Food waste is a global crisis! It is damaging the environment and exploiting resources! And at the same time as we are filling landfills with food a shocking number of the world’s population is going hungry and even starving! Here’s the good news though, food waste is the area of environmental damage where it is believed the individual can make the most difference! You, yes, little ole you, can actually make an impact! Here’s how!
What is Food Waste?
“Food waste” is the term usually used for both food waste and what is technically considered food loss. It is all of the food that we grow that doesn’t get eaten. The reasons for this vary. Food waste can occur anywhere along the food growth, distribution and consumption line. It could mean loss of crops due to pestilence, damage during shipping, or something as simple as the food rotting in your refrigerator. Whatever the cause this food simply goes uneaten and often ends up in landfills.
Why is Food Waste a Problem?
Over 1/3 off all of the food produced globally goes to waste! There are many reasons why this is a problem. A significant amount of resources go into growing and distributing food (including food that is wasted). There is also an additional environmental burden related to the decomposition of organic matter. And there is a huge humanitarian problem related to food waste!
It takes a lot of resources to grow, ship, and distribute food, even if that food is not consumed or ends up in a landfill! As it turns out the agriculture industry uses about 300 million gallons of oil to produce food and 70% of the earth’s available fresh water! 25% of that fresh water goes to waste because the food associated with it’s use is simply tossed! Not only that but 18% of cropland and 19% of fertilizer used to produce food are wasted in this process. That wasted cropland is LARGER than the entire United States! And, speaking of the US, consumers, businesses and farms spend about $218 billion growing, processing and disposing of food that is NEVER eaten! It is estimated that supermarkets lose around 15 billion annually just in unsold fruits and veggies! How incredibly wasteful is all of that?!?!
The concern about the waste of resources is certainly one component of the environmental cost! But setting aside the water and land expenditure and the fossil fuels involved in producing, shipping and disposing of food that isn’t even eaten, there is a high environmental toll! It was estimated in 2007 that food waste comprised about 7% of all global emissions! New studies show that more than 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture!
Part of the problem is that food waste very often ends up in landfills. In the U.S. 94% of food waste ends up there or in combustion facilities! In fact, most of what is in U.S. landfills is organic material such as food. It becomes deeply buried and without any air flow it slowly decomposes but does not turn into compost. Instead it releases methane. Methane is 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide!
At a time when we (globally) are wasting about 40% of all of the food we grow, produce and distribute around 1 billion people are going hungry! They could ALL be fed on less than 1/4 of the waste from the US, UK and Europe alone! Just in the US it is estimated that salvaging even 15 % of our food waste would feed 25 million Americans. There are around 40 million facing hunger every day in the US. 1 in 6 are food insecure and most are children! Certainly we can do better!
What Can We Do?
Food waste is an area in which we can all improve and we can make a HUGE impact! A significant amount of food waste happens at an individual and family level. This gives us a great opportunity to create change!
When trying to resolve the issue of food waste we can take inspiration from the food recovery priorities recommended by the EPA.
- Reduce the amount of surplus food being produced
- Feed hungry people
- Feed animals
- Use as a renewable energy source
- Landfill or incineration
We may not be able to create renewable energy from our food waste but we can reduce our consumption and waste, feed hungry people, and compost! Here are some incredible ways you can make a difference in your home and in your community!
In Your Home
In most developed countries over 50% of food waste happens right in the home! So there is PLENTY we can do! The top 4 categories of food wasted are produce, dairy, bread and meat. Produce is number one, dairy and bread are tied in 2nd and meat is in 3rd but is the most environmentally damaging. Since the average family is wasting about 25% of it’s food which means 25% of their grocery budget is going right into a land fill it is well worth your time and effort to make some simple changes to prevent waste!
Plan for shopping
Make a meal plan and a grocery list and follow it! Don’t forget to check your fridge and pantry to see what items you have on hand! And be sure to include exact quantities you need for recipes. When making your meal plan take your schedule into consideration. Knowing how many meals you’re going to prepare at home will help you plan how much to buy at the store.
Shop more frequently
If it is possible, shop more frequently. By purchasing as you need things you are more likely to use up what you have and not over buy. You also get the added benefit of fresher more nutrient rich produce!
Utilize the salad bar
If you are introducing a new food or only need a small amount of something for a recipe consider getting it from the salad bar. That way you’ll only be buying what you need and know you will use.
Use food scraps to make soup (broth), slaw, smoothies and stir-fry
Food scraps can be used up by including them in these simple dishes! If you don’t feel you have enough or you just have the waste ends you can always toss them in a bag in the freezer and used them to make veggie broth or season bone broth later. Root ends that are often discarded can be planted in a window sill garden! Sometimes even foods who’s roots have been detached will re-root if they are soaked in water (such as bok choy or lettuce).
Wherever possible use the entire plant!
