Food Waste in America
The other day I did what I usually do every time I cook for myself: I made too much food. As I stared at the significant pile of leftover, mediocre pasta, I knew I wasn’t going to eat it later. So I did what so many people do – I threw it out. As I scraped my overcooked linguini into the trash, I wondered how many other people were doing the same thing. Where was all of our pasta going? And for that matter, our soggy sandwiches, half-eaten fruit, and cooking experiments gone awry? I decided to find out, and what I found was a massive problem.
Right now, the United States occupies the number one slot in food waste. To paint a picture, every year Americans waste almost 40 million tons of food. That’s the equivalent of 200,000 specimens of the world’s largest animal, the blue whale. If you’re not familiar with the size of a blue whale, just one of them is the length of three city buses. When you’ve visualized 200,000 of those, that is the amount of food we waste in one year. This is about 30-40% of the US food supply. So why is that? How did this happen? The answer is a combination of human behaviors and socioeconomic factors.
In order to understand how we got here, we have to brush up on some history. After World War II, Americans brought home chemicals they had used for explosives during the war. They discovered that they could also be used as nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Who would have thought that putting explosives chemicals on our food would be a good idea? This, coupled with innovations in farm machinery, created a boom in food production, one that produced far more food than our population needed. This was not only wasteful, but it also drove down the price of US crops, and cost taxpayers money.
This sudden rush of cheap, plentiful food created a sense of never-ending abundance and disposability in the American mindset. Not only that, but new technological advancements, like garbage disposals in kitchen sinks, made food disposal easier than ever before. The efficiency of this technology whisked food away from the household immediately, so that American didn’t have to see how much food waste they were actually creating. The distance between us and our food waste has only increased with time. I know I certainly can’t visualize how much food I throw away in a week.
So how exactly are we losing so much food? A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council outlines what causes food loss at every step of the food production process. Let’s break down each link of the chain.
- Compensating for possible losses:
Farmers plant more than the population has a demand for in order to prepare for possible losses from pests and weather.
Farmers won’t harvest a ripe crop if it will cost more to harvest and transport it than what they’ll make selling it. It will be left to rot in the field or plowed over, which is called crop dumping. Because of COVID-19, food waste on farms has unfortunately increased. School and restaurant closures have meant a sharp decrease in demand for large scale food production, and so farmers have been forced to dump huge amounts of edible crops and dairy.
- Immigration Laws:
Harvesting is also affected by immigration laws, since many farm workers are immigrants. No workers, no harvest.
- Blemished products:
Farmers throw out “ugly” produce that consumers likely won’t buy.
- Rejected by buyer:
If a shipment of perishable stock is rejected by its buyer for any reason, it’s thrown out if another buyer isn’t found fast. Even if a buyer is found, the product then has less time on the shelf before its expiration date, making it less desirable.
- Poor refrigeration:
Insufficient refrigeration while food is being moved can lead to spoilage before the food even gets to market.
This is where ready-made meals and processed, packaged foods are created in a plant or factory.
- Faulty machinery:
There are multiple machines assembling the product, moving at high speeds that take minutes for the machine to reach when it’s being turned on. If one machine goes down, rather than turning off the other machines, it’s cheaper to keep them running and discard the incomplete product that comes out.
- Machine speed:
The amount of each ingredient in a product is determined by the speed that the machines work at. Because of this, the first few crates of food made just after the machines are turned on will be discarded. This is because these products, assembled while the machines weren’t at full speed yet, don’t have the full amounts of the ingredients promised on their labels.
According to NRDC’s report, about 2.7 billion pounds of meat, poultry, and seafood are wasted in stores. This amount of food is enough to satisfy the dietary needs of more than 2.3 million people for meat, poultry, and seafood. Here are a few ways that that amount of food goes uneaten:
Grocery stores are kept almost fully stocked all day. With that much food on the shelves, it’s inevitable that there will be significant food wasted. To store managers, a certain amount of waste is even considered a good thing. It’s a sign that a store is well stocked and “damaged” items are being removed, meeting customer experience standards. Ironically, fully stocked displays can lead to more damaged items, usually produce, because of increased weight on the items at the bottom of the display.
- Ready-made food:
Ready-made food is increasingly served at grocery stores through in-house delis and buffets. Much of this food is sourced from outside of the grocery store, so the store isn’t even using up its own products. Store managers try to keep these products looking as fresh and well stocked as possible. To accomplish this, they frequently replace food on display, throwing away the “old” stock. The NRDC reported that one grocer they spoke to estimated that his store threw away 50% of its rotisserie chickens.
- Throwing away products that are close to their expiration date:
American consumers have high expectations for product freshness. Out of concern for this, store workers dispose of perfectly good products that are simply nearing their expiration date.
