Did you know that nearly one-third of the food produced around the world each year ends up in the trash? Not only could this amount of food feed two billion people, but it also adds up to one trillion dollars in lost revenue. These numbers are staggering, especially when families around the world face hunger and food insecurity every day. Knowing this, we can all do our part when it comes to cutting down on food waste, starting right at home.
What Is Food Waste?
Food waste is edible food that is thrown away for any reason, either avoidable or unavoidable. This is in addition to the food that is meant for consumers that never actually reaches us. Food waste happens in a number of different settings, including restaurants, stores, and at home. When it comes to food waste in America, we create 108 billion pounds of food waste each year.
Food loss is the idea that food created for human consumption through agriculture, forestry, and fishing is lost before consumers have a chance to buy it. Food losses can happen at several stages, like during the transportation, storage, or processing stages. Food waste itself is when food is thrown out or left to rot for a number of reasons.
What Factors Contribute to Household Food Waste?
Experts have analyzed food waste to try and find patterns. Here are some quick food waste facts:
- Studies show that people who live in higher-income areas are more likely to waste food than people in lower-income areas are.
- People in rural areas are less likely to create food waste than people who live in urban areas are.
- Females, seniors, and the unemployed are less likely to waste food than men, younger people, or employed people are.
- There are correlations between living in areas with clean streets and lower levels of food waste.
Experts have identified several reasons why so much food goes to waste each year. While we don’t have much control over the food that is lost in the production process or the food waste that happens in stores and restaurants, we do have control over the food that’s wasted at home. Here are some habits that were noticed when it came to tossing out food.
Even though food waste can happen anywhere, most of it happens at home. One big reason is that people buy more food than they’re able to use before it spoils. In fact, the average American throws away 238 pounds of food each year, amounting to $1,800 of waste. Of this waste, most of it is fresh produce, like fruits and vegetables, followed by dairy, meat, and seafood.
Stores get people to overbuy when they create sales or promotions on products that you might not normally purchase. Imagine you’re doing your weekly shopping and you know what you need, but you see a sale on packages of yogurt: buy two, get one free. You were already going to buy one package of yogurt, so why not buy three and save a little bit of money? Unless you’re feeding multiple people, chances are you won’t be able to finish all of the yogurt before it spoils.
These kinds of impulse buys can lead to a surplus of food in your fridge. While you might have the intention to use all of the yogurt, sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way and you end up tossing some into the trash. If you have too much food, sometimes the surplus gets shoved into any available nook or cranny in your refrigerator where you might soon forget about it. This food can then spoil in your refrigerator before you even remember that it’s there.
When buying in bulk or if you see promotions for multiple products at a discounted rate, stop and ask yourself if it’s really necessary or if it will become organic waste in a few weeks.
As shoppers, we are conditioned to look for the best-looking produce when we shop. We seek shiny apples, peaches without bruises, crisp lettuce and greens without a hint of wilting. We associate freshness with the way that fruits and vegetables look on the outside. Because of this, many stores and markets won’t purchase imperfect produce, or fresh fruits and veggies that aren’t cosmetically perfect. These crops are deemed to be too ugly to sell. So much so that nearly 40% of food waste is because of imperfect produce.
Imperfect produce doesn’t mean that the food is close to spoiling or is inedible. It refers to fruits and veggies that might be misshapen, slightly off in color, or have other flaws that might be off-putting for customers. However, it’s still nutritious food that’s perfectly good to eat and sell.
To help reduce food waste, some companies actually offer subscription boxes of imperfect produce to rescue it from being thrown away. Others are committed to making foods from imperfect ingredients. If you check out local markets, you may find that some stores will sell imperfect produce at discounted prices.
Lack of Planning
Improper planning leads to a lot of food waste. Without planning out your meals or having an idea of what you would like to eat for the week, you may end up buying ingredients or foods that spoil before you get a chance to use them. Spontaneous dinners out or cravings to order takeout means that the shelf life of food in your fridge shortens with each passing meal.
