Cut Food Waste, Cut Water Waste

There's nothing good about wasting food.

Besides the fact that there are more than seven billion other people on the planet who could eat it, consider all the water needed to grow and produce that food. Everything we eat has a water footprint. The same is true for the rotten lettuce, the long-forgotten eggs and the half-eaten steak grabbed from the back of the fridge and thrown in the garbage. When we waste food, it's like we're dumping huge amounts of water - or more precisely, "virtual water" - into the garbage.

In the United States an estimated 40 percent of all food is lost or wasted annually. A recent Smithsonian Magazine piece grappled with the water waste associated with this tremendous amount of food waste.

The average American wastes 26,500 gallons of water per year by tossing just six common food items in the trash: lettuce, almonds, apples, tomatoes, eggs and beef. (See the Smithsonian Magazine infographic for more.)

The average American wastes 26,500 gallons of water per year by tossing just six common food items in the trash: lettuce, almonds, apples, tomatoes, eggs and beef.

To drill down on the water lost to food waste, let's take a look at the lettuce, eggs and beef wasted by an individual American. To begin, water footprints vary greatly; it all depends on the type of food and where and how it's grown. Meat and dairy generally have a larger water footprint compared to fruits and vegetables. The water footprint for a head of romaine lettuce is 29 gallons, one egg is 52 gallons and one pound of beef is a whopping 1,800 gallons. Combine those numbers with typical edible food waste at home each year - which equals about eight heads of lettuce, 64 eggs and 11 pounds of beef - and the water wasted comes to about 92 gallons for the lettuce, 5,260 gallons for the eggs and 19,800 gallons for the beef!

But moves are being made to cut food waste. Recognizing all the hungry people around the world that could use the food that would otherwise be wasted, the squandered resources like water and energy and the significant greenhouse gas pollution from decaying food, a range of groups from the USDA and the EPA, the NRDC and students with The Campus Kitchens Project are tackling the issue.

As Divya Abhat notes in the Smithsonian article:

Fortunately,  change at any level - whether it's as a supplier, retailer or consumer - will help ease the impact of food waste on natural resources. Simply put, "it does matter how much you consume," [says Ruth Mathews of the Water Footprint Network]. "It does matter what you consume, especially when you get down to the details of where this is produced and how sustainable is that production."

This is a good reminder that we as individuals have a part to play in big issues, whether through our purchases and cooking habits or through our votes and collective civic action. When it comes to cutting food waste out of our lives, it's a no-brainer. Our water resources will thank you.


Responses to "Cut Food Waste, Cut Water Waste"
The views and opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Ecocentric Blog or GRACE Communications Foundation.

  1. Kai

    Hi Michele -- Thanks for your comment. It is difficult to see so much food go to waste. One of my colleagues suggested that the cafeteria set up a basket where students put their unwanted food all of which is freely available. Ultimately, you will have to speak to your administration to see what opportunities are possible to avoid wasted food. For more information from organizations that work on school food issues, contact the following: School Food Focus Wellness in the Schools Hope this helps. Kai

  2. Michele

    I am a school teacher at a school who serves free breakfast and lunch to all students. They are required to have all of the items on the tray or nothing. If the child only wants the biscuit on the tray, then the rest of the food has to be thrown away. Nobody is allowed to take the cafeteria food out of the cafeteria. I cringe everyday to see how much untouched food is thrown away. (Wasted water) 5What can we do about this?

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