You might have heard statistics shared on how prevalent food waste is in the U.S. – food waste generated in cafeterias (like at schools) and about high quantities of food waste being routed to landfills. You’ve probably thought, like I have, “what’s the big deal? It’s food… it will break down eventually”. That’s partially correct, but there are scientific reasons why diverting food from landfills and reducing food waste is a better environmental outcome.
Food waste in the United States represents an astonishing estimated 30-40% of the food supply (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Food waste happens at many different stages in the supply chain – on farms where certain crops are deemed as surplus and are not directed to vendors, in stores where certain foods do not meet the cosmetic standards for sale, as well as in our own homes when we don’t use up food items before they spoil or simply over-buy. You may have seen this “Life of a Strawberry” commercial (embedded below) on television highlighting farm-to-grocery store-to-refrigerator-to-trash cycle. I’ve been guilty of tossing spoiled produce so many times myself.
Here’s the thing with food waste – food that ends up in landfills will eventually break down, but not without environmental consequences. Food breaking down in a covered landfill is different than the process would occur on a micro scale in a home composting system. In a landfill environment, food generates methane while biodegrading. Methane is a greenhouse gas and it is 23x as potent at CO2 when it comes to trapping heat in our environment.
Beyond the issue of food waste degrading in landfills and methane generation, there’s also quite a bit of water and fuel usage that goes into the agricultural process that is all for naught if the food is not consumed or used. It is estimated that 25% of U.S. water production and roughly 4% of U.S. oil production is involved in the agricultural process for food that will end up being thrown away.
These consumption habits (the financial ability to buy, throw away, repeat) are somewhat new. If you’re like me, you can’t even imagine your super frugal Great Depression or World War II era grandparents wasting food like this. What made this change in behavior? Easy – cost and convenience. It is easier than ever to buy more than we need, food is relatively inexpensive and readily available and we use fresh ingredients for cooking less than ever before. There’s no inherent sin in not cooking or in using food delivery or dining out options in lieu of cooking, but there is a serious ecological problem posed by buying food and not eating it.
So, what can be done about it? There are a number of changes that can happen at the food production level of the supply chain. This graphic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlines those high level goals:
I’m going to focus on the middle section of this pyramid today – ways that you can personally reduce food waste in your own kitchen. This is a goal I’m personally trying to more successfully implement in our own kitchen and welcome your insights on ideas and habit shifts that have worked for you.
When you buy your food
- Don’t buy large packaged quantities just for the low unit price. Think to yourself: will I actually use all of this? If not, buy a smaller quantity.
- Buy your produce (when possible) from local growers and embrace the cosmetic imperfections of produce! Think to yourself: will it still taste good even if it is isn’t pretty?
- Know that expiration dates and sell by dates are guidelines, but that food is often still safe to eat beyond those guidelines. Consult this handy reference guide from the University of Nebraska on food lifespans.
- If you over buy and know you won’t consume an item, consider donating it to a local food pantry. Items do need to be unopened and not yet expired so regular pantry clean outs can be helpful in finding these items.
- Follow food storage guidelines to make sure your food doesn’t spoil before you get a chance to eat it. Click on the infographic below to see a larger version of food storage best practices.
When you prepare and use your food
- If at a restaurant and you suspect that your entree will be too large for you to finish, consider ordering a starter or splitting an entree with someone.
- If you have leftovers and know that you probably won’t eat them, see if a coworker or family member would eat them.
- When prepping vegetables, save your scraps to make delicious vegetable stock.
- When making large recipes, freeze half of your entree to reheat and eat at another time. This doesn’t work well with every type of recipe, but it works very well for soups and sauces.
When you dispose of food waste
- Disposing of food waste should be your last ditch effort – the point is to not generate extra waste. If you inevitably do generate food waste, try one of these approaches:
- See if your municipality offers food waste pickup or has a food waste drop-off site.
- Start a home composting system to divert food waste.