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Lack of planning can also be apparent when it comes to cooking and portion sizes. Servings have gotten bigger over the last few decades, with meals often ending in leftovers. Cooking too much food isn’t a bad thing if you plan on storing your food scraps in your fridge throughout the week, but many often end up tossing their leftovers by the end of the week.
Lack of Understanding of Food Labels
You’ll notice when you buy packaged products, like meat, dairy, or canned goods, that they have a date stamped on them. Some say “sell by” while others say “use by” next to the date. This gets confusing since there is no federal guideline in the US for placing dates on packaging, so it’s up to the producer to decide what kind of date to put on the product and the amount of time. Understanding these labels is crucial so that you know exactly how long you have to use the product.
This date is printed for retailers. It lets them know how long they have to sell a product until it has to be taken off the shelf. This date doesn’t mean that the food is about to expire, though. In most cases, one-third of a product’s shelf life is extended past its sell-by date and can safely be consumed at home.
Best Buy/Use By
A best-by date indicates until what point the product will taste the best. It’s not an expiration date. Similarly, a use-by date is a date that you should use to the product before to guarantee the best quality. The only time this is considered an expiration date is when it comes to baby formula.
Some products are marked with an expiration date, meaning that the manufacturer has decided to ensure the best quality and safety of the product. You’ll often see expiration dates on products like cake mixes, vitamins, and baking supplies.
Quality of Food
Studies have shown that people who have access to higher-quality food often are the ones that create the most food waste. Studies in the U.S. and Canada have analyzed the diets and habits of families with children and the foods that they ate. The amount of food waste created was also noted. The results showed that most of the food wasted was produce, but the families had adequate access to all food groups. On average, each family tossed about 107 grams of avoidable food waste per person per day.
However, when looking at how to reduce food waste, some experts found that people who had high-quality food available to them have diets that are lower overall when it comes to greenhouse emissions.
The Negative Impact of Food Waste
Food waste doesn’t only harm our wallets — it has an impact on our planet, as well. Clean water is a priceless natural resource. It’s estimated that almost one-third of water designated for agricultural use in the U.S. is lost on food that ends up as waste. Farmland is another of our important natural resources. Studies show that up to 28% of farmland in this country grows food that will never be eaten.
Finding food waste solutions means helping to ease up on the impact that humans are having on the environment. It’s no secret that climate change is progressing, so making small changes, like lowering the amount of food you waste on an average week, can really start to add up.
Increases Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Your diet has a carbon footprint as all of the food you eat needs to be produced, processed, and transported before it arrives on your table. Each of these steps creates carbon dioxide emissions. A greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation on the Earth’s surface and then bounces that energy back. Large amounts of these emissions are created when burning fuel during processing and transportation.
Organic waste and material that ends up in landfills produce methane, another greenhouse gas. This gas is shown to have an effect on the Earth’s temperature and overall climate. Large quantities of methane are emitted during agricultural processes, like cultivating rice, raising livestock, and residue burning.
More and more, experts are acknowledging that food waste is a contributing factor when it comes to climate change due to the number of greenhouse gases that are produced at all stages. According to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2021, it’s estimated that 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere every year because of food loss and waste. This is equal in emissions to 42 coal-fired power plants. In fact, food waste is the most commonly burned material at landfills, as it makes up almost a quarter of all solid waste. Globally, food waste makes up between 8% and 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Decreases the Food Donations That Could Help Feed Families
Estimates show that up to 811 million people around the world face hunger and food insecurity every day. When you think about that number compared to the amount of food that’s wasted each year, it doesn’t really make sense. So how does this happen?
Besides food being lost to the reasons already mentioned, there are policies and laws in place that prevent surplus food from being donated to needy families. Instead, this food usually ends up in a landfill, creating harmful greenhouse gasses.