- Preset amounts of produce:
When stores order products, especially produce, they come in predetermined quantities. This often forces the store to buy more than it needs. This can be a problem for small grocery stores who can’t sell that much product. Another problem with items that come in bulk is that if one item is damaged, such as an egg or an orange, the entire package will be thrown away.
This is where the most food waste happens, in our own refrigerators. Our food at this point has a lot of money put into it: to grow, to harvest, to transport, to be processed, etc. We’re the last stop. So all of the labor and energy that went into it is also wasted when we throw it out. This is scary, but also empowering- we have the ability to immediately reduce food waste where it counts, in our own homes. It’s okay, we make mistakes. We form not-so-great habits. But we can certainly unlearn them. Here are a few ways we tend to waste food that we can watch out for.
- Food going bad:
Whether our fridge gets so crowded that we can’t see what’s in there, we miscalculated how much ginger we needed for that special recipe, or we thought we were going to eat way more than we actually needed, we lose a lot of food to spoilage before we get around to using it.
- Expiration dates:
These can be unclear. What does “sell by” mean exactly? The semantics of food expiration dates are confusing, and they aren’t regulated. They’re mostly suggestions that vary between manufacturers. If food labels become standardized and easier to understand, we can save a huge amount of food waste.
- Buying more than needed:
We’re all guilty of this one. Sometimes a sale on a certain item or a “better to have too much than too little” mindset causes us to buy in bulk, overestimating how much of it we can consume.
When all of this food gets thrown away, it is taken to landfills, where they eclipse the amount of other waste products taken there. Food waste makes up the majority of landfill content in the US. Once it’s there, it begins to decompose and generate methane. This is a serious greenhouse gas that you’ve probably heard about before in relation to cows. It’s a massive 28 to 36 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. US landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
That was a lot of doom and gloom, but the good news is that there are many things we can do to solve the problem of food waste in America, both at home and on the production chain. Some of these solutions are well underway, and since the sustainability movement has picked up speed, the American public has become more aware of our environmental challenges, which will go a long way in the fight against climate change. Here are a few solutions that are happening:
Many states are waking up to the problem of food waste and changing their laws to reduce it.
- California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont have all passed laws that limit food waste that goes into landfills.
- Vermont has created a Universal Recycling Law that will prohibit leftover food waste altogether by the end of this year.
- In 2015, the USDA and EPA set a goal to cut our food waste in half by the year 2030.
- San Francisco has an incredible zero-waste composting program that has successfully prevented over 80% of its organic waste from reaching landfills. This has the potential to be adopted by other major cities like Los Angeles and New York.
The EPA sees landfill gas (LFG) as a huge opportunity for renewable energy. Rather than allow LFG to be released into the atmosphere, it can be captured and harnessed as a renewable energy source. Once it’s processed, LFG has the potential to be used to power electricity or fuel vehicles, while also reducing smog and odors that come from the landfill. It can also benefit communities by creating a large amount of jobs.
Most importantly, there are many ways that you, yes, you, can take control and help reduce food waste in your own home.
1. Don’t overbuy.
It helps to make a few quick trips to the grocery store with a clear idea of what you need, rather than one large general trip. Always arm yourself with a shopping list, so that you don’t accidentally buy things you already have.
2. Think before you bin it
Rely on your senses more than expiration dates. Smell food and check it for mold before simply tossing it because it’s reached its expiration date. For produce, slightly wilted vegetables and fruits are great for soups, stews, and jams. They can even be baked into many different recipes like quiche, savory tarts, or casseroles. A great use of wilted veggies and even leftover meat is to make broth with them. There are tons of recipes out there for produce that’s a bit past its prime.
3. Keep your fridge organized
Keeping your fridge in order helps you keep track of what you have. A good system used by restaurants is to put newer food towards the back of the fridge, and older food at the front. This helps you use up what you already have before moving onto what you just bought.
4. Proper food storage
Make sure you’re storing your food correctly. This will help it last longer.
5. Freeze food
Freezing your leftovers keeps them in top condition and can be a more appealing meal option. Raw meat is also a great candidate for freezing, especially if you aren’t sure when you’re going to cook it.
6. Meal Planning
Knowing what you’re going to eat or cook each day helps you stay aware of what you have and ensures that you will use it all.
Composting uses up every scrap of leftover food you might have, whether from the cooking process or from a meal. A compost pile can then be used to fertilize a garden, and even if you don’t have one, you can donate it to someone who does.
You can make an immense impact on our food waste problem with these methods. Not only will it help keep waste out of landfills, it will reduce the use of resources used for food production, like water and fossil fuels. Yes, we have a problem, but it’s a problem that we can most certainly fix.
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