In Food

Wasteful Thinking: Reducing Food Waste

Posted by: on Jan 11, 2013 | One Comment

Food waste is a topic I have been meaning to tackle, but I’ve been lazy. While we put all our food waste in a bucket and truck it over to our friend’s farm where it is either turned into beautiful enriching soil or fed to the animals, I still find myself ruminating on the plethora of food we actually produce versus the fact that people are still hungry. We are lucky enough to have somewhere to take our food waste where it will not be wasted. It may not end up in a human stomach, but it is reused to produce more food. However, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently released study, Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not, 30-50% of food is “is lost before reaching a human stomach.”

In the last day or so, most of the major news outlets picked up this story. I’m glad to see food waste get high profile attention. It’s worth our consideration on a systematic and individual level. Even the EPA has a webpage devoted to the issue. I first began to pay attention to food waste after watching a documentary, Dive. The documentary chronicles a group of dumpster divers in L.A. who are trying to reduce food waste by living off the food thrown away by major groceries. They eventually take action to get high profile groceries, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, to reduce their waste stream. I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t.

The study outlines major waste streams, from the field, during storage and transportation, and within the home and marketplace, and concludes with recommendations for systematic changes. The study does not focus on what individuals can do to reduce waste. It is undeniable that food waste needs to be reduced within this stream. However, huge amounts of food are also wasted on the consumer end at home and in restaurants. In fact, the study, gives the same percentage range for consumer waste: “Overall between 30% and 50% of what has been bought in developed countries is thrown away by the purchaser.”

As consumers, we purchase more food than we need. The extra consequently spoils before we can eat it. I know I’ve been guilty of this. Additionally, we tend to take sell-by dates as a sign the food is no longer fit to be eaten. However, that food is still edible and even good. This morning, after smelling and tasting it, I ate yogurt with a sell-by date of December 26th. It was delicious. In fact, this story on NPR explains that a sell-by date does not actually indicate the date a food will go bad. The sell-by date is a somewhat arbitrary measurement of when the food will no longer be at its peak. This does not mean that it is not edible or even tasty.

Groceries create 1.6 million tons of food waste annually. They do this through rejecting food before it reaches their shelves and disposing of it before it reaches consumers. According to the study, “Major supermarkets, in meeting consumer expectations, will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics, such as size and appearance.” In addition, groceries like Whole Foods, which works very hard to source local and organic food, label products so the consumer knows where the food came from, and even offers to compost your post-Halloween pumpkins (at least at the one in VA Beach), still waste massive amounts of food. Food that has a blemish or a past sell-by date won’t sell. So, it finds its way to the dumpster. This past summer, I actually received a lot of produce this way. A friend of mine owns a produce stand on the highway here. When her tomatoes, peppers, even cantaloupe begin to be too ripe or have a blemish of some kind, she can no longer sell them. Therefore, she pulls them from her display. She started offering these to my husband and me instead of throwing them away. We simply cut out the bad spots and used the rest.

I would add that restaurants are no exception. Think of the portion sizes served in most restaurants. How often do you actually eat the entire meal? How often do you eat the leftovers you take home? Some of us may have large appetites or may be very good about finishing their leftovers. However, I almost never finish a whole portion at a restaurant. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons I often split a plate with my husband. The study adds: “…as a general policy, the catering industry often throws away a third of its food, as restaurants deliberately order too much in order to avoid running out.”

Additionally, the study notes that wasted food also means wasted resources: “large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste.” Because we use so much land, energy, and water in our agricultural practices, we inevitably waste some when we waste the product. Another general theme running throughout the study is that meat takes more resources to produce than produce and grains. This holds true across the board for land, energy, and water resources. Meat also offers fewer kcal of energy per amount of input than produce and grains.

According to the EPA, in the United States, food comprises the largest percentage of waste headed for municipal landfills. Clearly as individual consumers we can take action to reduce the amount of waste in our food system. As the study points out, because of the resources required to produce food, reducing the waste is much more logical then increasing production. As consumers we can:

  1. Educate ourselves!
  2. Be more careful about how much we buy, reducing the amount of waste in the home.
  3. Try emptying your fridge each week.
  4. Compost scraps if we have the means. In fact, there are even apartment-sized composters.
  5. Share meals at restaurants or take the leftovers home and eat them.
  6. Be aware that sell-by and best-by dates do not mean the food is spoiled.
  7. Ask your local grocery stores what they do with their waste. Find out if food is pulled from the shelves while it is still good.
  8. Encourage groceries to collaborate with food shelters and banks.
  9. Change our consumer preferences so that good food is not rejected by retailers because of its physical characteristics.
  10. Dumpster Dive! If you dare, take a shot at dumpster diving and see what you find. I’ve never actually done it. But I know a few people who have.
  11. Reduce the amount of meat you consume to help conserve resources through consumer demand. Try participating in “Meatless Mondays,” a national campaign to reduce meat consumption.

Consequently, waste less is number 8 on my list of New Years Resolutions.

1 Comment

  1. Beth
    January 12, 2013

    We used a worm composting system for quite some time but murdered the poor little things when we tried to “upgrade.” I know we want to get back to it, because the product made our house plants and garden extremely happy. You can actually just set a worm compost in the garage and they are very easy. There’s a great topic for the future, Hali.


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