Can 'waste reclamation' change the way we think about food sources?

Reclaimed water, when properly treated, can irrigate crops and may even provide certain nutrients. See more green science pictures.
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We don't like to think of refuse or sewage together with our food sources. But indeed, society has found ways to address the problem of waste by recycling it back into our food supply. An undeniable "yuck factor" always underlies such a process, but if we can distance ourselves from the psychological distaste, perhaps waste reclamation can make a significant impact and change the way we think about food sources.

One way waste reclamation can do that is through the use of food waste for livestock feed. It's a great way to reduce waste that would end up in a landfill, and it can also reduce the resources needed to produce new feed. However, it's not as easy as collecting food scraps and throwing it into a trough. In the United States, state and local regulations apply, requiring proper processing of the scraps to make it safe for animal consumption. Federal regulations require boiling the scraps if they contain meat. So, if done properly, we can safely give food waste to animals meant for human consumption -- and it even results in sweeter meat [source: McDermott]. In fact, pigs, as natural garbage rummagers, have been doing this for millennia.

The process of turning our food waste into livestock feed to be food again allows a significant distance that many people don't consider it gross to think about. However, another form of waste reclamation with a much bigger "yuck factor" is water recycling. The nickname for one such process says it all: "toilet-to-tap." We don't like to think that the water in our glass recently came from someone else's toilet. But studies indicate that properly treated wastewater is just as safe as water from the tap. And several U.S. cities supplement their potable water supply with treated wastewater.

What's less distasteful is using reclaimed water for crop irrigation. Wastewater used for food crop irrigation has higher treatment requirements than water used for non-food crops. Actually, recycled water could contain a higher amount of certain nutrients important for crop irrigation, which the Environmental Protection Agency claims may reduce the need for fertilizers [source: EPA]. For instance, treated wastewater is usually high in nitrogen and phosphorus. However, fertilizers are specially formulated to meet given nutrient needs, whereas treated wastewater is not. The wastewater might meet one nutrient requirement but be deficient or excessive in another.

Whenever wastewater is used, however, we reduce our dependence on fresh, potable water, freeing it up for other use and leading us to increased environmental sustainability. For lots more information on environmentally friendly options, see the links on the next page.

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  • Barringer, Felicity. "As 'Yuck Factor' Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows From Taps." New York Times. Feb. 9, 2012. (April 5, 2012)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Feed Animals." Environmental Protection Agency. Last updated Feb. 17, 2012. (April 5, 2012)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Water Recycling and Reuse: The Environmental Benefits." Environmental Protection Agency. (April 5, 2012)
  • McDermott, Mat. "Food Waste Turned into Pig Feed in Japan, Results in Sweeter Meat." July 23, 2008. (April 5, 2012)
  • National Research Council. "4: Soil, Crop, and Ground Water Effects." National Research Council. The National Academies Press. 1996. (April 5, 2012)
  • York, David W., et al. "Safety and Suitability of Recycled Water for Irrigation of Edible Crops." WateReuse Symposium 23, Dallas, Texas. September 2008. (April 5, 2012)