Often times we throw out edible parts of our produce! Greens from beats, radishes and carrots are edible and delicious! So are cauliflower and broccoli stems and leaves!
If you over bought or didn’t get around to using something preserve it! You can freeze, can or dehydrate most things. You can even prepare full meals and freeze them for later use!
Eat nose to tail
If you eat meat consider eating nose to tail. Not only is this important for preventing food waste but it is also nutritionally beneficial! Don’t knock it until you try it! Remember, meat is the 3rd most wasted food and the most environmentally damaging!
Store your food properly
Your food will go bad a lot faster if you don’t store it properly! Not sure of the best methods… well, this is a good use of Google! One handy tip though is not to store fruits and vegetables together. Many fruits off-gas and that makes veggies ripen faster. You should also keep apples, bananas and tomatoes stored separately because they cause other produce to ripen and spoil exceedingly fast. Oh, and another thing… not all produce is supposed to be stored in the fridge so do your research!
Consider a meal kit
This probably doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly but recent research shows that even with all of the packaging, meal kits are better than food waste! If you struggle with portioning or reducing your shopping consider this option to help you get a better idea of what you really need.
You may have never heard of this cool new invention but you’ll be glad you did now! Check out Fresh Paper! You just toss it into your produce drawer, fruit bowl or bread box and it keeps your food fresh longer! Yes, it works! Yes, it’s all natural! And, yes, it’s compostable! It’s even edible so it’s entirely safe for your food. If you want a smaller piece for a berry box (or your lunch box) simply cut it up and toss it where you need it! This stuff is amazing!
Use your senses to determine if food is bad
Many people use “sell by” or “best buy” dates to determine when they should toss their food. Unfortunately these are arbitrary dates that aren’t regulated in any way! Usually you are throwing away food that is perfectly safe to eat!
Food born illness is typically caused by contamination at the distribution center or on the farm and sometimes mishandling. It is usually because of exposure to salmonella or e coli. Food spoilage is rarely the cause of illness. When food spoils it is unappealing in appearance, odor or taste and you are unlikely to accidentally consume it.
Use your own senses to determine if food is good. Avoid mold, green potatoes, rancid meat, oil and nuts along with anything that smells foul or is slimy.
If you find you’ve over bought donate to a local food bank! This is an especially good idea before heading out of town or moving.
For pre-made foods make arrangements to share with friends or family members. We all get tired of the same leftovers! Trading with others or giving them away is a great way to prevent waste.
If you happen to have an amazing green thumb and have a bountiful garden be sure to donate your extra produce as well! Most food banks are eager to get fresh produce!
Track your waste
Keep track of your waste and your progress! By keeping a record of what you throw away you can make adjustments to your shopping habits! You can also track your improvements! Consider rewarding yourself with a small kitchen gadget for saving so much money by cutting your waste!
Dispose of waste properly
Start a compost pile or find a community compost! If this isn’t an option for you invest in a garbage disposal! It is important that any food you do toss is disposed of with the least negative impact!
In the Community
Not only can you make changes at home to improve the outlook of food waste but you can inspire change in your community! Here are some simple ways to encourage change!
Ask businesses and restaurants what they do with left over food
From your local grocer to your favorite restaurant, ASK! Simply asking if they participate in a food recovery program or donate their left over food creates change. The more people ask the more they feel pressured to change! So, next time you’re out find a manager or owner and ask them what they do with their unsold food.
Patronize places that practice food rescue and redistribution
When you find businesses that do participate in food recovery and redistribution programs, frequent them! And TELL them that’s why you’re a loyal customer! In addition, give them free press! Be a loud mouth! Tell your friends and post it on social media! Don’t forget to tag them so they know they’re getting positive attention for their sustainable practices!
Volunteer for a food rescue organization
If you have some time on your hands, consider volunteering for a food rescue center! Volunteering is good for your soul (and your karma)! Food rescue centers can always use help! Sustainable America has a great list of rescue centers in your area. If you’re outside of the US just use your search engine to find one!
Organize food rescue and redistribution at your school or business
Some schools and businesses already participate in food rescue and redistribution. If yours doesn’t get involved and start a club or volunteer organization to do this!
Press for legislation
There is room for legislation when it comes to food waste. You can press legislators to regulate or prohibit “sell by” dates for example. You can also request that your local government regulate trash pick up limits or provide compost bins at a discount. There are a number of ways to lobby the government to address food waste, especially at a local level!
Get Involved, Stop Food Waste
Whatever you do, get involved. Taking small deliberate steps to minimize your own food waste and encourage others to do the same will add up! Food waste is often the area experts say individuals have the most impact! We can make a direct and measurable difference! Because of that, it’s the ideal place to start your sustainability journey! Save money, eat nourishing food, set a great example for your family and save the planet! How awesome is that!
BTW… Don’t forget to share this and spread the word! Educating others about this important issue and encouraging them to get involved is the best way to make a difference in your community!