By Mary B. O’Neill, PhD | firstname.lastname@example.org
If you think this is going to be an article to make you feel all warm and glowy on the inside, you can stop reading here. If you’re open to some self-reflection, moral indignation, and individual action, then read on. After some sobering and disturbing food waste facts and figures, I’ll suggest some simple actions to reduce our own consumer food waste.
Defining your waste
The World Resources Institute considers food wasted when food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption doesn’t end up being eaten. This is typically due to spoilage or being discarded. It often happens at the retail and household level and is more prevalent in developed countries. Food waste is part of the larger issue of food loss, which occurs primarily at earlier points in the food production chain.
Food waste by the numbers
Alarming statistics exist for the food Americans waste each year. While I know that the human mind glazes over in the presence of large numbers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a few of them with you.
While estimates vary somewhat, a 2017 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council outlines the United States of food waste:
• We waste 40 percent of our food supply each year, which is 50 percent more than in the 1970s
• Food waste costs the economy $218 billion a year – that translates to $1,800 for the average family of four
• 42 million Americans face food insecurity and could be fed with one-third of the food we waste
• Food waste accounts for 2.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (mostly in the form of methane generated by landfills) – the equivalent of emissions from 37 million vehicles
• 21 percent of water that goes into agriculture is associated with wasted food
• The two largest categories of food waste are fruits and vegetables and prepared food and leftovers
Glazing over? Well, here’s a way to recast that 40 percent waste statistic in a way that will really make you lose your appetite. Imagine going to the grocery store and spending $100 on five bags of grocery (of course you’ve brought your own bags with you). Imagine driving off leaving two of those bags – $40 worth – in the parking lot to be trampled.
Food waste is not only a moral and environmental issue. It hits us in the wallet, which is often the greatest motivator for change, and change we can. It requires intention, awareness, incremental progress, and creating some new habits while breaking old ones. And to be clear, I’m no food waste saint – I’m on this journey right there with you.
Food waste occurs in all levels of the food supply chain – farms, processing, distribution, storage, retail stores, and food service. However, we’re focusing on action on the household level, where we prematurely dispose of 43 percent of all wasted food.
Combine this statistic with the fact that the most prevalent type of food wasted is produce and leftovers, and you can see the impact of individual action.
When is a banana not just a banana?
When we waste one item of food there are other economic and environmental costs associated with it, which may or may not be reflected in the price we pay at check out. Throwing out that overripe banana isn’t just getting rid of a piece of fruit. That brown and mottled skin and mushy interior represent much more than that. We are also disposing of the labor, fuel, electricity, growing and storage space, water, and fertilizer associated with that banana. Less bananas wasted means less futile resources – some of them with meaningful environmental impacts.
I have found that thinking of my wasted food as embodying all these other precious resources helps me to only buy what I need and reconsider what I do with it along its life span. The overripe banana rises in stature as something more precious, worthy of a better death than my trash can.
The waste continuum
As individuals, we’re mostly concerned with food waste at the end of the food supply continuum – in our homes. However, if we consider these hidden costs of growing, transporting, storing, and selling that banana, it’s clear that had it not been grown to then be wasted, none of its associated costs would have been incurred.
The choices we make in purchasing habits, consumption, and waste reduction can have a powerful trickle up effect. If we buy less, farms and companies will grow and sell less. If we make food waste a political issue on a local and state level, it will influence policy about labelling, disposal, and donating unused but edible food.
Despite my best intentions, I buy food that will go to waste – and it is usually produce. As I write this article, I’m staring at those four browning bananas on my kitchen counter. So, while it’s clear that not purchasing them at all would have been the best choice, I can still reduce my food waste – with composting.
Given the immoral nature, environmental impact, and economic costs of food waste, composting our food scraps is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a moral imperative. If you’re not composting on some level in your household, you need to seriously ask yourself why that’s the case.
Composting is easy. The reasons and results are compelling. You should do it in some form.
Composting creates a nutrient rich soil to spread around your yard and it reduces landfill, which reduces both the space and resources needed for trash in our country and the climate change culprit methane gas.
The compostable overripe fruit and vegetables that we throw into a plastic trash bag will likely find their way to a landfill. There, that bagged perishable food will be compressed by the weight of other waste, which won’t allow air, light, water, aerobic microbes, and enzymes to do their thing and help these items biodegrade.
This creates the environment for anaerobic bacteria to break down the waste. This type of bacteria doesn’t require oxygen to live, but the product of its decomposing activity is a greenhouse-effect mixture of methane and carbon dioxide gases. This cocktail is affectionately known as “landfill gas.” In terms of deadly potential, methane is a greenhouse gas on steroids – 25 times more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2.
