The state of our food waste
There is no denying that our world has been drastically modernized over the past few decades. Dating back to just 1960, technology has rapidly developed and made essentially anything and everything accessible at the touch of a button. This means that friends and family can keep in touch instantly, even when living on opposite sides of the country. It even means that groceries can now be paid for and delivered directly to your doorstep without ever needing to step foot outside.
These advancements in technology have of course proven beneficial in a number of ways, including breakthroughs in medical research and advancements in manufacturing that have made necessary goods cheaper and more accessible. However, this increase in instant gratification has also had a hand in a number of today’s societal issues. With many goods now being produced faster than ever before, a vast majority of society now pays less attention to waste, instead focusing on the fact that something new can be purchased, and most likely it will be cheaper than it was before. Unfortunately, one of these goods being wasted more than ever is food. While some may think a perfect solution is simply producing more to make up for our increased waste, the problems we are facing due to our excessive food waste are only going to be made worse if this logic is followed.
How much are we wasting and what is the impact?
The numbers surrounding our food waste here in America are shocking. While many understand that we as a country are very guilty of excessive food waste, many do not know the alarming numbers that are associated with this trend. In the United States alone, nearly 40% of food is never eaten and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 37 million tons of food waste ended up in landfills in 2015. These numbers are startling for many different reasons. For consumers, this means that over a quarter of the food purchased will never be eaten. Many experts have stated that to visualize this fact, imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags, dropping one and then not bothering to pick it up.
For farmers, food waste means that 40% of a yearly harvest will never be consumed. Not only does this mean that nearly half of a farmer’s yearly harvest is essentially no good, it also means that 40% of the farmers land, resources and efforts are being put to waste as well. Food and produce of any sort does not come from nothing. It requires land, labor, water, nutrition and a nearly countless number of additional resources to plant, raise and harvest foods of any type. Especially at a time where severe drought is prevalent across western parts of the country, food waste is even more costly, as wasting this food is also wasting water. By letting the food that is produced in these areas go to waste, we are contributing to the region’s water depletion while simultaneously creating a new and separate problem.
As millions of tons of food waste end up in landfills across the country each year, we are contributing to the production of a very potent greenhouse gas. When food waste is added to a landfill, it undergoes anaerobic decomposition. This occurs because the landfill does not receive proper amounts of oxygen. Lacking oxygen, as the food begins to decompose it produces methane, which is known to be at least 20 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. According to the most recent study published in the Washington Post, Americans are throwing away more food than any other material. Food waste was reported at 34.7 million tons during a 2012 survey. That is 5.8 million tons more than a material we currently have dedicated receptacles for at every home, event or public gathering location; plastic. With the repercussions of food waste being so incredibly high, it may be wise to begin placing compost bins alongside our recycling bins.
Why are we wasting so much?
There are a number of reasons as to why we are letting so much food go to waste. Societal factors have driven us to become more focused on precision than ever before. We have also become much less in touch with where our food is coming from, making us more open to tossing out a slightly shriveled tomato and replacing it with a new, fresh one from the nearest grocery store. As a whole, we have become influenced by the need for perfection and instant gratification. If something is not perfect, we look for it elsewhere, because it is bound to be easy to come by. This combination of desires has created the “final option myth”.
Discussed in the 2015 documentary film, “Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story”, the newly developed final option myth has a great influence on our societal food waste. The reason being, when consumers see only one food product left, no matter what it may be, they assume that because it is the last one, something must be wrong with it. The assumption is that dozens of other consumers have inspected the produce, and this final one has already been turned down by all those who came before. Whether this final piece of produce actually does have some sort of flaw or not, seeing just one instantly leads consumers to believe that there is some sort of flaw. This mentality leads to produce going un-purchased, inevitably resulting in waste. This thinking influences buyers any where food is sold, and not only does it cause perfectly good produce to go to waste, it actually adds to the waste through efforts to counteract this thinking.
