There’s an old, maybe slightly racist, and not particularly funny joke that goes like this: Why did the Irish banana factory go out of business? Because they kept throwing out the bent ones.
But in the ABC’s new three-part documentary War on Waste, presenter Craig Reucassel discovers there are, in fact, Australian banana processing facilities throwing out all the bent bananas.
That’s because supermarket cosmetic standards have determined that lady finger bananas, unlike most varieties, must be straight. At the same time, processing facilities for other varieties of bananas — the ones apparently meant to be bent — are throwing out the straight ones.
What happens to the majority of discarded bananas? Almost all go to waste.
That’s just one of the many surprising discoveries made by Reucassel in the series, which takes a look at Australia’s relationship to waste.
“I don’t think people necessarily know that there’s a waste problem, but they instinctively feel that we’re really wasting a lot,” Reucassel says.
“I’m not an expert, nor am I a zero-waste warrior. I would say I’m somebody who is distressed by the amount of waste that a family of five produces.”
Reucassel is best known for his work as part of the satirical group The Chaser, and more recently on comedic consumer affairs show The Checkout, but he was instantly interested in the opportunity to host the show and learn more about Australia’s waste.
So just how big is our big waste problem?
The series reveals all kinds of worrying facts and statistics, but few that hit home as hard as the revelation that the waste produced by Australia is growing by 8 per cent each year. That’s double the rate of our population growth, and approximately 52 mega tonnes of waste a year.
The reasons for that drastic increase are myriad and complex — from our increasing obsession with food, to our national prosperity, to global economic factors.
“Nowadays we’re such a throwaway consumer society. We constantly just buy new things and chuck them away,” Reucassel says.
“The global production cycles mean that products are made so much cheaper. If you’ve got a $7 toaster, as we do nowadays, there’s almost no value in that.
“And we have higher labour costs in Australia than where that toaster was manufactured, so to fix a toaster costs a lot of money, but to buy a new one is just $7.”
There’s also the issue of our plastic bag usage, which is gaining plenty of social and political attention right now.
Australia currently uses around 5 billion lightweight plastic shopping bags each year, and there’s a major public push to reduce that number. Last month, Waleed Aly started a petition calling on the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia to join all other Australian states in banning the bags. The petition currently has 130,000 supporters.
Reucassel believes those three states will soon enough jump on the “ban the bag” bandwagon, but says there are still loopholes in states that do have such a ban.
There’s also the issue of food waste — Australians are throwing out an incredible 20 per cent of groceries purchased each year.
“Throughout the show we interacted with a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge on this issue, as well as a lot of people who are coming to it for the first time and didn’t think they had a real interest,” Reucassel says.
“And it’s been fascinating to see those people think, ‘Wow, I can do this, this and this’, and really change their habits and their ways.”
But tackling the waste problem requires not just individual actions, but smart policy decisions. Reucassel says Australia now has a decent curbside recycling system, but more systems need to be established to empower Australians to reduce their waste.
“It’s about using the existing resources well,” he says. “With an aluminium can, if you throw that in the bin and it gets buried in landfill, that’s a massive waste of resources. It takes more energy, money, greenhouse gases, to dig up new aluminium and make it into a can, when it could be recycled for years and years and years.”
Reucassel realised just how complex the waste issue is while making the show, but of all his discoveries, none shocked him as much as the fact that tonnes upon tonnes of perfectly good fresh produce is thrown away because it fails to meet some arbitrary cosmetic standard. Like everything in this space, it raises complicated questions about how societies are consuming.
“There’s a really complex question about it — is it the consumer’s desire, is it the supermarkets, is it a feedback loop between them?
“What’s led to this situation that we have so much edible food being thrown away? What’s led to that expectation of the perfect banana or the perfect apple?”
War on Waste airs on tonight, May 16 at 8.30pm.
This article was first published on The Daily Review.
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