One of the major challenges to solving the wasted food problem, as recently illuminated by a new survey, is an overall lack of awareness of how we all are contributing to this crisis - which many experts say is one of the biggest environmental and food security issues we face today. The survey, conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, found that 30 percent of Americans say they "don't create any food waste." (Hmmm, something doesn't add up here!)
For those Americans that fearlessly acknowledge - or timidly admit - that they contribute to food waste, the main causes, according to the IFIC Foundation survey, are:
- Forgetting about perishable food until it's too late and the food has spoiled (like that pasta dish my wife and I forgot about for a few weeks after it migrated to the back of the refrigerator shelf)
- Purchasing too much fresh or perishable food (yeah, this is something my family wrestles with, particularly with certain vegetables like cucumbers)
- Cooking large meals and throwing some of the leftovers away
- Not eating everything they put on their plate (this happens in my family sometimes, too)
Indeed, we all need to be more enlightened on the subject - that is, being aware of the extent of the problem, the ways we are contributing to the problem and the ways in which we can be part of the solution - and putting that knowledge into action. Here are 13 facts about food waste - and 6 solutions!
Wasting Food Means Wasting Money and Resources
- Forty percent of the food in the United States is never eaten, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
- Americans throw away $162 billion of food each year. A four person family tosses $1,500 of food on an annual basis.
- Food waste represents a significant cost to local governments - and ultimately to taxpayers who already paid for it once as consumers (which is why many municipalities, like Nashville, are adopting food waste collection and composting programs).
- Food waste is particularly egregious at a time when hunger is a growing problem and an increasing human rights issue. Today, one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table.
- Approximately 25 percent of our nation's freshwater goes into producing food that is never eaten.(Similarly, energy is wasted when food gets tossed.)
- Approximately 28 percent of the world's agricultural land - an area larger than Canada - are used to grow the amount of food that is never consumed by humans.
- More food reaches landfills (and incinerators, too) than any other single material in our everyday trash generation, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA estimates that food represents 21 percent of discarded municipal solid waste. This is particularly problematic because when food rots it releases methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas with more than 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
- In the US alone, food waste is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equal to those from 33 million cars. If all of the world's food waste was a country, it would have the planet's third largest greenhouse gas footprint; only the US and China would have it beat!
- In the US, a large portion of food losses occurs in households. The average American throws away 20 pounds of food each month or about two-thirds of a pound per person per day. Fresh products like fish, eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables make up most of household food waste. Much of household food waste is due to spoilage, overcooking, plate waste and over-purchasing. Food loss at the consumer level also includes losses that occur at restaurants, schools, sports stadiums and other eating places outside of the home.
- Restaurants also contribute to the problem with supersized portions, sprawling menus and inadequate training for food handlers when it comes to minimizing food waste.
- Some waste happens because people are confused about "use-by" and "best-by" dates - which are based on manufacturer suggestions for peak quality - and can cause people to throw out food for fear that it is spoiled, when in fact it is still consumable.
- Most grocery stores discard food products as soon as they are past their "sell-by" dates even though these products still have shelf life left.
- Food waste happens on the farm too. Crops are sometimes left unharvested because their appearance does not meet strict quality standards required by many supermarkets and expected by consumers.
What Can We Do to Stop Food Waste?
- Significant reductions in food waste can often be achieved through simple changes in food purchasing, storage and preparation. Using "unavoidable" food waste as a resource involves diverting it from landfills and using it to generate energy or create fertilizer from compost.
- "With such a hugely inefficient food system comes opportunity," says Dana Gunders, Project Scientist with the NRDC and a leading expert on food waste and agriculture. One opportunity is to reconnect the whole supply chain from farm to table and table to farm by composting food waste and using it as fertilizer to grow crops. Another opportunity is to connect home and community gardeners so that their excess harvest can be donated to the needy instead of allowing it to rot.
- Check out these 5 tips geared to consumers, including suggestions like make a list before you go shopping so that you don't buy more than you need, store foods properly to keep them fresh as long as possible and keep your refrigerator and pantry nice and tidy so you know what you have and remember what has to be used.
- Do the right thing and purchase some "ugly fruit." Some supermarkets have begun to sell imperfect produce.
- Take action in your community. Here are 27 tips for community leaders.
- The US government, led by the USDA and EPA, is working with communities, organizations and businesses along with our partners in state, tribal and local government to cut food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030. To gain an insight into what the EPA is doing to address the food waste problem, check out this interview.
Tackling the food waste dilemma requires an all-hands-on-deck approach given its social, economic and environmental impacts. The problem must be addressed at many points along the food chain, from farms to retailers, restaurants to municipalities, as well as at home. The bottom line is that improving the efficiency of our food system offers environmental benefits (less pollution and more efficient resource use), social benefits (reducing hunger through food donations) and economic benefits (cost savings to businesses, consumers and municipalities).
Have a good suggestion for reducing food waste? Leave em' in the comments!
A version of this post was originally published in August 2012.