It is easy to assume that all of our trash is made up of plastic bits and disposable bags. It may come as a surprise to learn that 35% of what we send to the landfills is actually organic waste and 22% is simply food waste! So if you’ve been focusing only on reducing your plastic consumption, it’s time to switch your focus to the food you're throwing out too!
One third of all food is wasted.
Worldwide we waste about one-third of the food we produce for consumption. The food is wasted at every level in the agricultural chain from the farmer to the consumer. Each level, therefore, has the responsibility to analyze how and why food is being thrown out.
It is estimated that 40% of the food waste occurring in developed countries such as the United States happens at the consumer level. Which means that although the farmers and grocery stores are responsible for just over half of the food waste, you are most likely participating in the other half. This is one of those cases where you, as an individual, can make a huge difference! Instead of wasting food, you can put your resources, both economic and time, toward spreading that wealth around.
Wealthier countries waste more food.
Unfortunately the U.S. wastes a lot more food than other countries. It also wastes a lot more food at the consumer level! The trend generally follows that the wealthier the country, the more food is wasted at the consumer level.
Almost all countries and regions in the world waste food to some degree. In parts of the Sahara, for example, the food waste primarily happens at the farmer and distributor level. This is usually because of inefficient technology and a lack of safe temperatures during transport or for long periods of time. These are very different reasons for wasting food than the 40% we are wasting in our own homes here in the U.S.
So when we talk about food waste, we need to recognize that it can be addressed as an environmental issue, an economic issue, and a social justice issue.
Why do we waste food at home?
Food waste is one of those sneaky things that most people ignore at home. It happens slowly as that cucumber in the back of your fridge starts to mold. Another dish is thrown out after a few too many days of leftovers. Your salad dressing passed its expiration date before you could finish it up. When you really start to think about it, there are so many little things we let go to waste in our kitchens every single week!
Expiration dates don't really mean what you think - so what do they mean?
You can start avoiding food waste at home in many ways! First off, make sure you understand what expiration dates really mean. You can also begin cooking with typically wasted ingredients like banana peels and lemon rinds.
Beauty standards cause food waste at the grocery store.
A lot of food waste on farms and at grocery stores happens when ugly food gets rejected. Bananas, for example, have very specific beauty standards that farmers need to meet. Businesses like Imperfect Produce have sprung up to try to help divert some of these rejects from the landfill and into consumers kitchens.
You can do your part by shopping at your local farmers' market and buying beautiful, odd shaped produce. At the grocery store, look for the lonely bananas that have accidentally broken off and buy those. Look for an "ugly" shelf or an "on the way out" shelf as well as some grocers mark down produce that isn't in tip-top shape.
Food doesn't decompose in the landfill and isn't typically composted.
Only about 6.3% of the food we throw out in the United States is actually composted. The rest is sent to the landfill. Making sure to compost your food waste is a good goal - but it's also important to cut down the waste in the first place!
And if you’re one of the many people that assume throwing food waste in the trash is basically composting, unfortunately that's a myth too!
Food waste contributes to the climate crisis.
Wasted food is estimated to be responsible for 8% of yearly global emissions. If we waste our food, we are wasting all of the fuel we put into growing that food. We waste the water piped in to water the crops. We waste the gasoline used to drive the farmers to and from the field. Waste the diesel to truck the food to the store. The electricity to heat and cool the storage containers.
We are heating our planet just to toss vegetables in the garbage at home!
If you want to learn more about how food is produced, wasted, and composted, check out these resources:
Garbology by Edward Humes (book)
American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom (book)
The Fate of Food by Amanda Little (book)
Waste by Tristram Stuart (book)
Just Eat It (documentary)
There are many ways to cut down on food waste including meal planning, storing your food correctly, and making dishes out of food scraps (like banana peel cake and zero waste lemon bars!).