Well, the holidays are long gone (sigh), but hopefully your resolutions are still going strong? Just in case you are ready for another, I have a suggestion that will benefit your plate, pocketbook, and the planet: waste less food (even if you are already part of the 73% of Americans that believe they waste less than the average American).
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME)—a food and agriculture leader—is on exactly this mission. Recently, she introduced the Food Recovery Act—a bill that attacks food waste on farms, in restaurants, at schools, by consumers, and more, by keeping fresh food fresher, preventing good food from being tossed, and managing unavoidable waste more wisely.
While Congresswoman Pingree’s bill, as well as recent initiatives from the USDA and EPA (including the Food Steward’s Pledge), are vital steps toward reducing our nation’s food waste, each individual can help cut waste—and reap the benefits—themselves. Why?
1. What would YOU do with $1500…?
…because, unbelievably, $1500 (give or take a few hundred) is the amount on the table for an average American family that simply gets their food waste under control. While it is true that much food waste happens before it reaches your hands (at the farm, during processing or transport, at restaurants and stores), the majority of waste (in developed countries) happens after we get involved. Studies find that we throw away a whopping 1/3 of the food we buy.
2. Feed your piggy bank, not the landfill
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend extra cash on something other than my local waste disposal facility. Shockingly, of all the waste we discard, food takes up the biggest portion of space in our trash bins (21 %). There, food waste helps landfills earn their spot as the third largest U.S. source of methane—a potent greenhouse gas roughly 25 times worse than CO2. This is not a good investment.
3. Squash the sneaky sunk cost behind pollution, climate change, and food insecurity
If you think about it, it is not just dollars and methane lost each time we make a deposit into our trash can—it is every ounce of fuel, fertilizer, energy, and water that at some point went into producing that “waste”. The way that most of our food is grown demands an enormous share of resources and contributes to everything from toxic drinking water and dead zones in our lakes and oceans, to vulnerability to drought and climate change. Production of food that ends up in the trash is a tragedy.
One way to reduce the footprint of unloved groceries is to make choices that have a smaller footprint to begin with, such that less is lost along the way even when waste happens. Although more sustainable agriculture is often dismissed due to the so-called yield gap (and the related concern that we can’t produce enough food using these methods), you don’t have to think too hard about food waste to realize that “feeding a growing population” is about much more than just yields (that’s why getting a grip on food waste has been identified as a critical step toward achieving food security).
4. Eat your veggies
Some of the foods we waste most are our fruits and vegetables (for example, about 18% of vegetables go neglected according to a recent USDA report). Despite some confusing interpretations of a recent study, integrating lettuce and other veggies into your diet is still an important healthy habit with a relatively small footprint—even when food waste is considered in the calculations. The takeaways? Don’t eliminate your salad habit in the interest of saving the planet, but do make purchases consciously and—once you buy your veggies—eat them!
Even lower than low hanging fruit
When you scale up beyond the American family, the food waste numbers are even more mind-boggling:
- 133 billion pounds and $161 billion per year nationally
- 3 billion tons and hundreds of billions of dollars globally (more than 1/3 of all food produced!)
P.S. Tips to reduce food waste
It is no secret that it can be tricky to buy and use healthy food in the right quantity, but I believe most of us can do a bit better. Fortunately, there are plenty of great tips out there to try, and here are a few to get you started:
- Fresh food lasts longer. Buying local can give you more time to eat your perishable foods.
- Prep and process pronto. Peeling and chopping in advance can be a recipe for success.
- Don’t forget your freezer. Stash foods safely for later, while improving your freezer’s efficiency.
- Compost if you can. Waste happens, but can be put to good use through compost.