Is Food Waste a Real Problem?

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When it comes to living more sustainably, we hear a lot of advice on changing how we use energy, reducing our meat consumption, recycling, and more. However, what we do not hear about is the problem of food waste. Unbeknownst to most of us, wasted food lurks at the top of the list of the biggest contributors to climate change (near fossil fuels), thanks to its high levels of methane emissions. 

Is Food Waste a Real Problem?

For many of us, food waste is a massive financial and environmental problem that might not seem obvious. To clarify, we are talking about wasted edible food, not waste generated by discarded food like egg shells, peelings, bones, and so on. So how big of a problem is wasted food?

A financial problem. Forty percent of the food in the United States goes uneaten. That is 20 pounds of food per person, every month. In financial terms, $212 billion dollars is thrown away each year. A family of four throws away an average of $1,800 worth of food annually. 

An environmental problem. Burying food in landfills produces methane gas, is a greenhouse gas that causes far more damage than carbon dioxide. Also, 80 percent of the country's freshwater supply each year is used to produce food. If 40 percent of that food is wasted, the resources used to produce and transport it were lost as well.

A moral problem. Globally, 1 out of 9 people, or over 800 million, do not have enough to eat. One study estimates one-fourth of the discarded food in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe could easily feed all of those people. In the U.S. alone, nearly 40 million people are hungry, and one-third of the food we throw away would be enough to feed them.

The Causes of Food Waste

There are many ways food is wasted. On farms, crops go unharvested due to weather, disease, labor shortages, cosmetic imperfection or market conditions, like when crop prices are too low to make harvesting financially viable. 

Food is also wasted in the supply chain of processing, manufacturing and distribution, like spoilage from mishandled storage and transportation times. Still more food is wasted at the retail level from the bodega to the big box discount stores, when food is discarded because it passed its label date, or when ready-made food, like rotisserie chickens, are not purchased at the end of the day.

The foodservice industry, both public and private, also accounts for wasted food. This isn't just restaurants and food businesses; think cafeteria services in schools, universities, hospitals, and other institutions. However, the greatest source of food waste in America is individual households.

Food Waste at Home

U.S. households waste 76 billion pounds of food each year. That is 238 pounds per person, or 952 pounds each year for a family of four—nearly half a ton! The costs of this waste are not trivial: an average of $1,800 per family of four, or $450 per person, gets scraped into the trash each year. 

Household food waste takes many forms, but one study showed half of the food households throw away, by total mass, was unused fruits and vegetables, and a third was uneaten leftovers. Fish and seafood was thrown away at the highest rate, with 31 percent of total purchases ending up in the trash.

The reasons for food waste at home include improper storage of perishables, like meat, fish, dairy, fruits and vegetables, which can lead to spoilage; poor planning leading to overshopping; and sometimes food simply getting lost in the back of the refrigerator. But one of the biggest contributors to food waste at home is confusion over printed label dates on food packages, leading consumers to throw away perfectly good food simply because the "best by" date has passed.

Impact of Wasted Food

The important thing to remember in terms of impact is that when food gets thrown away, it's not just the food. All the resources that went into producing and transporting that food, the land, the water, the energy and so on, are being thrown away as well. 

Modern agriculture is not exactly the most efficient system. But to use one example, 80 percent of our freshwater supply is used for growing food and livestock. 

To put that into perspective, the amount of water needed to produce a pound of apples is the equivalent of taking a 43-minute shower. A pound of cheese is a two-hour shower. And staggeringly, the water needed to produce a pound of beef is the equivalent of taking a six-hour shower.

And if we throw away 40 percent of our food, we're throwing away 40 percent of all that water, too. 

The same is true for all the negative effects of modern agriculture, including the greenhouse gases, deforestation, pollution, loss of biodiversity and so on—40 percent of that is all for nothing.

What Can We Do?

When it comes to addressing the systemic issues, government can play a role, and companies can implement policies to curb waste or repurpose foods. But what can you do at home to waste less food?

One way to lessen the impact of food waste, if not the waste itself, is to compost. Putting food in landfills generates methane, but composting doesn't. Yet only 5 percent of all wasted food ends up composted. 

Increasing the amount of food waste, and food scraps, that is composted as opposed to buried in landfills, would make a significant dent in greenhouse gas production. One report estimated that removing food scraps from landfills would be the equivalent of removing 20 percent of the cars from the road. 

Planning your shopping and meals, shopping more frequently for fresh items, embracing imperfect produce, storing your food properly, and using your leftovers, are all good ways to minimize food waste. Also, learning to understand "best by" dates, which are quality guidelines set by manufacturers and have nothing to do with spoilage or food safety, will result in a lot less edible food getting tossed.

As you can see, we have a lot of resources to help you figure out how to reduce your own household's food waste. This is a problem we can all turn around together.

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