Composting is an easy remedy. Composting bins are widely available or homemade. Resources and how-to guides are plentiful and easy to follow, and you can be as high- or low-tech with it as you like. My version of composting is quite simple – throw in my food waste, throw on some leaves and grass cuttings and mix it when I remember. I’m not really sure what’s happening in there, but I’m taking less waste to my transfer station and I see lots of worms!
Grocery store psychology
Yup, grocery store psychology is a thing – and it subconsciously leads us to buy food we don’t really want and don’t need, and that leads to more waste. How many times have we mindlessly rolled our cart from aisle to aisle? The path is laid out for us and what we need is in easy reach.
Reducing food waste requires us to bring our A-game and a well-crafted grocery list. It’s a time for full awareness and solid intention to get in and get out with only what we truly need.
Grocery stores send a message of “buy, buy, buy.” Here’s how:
• Endless variety: The average supermarket contains 64,000 items
• Directional flow: Shoppers typically enter at the right and move counterclockwise. Ninety percent of shoppers are right-handed. Moving counterclockwise allows you to push with your left hand and pick up food with your right
• Dairy’s in the rear left corner: Most people have dairy on their lists, and store design makes you walk through the entire store to get it
• No clocks and windows: Like Vegas casinos, we’re encouraged to spend more time in the store
• Shelf and display placement: Whatever is in easy reach is what we’re more likely to buy. And those sugared cereals at knee height? Guess whom that appeals to? You got it – my husband.
Even perimeter shopping, where most of the healthy foods are, is in peril. Those tricky store layout people know that we figured out where to find the real food. Now, less healthy food is leeching into the perimeter.
For me, being aware of these coercive attempts to get me to buy makes each visit to the grocery store a mini-rebellion against mind control. When I emerge buying no more than what’s on my list I feel a small victory for independent thought and a clearer sense of my wants and needs.
Beauty is only skin deep
As consumers, we have more power over the Man than we think. Our choices drive what’s offered, and once we emerge from our food waste torpor to a place of knowledge and clear thinking, we can make demands about the types and quantities of food that we buy.
A case in point is ugly fruits and vegetables. Around 20 percent of the produce wasted each year never makes it to our plates because of how they look. Uniform and blemish-free is how we want our food – and our bodies and lives.
With all the farmer’s markets beginning their season, ask your local farmer about their ugly produce. Tell them you’d be interested in buying some. Maybe we can begin demanding Ugly Produce CSAs. And if blemished or misshapen produce were on offer at a reduced price, it might extend the affordability of organic and local food in our region and reduce the amount that is unsalable and left to rot.
The dating game
Food dating is another prominent source of food waste that’s in our control, but most Americans have no clear idea of what they all mean. We often take “Display Until,” “Enjoy By,” “Expires On,” “Better if Used Before” as manufacturer food commandments or governmental dictates for safety and quality, and yet they’re mostly illusions.
The federal government has no laws regulating food labelling. It has delegated this task to the FDA and USDA, both of which have not used this authority to regulate date labels. The only item the FDA regulates in this way is infant formula. The USDA doesn’t require dating labels. However, if manufacturers label USDA-regulated foods, e.g., meat, poultry, and eggs, because of state law or choice, then they must adhere to USDA guidelines for date labelling.
States can set their own laws for date labels. For example, Connecticut requires date labels for dairy products only and doesn’t explicitly forbid the sale of items past date. It has also adopted the voluntary version of the Uniform Open Dating Regulation. Manufacturers don’t have to date, but if they do they must adhere to Open Dating criteria – which applies to food only, not romantic relationships.
Various environmental and consumer stakeholders are pushing hard for government regulation of food date labelling. To ward off potential regulation, two major grocery industry trade groups – the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association – announced last year that they have adopted standardized voluntary regulations.
They propose reducing the ten food date labels to two –“Use By,” which will indicate when perishable foods are safe to eat and “Best if Used By,” which is the manufacturer’s subjective guess about peak flavor. Manufacturers have until July 2018 to adopt these voluntary standards.
By understanding food labelling, using our senses, and thinking critically we can reclaim much of our past-dated food that is still safe and flavorful and reduce our food waste.
The power of one
We have direct control over a large part of food waste produced in this country. We can create the intention and make the effort to reduce our food waste footprint for moral, environmental, and economic reasons.
Join me! Let’s reduce our waste together by going on a food waste diet. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my life, this is the only waste size that’s going down! •
To begin learning more about food waste and what you can do about it, visit www.nrdc.org/issues/food-waste and www.epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-home