As consumers, most of us are at least aware of environmental sustainability issues. Many of us actively engage in environmentally sustainable practices. We bring our own bags when shopping, support local agriculture, buy organic, take our trash to the recycling center, and drive a fuel-efficient vehicle. But until recently, one area of environmental sustainability has not had equal coverage in the press, nor has it been promoted as widely as other practices—reduction of food waste.
Experts who met at the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit in Chicago stated that an estimated 30 to 50 percent of the food produced in the world goes uneaten. Meanwhile, food cultivation consumes a tremendous amount of resources.
Agriculture is the world’s largest user of water. It also contributes to loss of tropical and temperate forests, promotes erosion and water pollution, consumes energy, encourages the use of petrochemicals, and emits greenhouse gases during production, distribution, and landfill decomposition of discarded food. Even food grown sustainably and distributed locally becomes a waste of resources when edible food is tossed.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2010 Americans generated over 34 million tons of food waste, more than any other material category except paper. Food waste was the single largest component of the municipal solid waste stream reaching landfills and incinerators. Rotting food in a landfill becomes a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The EPA attributes more than 20 percent of all methane emissions to landfills.
Food waste is costly for the environment and also for the families who generate it. We are literally throwing our money away when we throw out good food.
According to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), fresh products make up most of the wasted food. A typical American throws out 40 percent of fresh fish, 23 percent of eggs, and 20 percent of milk. Citrus fruits and cherries top the list for fruits, and sweet potatoes, onions, and greens are commonly wasted vegetables.
The NRDC notes that over-purchasing, food spoilage, and plate waste account for much of the waste. About two-thirds of household waste is due to food spoilage when food is not used in time, and the other third is caused by people cooking or serving too much.
Below are some of the NRDC’s “Easy Steps to Reducing Your Food Waste.”
- Shop Wisely—Plan meals, use shopping lists, buy from bulk bins, and avoid impulse buys. Buy only what you need or can freeze or store properly until ready to use.
- Learn When Food Goes Bad—Except on certain baby foods, “sell-by” and “use-by” dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate safety. Rather, they are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Most non-perishable foods can be safely consumed well after their use-by dates.
- Use Your Freezer—Frozen foods remain safe indefinitely. Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you won’t have the chance to eat them before they go bad.
- Eat Leftovers—Ask your restaurant to pack up your extras so you can eat them later. Freeze them if you don’t want to eat immediately. Only about half of Americans take leftovers home from restaurants.
- Compost—Composting food scraps can reduce their climate impact while also recycling their nutrients. Using the nutrient-rich compost on the land improves soil health and structure, increases drought resistance, and reduces the need for supplemental water, fertilizers, and pesticides.