When the government makes a call to action, it is clear that the situation is serious. On September 16th, the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency announced their new goal of cutting food waste in half by the year 2030. With an estimated 133 billion pounds of food wasted annually and an estimated 48.1 million Americans struggling with food insecurity, it is clear that if food waste was reduced, food insecurity wouldn’t be a problem of the magnitude that it is. We’re throwing away food that our neighbors need to survive. But hunger isn’t the only reason that throwing out 25-40% of our food supply is an issue.
How Does So Much Good Food Go to Waste?
It would be easy to assume that neglected leftovers are the main source of food waste, but this isn’t the case; individual consumers are only a portion of the problem. Perfectly good food that has passed its sell-by date is thrown out by the crate at grocery stores. The average restaurant outputs more than 150,000 pounds of garbage each year.
Even farmers are guilty – one California farmer, Harold McLarty, admitted that 35% of his crop never reaches the market due to an imperfect appearance. Americans are conditioned to pick produce with perfect shape and color and as a result, nutritionally equal but aesthetically inferior items are looked over until they ultimately reach the landfill. Shockingly, sometimes perfectly good food is tossed simply because there is too much of it. Salinas Valley, California is the leading producer of salad greens for the US, and is not immune to the consequences of its geographic location. Lettuce grown on the west coast often can’t reach Chicago or New York without spoiling. Most grocery stores need around two weeks to sell products, but it’s challenging to meet that time frame. The result is truckloads of bagged lettuce, much of which not yet having reached its sell-by-date, arriving at landfills by the ton. The ultimate result is that food has become “the single greatest contributor to municipal landfills, according to [the] USDA,” (Aubrey, 2015).
In case the image of mountains of fresh lettuce at landfills, consider these shocking statistics: The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that eighty percent of the nation’s water, ten percent of the energy and forty percent of the land is used to grow food, of which forty percent is never eaten. Even so, many farmers intentionally over-plant their crops out of fear of a shortage for a given contract. As estimated by the NRDC, this surplus planting may be around an average of ten percent, which can result in thousands of pounds of surplus product – wasted.
Food That Lands in Landfills
Even more frightening than the idea that such profound food waste leads to food shortages is that said wasted food creates environmental dangers. While it may seem strange to think that something grown from the land could, when returned to the land(fill), be toxic. But alas, not all decomposition is created equal. Food that is left to decay naturally, whether in the field or in a compost bin, is exposed to naturally present microorganisms that promote aerobic (oxygen-rich) decomposition. Worms and bacteria digest the material in the presence of oxygen, creating carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This gas is naturally present in the atmosphere and is part of the Earth’s natural carbon cycle. In landfills, however, food waste is densely packed and mixed with all kinds of other garbage, which keeps oxygen and microbes out. As the food decays, methane is produced instead of CO2, which is a potent greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, landfills account for nearly twenty percent of all methane emissions, which is why the food waste reduction is on the agenda of the EPA and the USDA!
So, What Can Be Done?
Even though a large portion of food waste isn’t directly on the consumer end, there is a lot that the “average Joe” can do to help redirect trends.
- Compost – It’s easy to make your own compost bin. Org has awesome tips and information about how to start your own composting project. Any food that you compost at home stays out of the landfill – and prevented landfill emissions per five gallons of food scraps is akin to those saved from burning a gallon of gasoline! Since the average consumer wastes about $1600 of food each year, imagine the volume of waste that you will keep out of the garbage can! A little effort can go a long way! If you have your own garden, composted material makes powerful, all-natural fertilizer.
- Separate your trash – you might already be separating your glass, paper, plastic and recycling. With just one, small extra step, it is easier than ever for you to keep landfill deposits low. As many as 180 cities in 18 states offer curbside pickup for food waste. Some cities already require it by law: San Francisco made food waste recycling mandatory in 2009.
- Educate your children – in the 1960’s, littering was commonplace, but government education and advertising initiatives helped change the culture, and the national community helped not only clean up the curbside but also create generational sensitivity to littering. The same can be done with food waste.
- Join a gleaning team – gleaning organizations consist of volunteers to graze farmers’ fields with permission to pick up fresh food that was left behind. Whether the cucumbers and cauliflower were left in the field accidentally or because of aesthetic imperfections, gleaners gather the fresh food, wipe it clean, and redistributed it to food pantries or needy persons in the community.
- Contact your congressmen or mayor – currently only seven states offer tax breaks to growers for donating food. Similarly, by starting composting or food recovery programs, businesses can have a huge impact. But only the government can create tax-deduction incentives for these programs.
- Buy only what is necessary – if you don’t buy food you don’t need, you won’t waste food you don’t eat.
- Buy local – an estimated 90% of Americans can fill their diets with food grown within 100 miles of where they live. Local food doesn’t travel as far, and the time between farm and fork is shorter. With longer storage time, there is less of a chance that the food will spoil before it can be sold and consumed.
- Buy ugly – aesthetics are a huge influence in consumer purchases. We are wired to choose the prettiest produce. Apples with blemishes and strangely shaped potatoes are just as delicious and healthy as their beauty-queen counterparts, though. By choosing to buy the aesthetically imperfect items, you can help keep them out of the landfills.
- Become an inventor – The Alaskan Brewing Company developed a first-of-its-kind biomass steam boiler, which uses spent grain from the brewery to provide fuel. It is estimated that the boiler can provide at least a 60% reduction in fuel oil use in the first year, with projected growth. Over ten years, this can amount to savings of 1.5 million gallons of oil in the first ten years!
- Talk – knowledge is the first step toward action. Part of the food waste epidemic is that people aren’t aware of the problem or their roles in it. As awareness spreads, trends change, and challenges can be overcome.
Don’t underestimate the power of the individual – your efforts can have a huge influence on the people around you. Yes, you can help make the world a better place!
Aubrey, Allison. (Sept 2015). It’s Time To Get Serious About Reducing Food Waste, Feds Say. National Public Radio: The Salt. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/16/440825159/its-time-to-get-serious-about-reducing-food-waste-feds-say
Aubrey, Allison. (June 2015) Landfill of Lettuce: Why Were These Greens Tossed Before Their Time?. National Public Radio: The Salt. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/06/16/414667913/landfill-of-lettuce-what-happens-to-salad-past-its-prime
Aubrey, Allison. (June 2015). To Tackle Food Waste, Big Grocery Chain Will Sell Produce Rejects. National Public Radio: The Salt. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/06/17/414986650/to-tackle-food-waste-big-grocery-chain-will-sell-produce-rejects
Feeding America. (2015). Food Waste in America. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.feedingamerica.org/about-us/how-we-work/securing-meals/reducing-food-waste.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
Feinauer, JJ. (June 2015). Eating locally is actually pretty easy, and that’s good news for reducing food waste. Deseret News National. [Online]. Retrieved from http://national.deseretnews.com/article/4768/eating-locally-is-actually-pretty-easy-and-thats-good-news-for-reducing-food-waste.html
Recycling Works Massachusetts. (2015). Food Waste. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.recyclingworksma.com/how-to/materials-guidance/composting-food-waste/
Shreeves, Robin. (Dec 2008). Compost vs Landill: Does it Really Make a Difference? Sustainablog. [Online]. Retrieved from http://sustainablog.org/2008/12/compost-vs-landfill-does-it-really-make-a-difference/
Witkiewics, Kay. (Aug 2013). Sustainable Uses of Spent Grain. Craft Beer Muses. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.craftbeer.com/craft-beer-muses/sustainable-uses-of-spent-grain