Food recycling: the best kind of leftovers

| May 28, 2013

Imagine this: head to your refrigerator. Remove half the contents. Throw all of that in the trash. It sounds crazy, right?

That’s essentially what we all do, according to a recent report by the Institution for Mechanical Engineers. That’s right: it is estimated that 50% of global food production goes to waste. With nearly one billion people living in hunger throughout the world, this is a frustrating statistic indeed.

Unfortunately, wasted food is just the beginning. As Layla Eplett of Scientific American reports, a vicious cycle means that “waste also becomes food. The burning of trash produces dioxins; the toxic chemical compounds are environmental pollutants that can potentially be harmful to humans” — and find their way into the food that we eat.

Zabaleen sorting through trash in Cairo

Zabaleen have sorted through Cairo’s waste for decades; now they’re set to start turning organic waste into electricity that they’ll be able to sell. From shackdwellersinternational.

Wasted food. Contaminated food. Widespread hunger. There has to be a solution, right?

Some people believe they may have already found the solution: food recycling. The zabaleen (or trash collectors) of Cairo are ahead of their time; they’ve been perfecting the art of food recycling for nearly three quarters of a century.

“Every day, [the zabaleen] collect 60 percent of Cairo’s waste,” reports Eplen. “The 8,000 tons of garbage are brought back to Moqattam, the area of Cairo where the zabaleen reside. There, trash is sorted and managed nearly 80 percent of all waste collected is recycled.”

Eighty percent. Even when it’s eighty percent of sixty percent, it’s a tremendous volume of waste. In fact, it’s “four times the rate of formal solid waste management companies.”

These eco-pioneers are earning increasing national recognition for their work in the area of food recycling, and it’s paying off in other ways as well. As the zabaleen have found, organic waste that isn’t composted can be turned into a clean and renewable energy called biogas.

Compost sign

Cairo’s zabaleen have been practicing for decades what recyclers in America have just started to do: turn organic waste into biogas. More composting signs here.

How does it work? First, you need willing and able organic waste collectors like Cairo’s community of professional garbage collectors. Then you need a biogas reactor. Fortunately, a nonprofit called Solar Cities has installed these highly effective reactors in Cairo.

Then chemistry takes over. According to Epplet’s report, bacteria gets to work breaking down the organic matter via anaerobic digestion. The resulting substance isn’t all fuel, but it’s all useful.

“The majority of what is produced is a slurry that makes an excellent fertilizer. The remainder at the top is biogas, which can be used with any type of propane or natural gas stove.”

Both outcomes are crucial to the food recycling continuum in Cairo. Fertilizer enriches gardens and fields that produce new food, and biogas cleanly and efficiently powers the stoves that cook that food. When food scraps and other organic waste are collected by the zabaleen, the cycle starts all over again.

The zabaleen’s efforts can hardly be called a “trend” since they’ve been collecting and recycling waste for decades. Still, with the added element of biogas reactor technology, others are taking notice and getting involved.

What about those of us outside of Cairo? We can certainly learn a few things from the zabaleen, who also collect inorganic waste and use it to construct everything from solar panels to rugs, quilts, and gift wrap.

Even if you don’t want to take up garbage collection and recycling on a full-time basis like the zabaleen, you can make an effort to consume less and waste less. You can compost. You can contribute to efforts such as those initiated by Solar Cities.

The idea of wasting half of global food production is scary. The idea that people are already doing something about it is heartening.

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Category: Blog Landing Page, Food

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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