defines waste as “refuse from places of human or animal habitation.” The World Book Dictionary defines waste as “useless or worthless material; stuff to be thrown away.”

While it’s safe to say that waste has existed as long as humans have, it’s impossible to pinpoint when the first piece of litter hit the ground. But throughout history we can look back at how waste was generated and handled across cultures and societies all the way up to the present.

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Why cities matter in the food waste fight

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Our cities are facing a growing waste problem. As more and more people leave rural areas for the economic opportunities cities offer, the world increasingly is becoming more urban. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and this is expected to rise to 60 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, the amount of waste generated by cities is mounting alongside population growth. By 2100, the global urban population will be producing three times as much waste as it does today, according to the World Bank. This could create serious physical and fiscal consequences for cities around the world.

While it’s easy to picture these mountains of waste being built of plastic and paper, the most prevalent form of waste is food. In the United States, people throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal and glass.

And this has major impacts on the climate and society. Food loss and waste annually contribute 3.3 gigagrams of carbon dioxide equivalent — or over twice the total emissions of India. If only a quarter of this lost or wasted food across the world was recovered, it could feed as many as 750 million people, according to the United Nations — a shocking stat when presented in the context of global food insecurity and hunger.

Addressing food waste in cities also could help businesses become more competitive, says The World Bank. With more conscientious management and better logistics systems for food and food waste in supermarkets and restaurants, cities will have businesses with modern operations that are able to engage in corporate social responsibility in a way they have been unable to do before.

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