Envision a landfill. What do you see? Perhaps you picture trashed cars, plastics, and paper. But what about banana peels, half-full fast food containers, and other rotting food? Americans throw out 35 million tons of food every year, according to the EPA. Wasted food makes up 21% of America’s landfill stream—more than paper and plastic. On average, each American throws away 23 pounds of food per month. That’s 50% more than we wasted in the 1970s.
Associate Director Dan Nickey of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center laments, “Forty percent of all the food in this country never makes it to the table.” Writing for the Natural Resource Defense Council, Paul Lehner highlights that “We spend $90 billion each year to make food that never gets eaten.” But the waste doesn’t stop there. Consider the resources that are wasted producing, packaging, and moving that food. According to the NDRC, wasted food squanders a quarter of the country’s fresh water and 4% of America’s oil.
Food waste happens for a variety of reasons:
- Some crops are never harvested.
- Some food is thrown out because it doesn’t meet cosmetic standards.
- Restaurants prepare more food than they sell.
- Grocery stores pull stale food off the shelf.
- Many people can afford to waste food. Food is so inexpensive that people take it for granted and just assume they can buy more tomorrow.
- Consumers throw out perfectly good food because its “use by” or “best before” date has passed.
To cut food waste, restaurants, grocery stores, and food companies will have to take some responsibility. But so will consumers. According the EPA’s Ashley Zanolli 40-50% of food waste comes from consumers while 50-60% originates with businesses.
Here’s how you can minimize food waste in your own kitchen:
Measure what you’re wasting. Keep a composting container under the sink, and place all food scraps in it. Then, use a scale to regularly measure your food waste. As the old business adage goes, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. The simple act of tracking your household’s food waste will help you stay accountable and motivated.
Plan your meals for the week. Get organized! List upcoming meals on your calendar, and base your shopping list on that plan.
Dedicate a shelf in your fridge to food that needs to be eaten before it spoils.
In general, buy only what you need, and eat what you buy. Remember that one out of seven U.S. families struggle with hunger. We produce enough food to feed everyone in this country, but we’re throwing away a lot of it.
Progressive cities across the country are making changes to minimize food waste. San Francisco is one of several west coast cities that have set the goal of zero waste; the City by the Bay is shooting for zero food waste by 2020. To that end, San Francisco made composting mandatory in 2009 and rolled out green composting bins for residents and businesses. Since that time, composting tonnage from the city has increased 62%. However, a waste composition audit from 2013 shows that half of the city’s landfill waste is still composed of compostable materials. It appears many residents are still throwing away food waste that could be composted.
As more and more cities are aligning with the zero waste mission, it comes down to educating consumers on what items are compostable then breaking the habit of trashing everything. Our decisions, however minute, contribute to a dilemma that can no longer be ignored. Holistic management of kitchen output is a core component for responsible chefs and homemakers alike.
Food waste impacts not only our land but also our water, our pocketbooks, and all the resources that go into creating and packaging food. It requires our attention, and we are poised to take on the challenge. Breaking the cycle may take some time, but with awareness and participation, it is achievable.