The Spoils of Food Waste
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
June 15, 2016
Some of you may remember being shamed into finishing your dinner because there are starving children in Africa. It apparently worked a little; we wasted HALF as much food in the 1970s than we do today (National Institutes of Health). So, the lesson here – for those of you coming to this blog for the ‘quick’ and not the ‘dirty’: get back to shaming yourself and your kids about food waste – and thereby, waste less. That’s it. Done. For those of you who want some dirty details – keep reading.
According to the EPA, in 2013, more than 37 million tons of food waste was sent to landfills. The EPA estimates that food waste is the most prevalent single material in our trash, constituting 21 percent of all municipal solid waste. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that Americans wasted over one third of the produce bought in 2010. A study published in 2011 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization found that, globally, 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted annually – that’s about one-third of all food produced globally!
Excessive food waste is a global issue, but industrialized countries are the primary culprits – and the U.S. takes the cake (and throws most of it in the trash). Farmers, transporters, grocery stores, restaurants, and finally, you (ya know, the one who tossed that slimy lettuce the other day) all contribute to the problem in different ways.
At the Farm & At the Store: According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), more than 6 billion pounds of produce goes unharvested or unsold in the U.S. each year. This is especially poignant as we face increasing threats to crops like droughts, floods and excessive heat.
Why so much waste before the food even gets to us?
Spoiledconsumers = spoiled food: Think about the last time you chose apples at the store – how many did you move to the side because of a slight imperfection? Those ‘bad apple’ rejects will most likely not attract anyone else either before their time is up on the shelf. Some grocers will donate this perfectly edible food to food banks, but the majority is wasted. Our persnickety expectations around having a wall of shiny, happy produce from which to choose have also led farmers to discard or leave unharvested visually imperfect food before it even leaves the farm.
Expiration date obsession: According to the NRDC, most customers require a 10-11 day window on their “use-by” date when choosing a product. This not only leads to excessive waste by grocers, but most large growers over-plant by about 10 percent to make sure they don’t come up short or run out of a product due to delayed distribution or other factors that might lead a grocer to just toss a delivery (NRDC). The kicker is that there are no guidelines around ‘sell-by’ and ‘use-by’ dates; they are arbitrarily chosen by the manufacturer. We are wasting millions of pounds of food based on somebody’s best guess about a food’s edibility lifespan.
At the Table: But, while farmers, grocers, and restaurants all play a role, the surprising and potentially great thing about this issue is that it’s mostly your fault (and mine and everyone else who eats food in an industrialized country). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.S. (FAO), consumers in industrialized countries waste about 222 million tons of food per year; this is about the same amount produced annually for all 44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Why, you may ask, is it potentially great that it’s all our fault? Well, finally we’ve found an environmental issue that doesn’t require a fix from science, technology, infrastructure, or annoying lightbulbs that buzz when you dim them. We don’t need to give anything up! The point here is to give up less. Those of us fortunate enough to buy food when we want food, are clearly getting all we need – it’s just that our eyes are bigger, and more selective than our stomachs. We don’t have to wait for someone to find a solution; it’s simple: waste less food.
But, why should we care?
A tiny portion of food waste is transformed into animal feed, or donated, but a whopping 97% of it ends up in a landfill (EndFoodWasteNow.org). Beyond the issues we face with overflowing landfills, food waste decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen) because it is buried together with mounds of other trash.
This produces methane gas – a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills produced the 3rd highest amount of methane in the U.S., behind gas – the kind we extract by breaking the earth (highest contributor) and the kind that is expelled by farm animals breaking wind (2nd highest contributor – seriously).
Before we even order too much, or in the case of some restaurants, get served way too much – (Cheesecake Factory, I’m talking to you), our food requires fossil fuels and water to get produced, packaged and shipped to us. Additionally, land that could otherwise be used to grow carbon sinks (like forests), is clear cut for farming. Pesticides – that have become so prevalent in our agricultural system – are produced, transported, sprayed on food (polluting our soil and air) – all for naught if the food is never consumed.
Each person in the U.S. wastes about 20 pounds of food per month! But according to Feeding America, in 2014, more than 48 million U.S. households were labeled “food insecure.” All of these people could eat 3 meals a day with the food that is wasted. Moreover, world population is likely to increase by one billion over the next 12 years! We simply won’t have enough food unless we change a few things.
What to do?
Shop and Dine Smarter: Of course, Green and Blue Stuff suggests you buy local and organic whenever possible. Those of you doing this know that your fruit should NOT be shiny and perfect. Believe me, it tastes better when you can see it has not been coated in chemicals and all the flavor has not been bred out of it to make it symmetrical. But if you can’t or won’t spend a little more for organic/local: try shopping for a few days rather than a couple of weeks. Choose those bananas that are super ripe and eat them up in a few days rather than buying the green ones so they can sit on your counter for a few days. If you end up over-shopping, bring your excess to a neighbor, or a food bank before it gets too old. Don’t over-order at restaurants unless you plan to eat the leftovers. If you run a kitchen, try taking away the garbage can from your chefs for a day. One restaurateur did this and his chefs were surprised at how much they saved by being forced to ask before throwing scraps out.
Compost Through Your City/Town: composting allows for aerobic decomposition (no methane!), and keeps organic waste out of the landfill and transforms it into something useful – good growing soil. Check your city’s waste management site for information on organic pick-up (this includes yard waste and food waste). If you live in a big city, it may already available and you just need to separate your organics and place in a bag next to either your garbage or recycle bin and they’ll do the dirty work.
Spread the word: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack notes that public awareness is key – and reminds us of the good ole days (not too long ago) when we didn’t think twice about littering – rolling down our car windows (yes, we used to crank them, like barbarians) and tossing trash out the window while driving down the road was perfectly normal. It’s time to get all “Give a hoot – don’t pollute” on food waste.
Check out the EPAs Food Recovery Challenge site for info and tips: https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food
A French supermarket chain launched a campaign last year to sell what they dubbed “the grotesque apple, and the ridiculous potato.” Stores like this are popping up in the U.S. too: check out Imperfect Produce and Daily Table.
Food digester for your back yard!: http://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/green-cone-solar-food-digester-will-reduce-90-food-waste-your-backyard.html
Orca Machine Eats up Hotel Food Scraps: http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/05/watch-a-giant-orca-machine-eat-up-hotel-food-scraps/
For Restaurants, Food Waste Is Seen As Low Priority. Eliza Barclay. Morning Edition. NPR. Nov 27. 2012. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/11/27/165907972/for-restaurants-food-waste-is-seen-as-low-priority
It’s Time To Get Serious About Reducing Food Waste, Feds Say. Allison Aubrey. Sept. 16, 2015. Morning Edition. NPR. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/16/440825159/its-time-to-get-serious-about-reducing-food-waste-feds-say
To Tackle Food Waste, Big Grocery Chain Will Sell Produce Rejects. Allison Aubrey. NPR. June 17, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/06/17/414986650/to-tackle-food-waste-big-grocery-chain-will-sell-produce-rejects
Food Waste: How We Can Overcome The Alarming Facts And Dire Predictions. By Callie Stewart on May 3, 2016. Food Waste: The Future. http://all-that-is-interesting.com/food-waste