What can you do?

When you think about food, you usually think about what you will eat next or what you might need from the grocery store. Most of the time, none of us think about the amount of food wasted daily. If you stop to think about it for a moment, how often do you throw away food because it is past the date stamped on it? What about all the food that this happens to at grocery stores? Is that the only area where food waste occurs? What can we do about creating less food waste?

The most commonly accepted definition of food waste is food that was at one-point fit for human consumption and is discarded or lost uneaten due to spoilage or expiring. Unfortunately, this isn’t the true definition because food gets thrown away even if it isn’t spoiled or expired. It can occur at any stage of the food supply chain, including production, processing, retailing, or consumption. Between a third to half of all food produced yearly across the globe is wasted. For developing countries, it most often occurs during the production phase, whereas, in developed countries, like the United States, it is wasted during the consumption phase. When looking at statistics for food waste, it counts food redirected to non-food chains (animal feed, compost, or recovery of food to be used as bioenergy), but not “non-food parts” of animals and plants that are not fit for human consumption and must be discarded.

The food supply in the United States is the most diverse and abundant in the world. Food waste occurs right at the beginning of the food supply cycle…production. Due to pest infestations and severe weather, farmers lose almost 6 billion pounds of crops yearly. In a process called culling, crops are selectively harvested to meet regulations and standards for quality and appearance, significantly impacting the amount of food wasted beyond the amount lost due to infestations and weather. The United States Department of Agriculture refers to this as the “individual removal of genetically undesirable, inferior, weak, diseased or infested plants from a planting to ensure the level of genetic purity or vigor of the crop.” This process happens at the production, food processing, retail, and consumption stages. In actuality, this means removing and disposing of food with a strange or imperfect appearance rather than just food that is spoiled or unsafe to eat. Retailers have strict cosmetic standards, so if produce is misshapen, the wrong color, or bruised, it gets tossed. The process usually occurs during the retailing stage and accounts for an additional 6 billion pounds of produce wasted each year in the United States.

In 2013, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) completed a study that found a leading contributor to food waste in America was the lack of regulation regarding food expiration dates and the confusion this causes among consumers. Since there is no real regulation, companies use terms like “best before,” “sell-by,” or “use-by.” Consumers not understanding the difference or misreading the labels causes them to think that food is unsafe for consumption leading to the disposal of food that is most likely still safe to eat. This also affects retailers because they get rid of large quantities of food that people won’t buy due to the date stamped on it drawing near or being past. Another element of the retailing portion is that they have a contractual supply agreement with farmers for them to supply a certain amount of food to each store yearly. The contract gets canceled if a farmer fails to meet this requirement. To prevent this, farmers overproduce the necessary crop, and the extra is just discarded.

The main reasons behind food waste in the United States are stocking too much food in stores, over-preparing food (not cooking it properly), leaving food on dishes after meals/unwilling to consume leftovers, and decaying of prepared food after long or inappropriate storage. Restaurant contribution to food waste is increasing because the portion sizes are enlarging, the amount of inventory needed is misestimated, and the lack of stringent food handling practices. When you combine all of these factors, it results in 35-103 million tons of food being wasted yearly in the United States. A 2014 National Geographic study estimates that 30% ($162 billion value) of food is wasted yearly. The NRDC estimates that Americans throw away up to 40% of food that is safe to eat. In either case, it’s far too high of a percentage of food that gets thrown away. Food scraps account for about 19% of waste in landfills. The practice will impact our planet for years because as it breaks down, it releases methane gas. Methane gas spends less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but it’s much more efficient at keeping radiation in the atmosphere. Methane gas has 25 times the impact on climate change than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

To curb food waste, there are several things that we can do. Regarding not only food scraps but all the excess from farmers overproducing, we should be making better use of composting to help decrease the amount of food waste in landfills. This process allows microorganisms (bacteria) to break down food waste into simple organic materials that can provide nutrients to the soil. This process is aerobic, meaning it doesn’t produce methane gas. Another potential solution is taking food scraps or inedible food for humans and using it as animal feed. Not only does this reduce the amount of wasted food, but the byproduct (animal waste) can be used as fertilizer.

If we did a better job of separating food waste from other types of garbage, we could use the anaerobic, or methane gas producing, process to our advantage by having it take place in a controlled environment that allows us to harness the power of the gas production to use for energy production. This would help prevent methane gas from being released into the environment and provide an energy source. To accomplish this, we would need to develop a solution for keeping food waste separate from other types of garbage. When you consider that the majority of us already do this by recycling paper, plastic, and other products, it doesn’t seem that it would be much more challenging to do the same in keeping food waste separate.

In addition to these solutions, consumers can do their part by being more willing to accept and eat food that isn’t “normal.” This would help decrease food waste in various ways by not needing farmers to produce excess food to make up for the stuff that gets thrown away. It would also reduce the amount of food thrown away by retailers. An excellent example is a company, Imperfect Produce, that sells less-than-ideal-looking produce at discounted rates. So far, they have saved 7.6 million pounds of food, 379 million gallons of water, and 26 million pounds of carbon dioxide. Imagine if this was the norm how much benefit that would provide.

If stores took “expired” but still edible food and restaurants did the same with leftover food scraps and donated them to food banks, this would also help to reduce waste. In addition, consumers can reduce the amount of food waste by planning their food shopping, avoiding wasteful spontaneous purchases, storing foods properly, and being aware of the fact that just because a date is stamped on food doesn’t mean that the food spoils at that point. To help with that process, the labeling must be standardized for expiration dates to decrease the confusion surrounding the labeling system. To facilitate the change, widespread educational programs should be used since they have proven effective in the past. Using ad campaigns from advisory and environmental groups promoting the educational program guidelines would encourage concentrated media attention on the issue.

Food waste is something that affects every single one of us. It is also something that each one of us can help reduce. If we all did our part, it would significantly impact the environment and everyone’s health. Food waste is completely preventable, and we all need to do what we can to eliminate it.