Large chain grocery stores often overstock on produce in order to keep the shelves fully stocked at all times, preventing there from ever being a lone piece of produce to fall subject to the final option myth. From a business view, this is a smart idea, but by overstocking on perishable goods, the food waste is not reduced, it is actually increased by a large percentage. In this instance, rather than having just one piece of produce go un-purchased, hundreds of individual items may now go untouched at the end of the day simply because there is no demand for the amount of goods being offered. These excess foods are often taken off the shelf at the end of the day and shipped somewhere else or discarded. By attempting to solve the problem at hand, we are making things much worse.
Another common reason for food waste is printed expiration dates. These dates are often taken as black and white by consumers, meaning that once they see the date on a food has passed, they instantly throw it away without question. Everyone is guilty of giving food that is past its printed expiration date one last chance. Occasionally this results in a “what was I thinking?” moment, but as many can attest to, just because the label says expired, does not mean that the food has gone bad. Expiration dates or use by dates are actually just a producers’ best guess as to when that produce is going to be at its peak. This date should be viewed as a guideline for when to use the produce instead of being seen as the date after which the produce will no longer be edible. These dates often confuse consumers and lead them to believe certain foods are unsafe to consume and must be thrown out as a result.
What can we do about this?
Solving the issues of food waste is bound to be a long and slow road. However, there are already a number of steps that both businesses and individual consumers can take to help decrease our food waste year over year.
Support local – Local farmers research their markets beforehand. Their business depends upon having an ideal amount of produce to meet demand. Instead of overstocking their supply, local farmers plan, buy for and produce what is needed. The more accurate their numbers are, the more profitable their business will be. Rather than walking into a store with shelves full of produce, stop by your local farmers’ market. Selections will be much more appropriately sized and the produce is guaranteed to be fresher.
Donate to food banks – Many consumers often shy away from donating produce to local food banks out of fear that the food donated may cause an illness that they will be held responsible for. This is entirely not the case however, as in kind food donations are covered by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act which protects donors from liability should a product donated cause harm or illness to a recipient. One should not knowingly donate food that is spoiled or tainted in any way, but any spare food is always welcomed as a donation year round. You can also get involved in programs like the USDA’s Food Waste Challenge and other initiatives similar to it.
Start to compost – While we can help eliminate a large portion of food waste, it cannot be eliminated entirely. Some parts of food will always qualify as waste, such as the core of an apple or the husk from corn. These materials can be utilized however, in a manner that is beneficial to the environment. Composting is a great way to capitalize on the remaining nutrition available in common food waste. When composted, food waste receives proper levels of oxygen, causing the food to undergo aerobic decomposition, which produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct instead of methane. Compost can later be added to gardens and landscapes to help improve soil health, allowing you to get the absolute most out of your food.
Find new ways to use produce – Admittedly, not all food produced will meet our level of perfection. If not pollinated perfectly, strawberries can look like they were dropped from outer space and root vegetables often grow with a mind of their own. Focusing on flawless appearance has only made our food waste problem worse, and currently, many farmers will not even bring produce to market unless it is uniform in appearance, fearing that anything out of the ordinary will not sell. Rather than letting this misfit produce completely go to waste, use the odd appearance as an opportunity. Misshaped fruit can be used for jams or jelly, while non-uniform carrots can be cut down and repurposed as carrot sticks.
Buy what you need, avoid excess – This is incredibly simple and seems nearly too obvious to mention, but our society has recently become plagued by impulse buys. It is nearly impossible to avoid, sales are everywhere in the grocery store and on occasion, a deal is simply too good to pass by. With food waste increasing so significantly in recent years, it is often best to consider how much food you really need the next time a sale comes around. While it is tempting to buy one, get one free, or spring for the larger family pack because it has a better value, it is important to consider whether or not the food you purchase could possibly be consumed beforehand. If the value jumps out at first, consider your ability to actually realize that value. Paying less in the moment does not reduce the economic or environmental impact of throwing the food away. Realize more value out of your food purchases by passing on the buy one get one deal and getting just the produce that you actually need.
Food waste is a big issue that is currently affecting everyone in the United States. While solutions to this problem are not simple, there are a number of steps we can take to help actively reduce the impact this is having on our society. Consider the life of your food from start to finish next time you are out shopping and be sure to buy smart. Your efforts will result in both economic and environmental savings.