These policies exist for several different reasons. Food manufacturers don’t want to be liable when it comes to giving out surplus food in the event that someone gets sick from it. Even though most surplus food is safe to eat, they don’t want to be responsible for any potential health or safety risks. In some places, tax policies can make donating food much more costly than simply throwing it in the trash. Laws vary from country to country, so there isn’t a clear decision as to how to solve this problem on a global level.
There are remedies to these issues when it comes to food donations, however. In Argentina, a law was passed in 208 to protect food donors from liability when it comes to legal matters. The result was a 119% increase in donations to the country’s national food bank over the next two years. The UK created a standard when it comes to sell-by and use-by dates on packaging to reduce food waste. Since 2007, the UK cut food waste by 1.6 million tons per year.
Food Waste Prevention Tips at the Consumer Level
While it may seem like you’re just a small part of the bigger puzzle, every little action that you take to help end food waste on your part makes a difference. Not only does it help on a global scale when it comes to reducing greenhouse emissions, but your wallet will also probably thank you over time, too.
Pay Attention To the Labels on Your Perishable Foods
Now that you know how to read the labels and what they mean, you can put your skills into practice. In addition to use-by and sell-by labels, you’ll also notice that food products can either be marked with an open or closed date. An open date is a calendar date that you’ll find on perishable products like milk, dairy, and eggs. A closed date is one that has a combination of numbers and letters. This label usually appears on non-perishables and pantry items.
As mentioned, many products are safe to consume past the date that’s marked on the packaging as long as they are stored properly. If you have food like dairy or meat that’s a few days past the date on the label, check for signs of spoilage. Perishable items will let you know when they’re at their expiration point. These foods will have a strange smell in addition to changes in the flavor and texture due to bacteria. When you notice these signs, don’t eat the food as you may become sick.
Buy Only What You Need
It’s always good to have a plan, especially when it comes to grocery shopping. A good way to avoid wasting food is to buy only the things that you know you’re going to use throughout the week. Creating a meal plan can help you decide exactly what you need when you go grocery shopping so that you’re not tempted to buy things that you may not use, or buy more than what you need.
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While it may seem tedious to plan out your meals for the week, it will definitely help to ensure that you’re not wasting food or money the next time that you shop. You can start by looking in your pantry and fridge to check out the ingredients that you already have and build meals around them. Another way is to find a few recipes that you and your family like and make a list of those ingredients that you need to buy at the store. Add on any other items that you’ll know you want, like snacks or treats.
If you don’t like the idea of planning all the details of every meal you’re going to eat for the week, try having some go-to meals or recipes that you can fall back on. It’s helpful to have an idea as to what you want to eat and what’s practical for you.
Donate Excess Foods To Food Banks or Charities
If you want to make a difference in your community, food recovery could be the answer. This is the practice of collecting surplus food that would otherwise end up in the trash and donating it to those in need. Not only are you reducing food waste, but you’re also helping to ensure that people in your community have access to nourishing meals while simultaneously taking care of the environment.
Many colleges and universities already have food recovery plans in place. These institutions collect food that is still in good condition and take it to distribution centers where it can be used or given out as needed. Some of these programs depend on volunteers, but there are non-profit organizations with full-time staff out there that are dedicated solely to the mission of food recovery. Other places that might have food recovery programs include:
- Grocery stores
If you’re interested in volunteering, many states have official programs that you can research and learn how to get involved.
Another option is to donate excess food that you have in your home directly to a local food bank or charity. Keep in mind that these organizations generally won’t accept perishables, leftover food, or baked goods. Food banks usually work directly with restaurants or retailers to collect foods like meat, dairy, and eggs. Things that need to be refrigerated or that have difficult packaging, like glass or dented cans, also won’t be accepted. Things that food banks and charities always need are canned goods, like:
Other handy items are peanut butter, rice, and pasta since they are easy to handle and can be made into nutritious meals.
If you know that you have an abundance of fruits, veggies, or other perishables, see if any of your neighbors or friends can use them. Even though they aren’t going to a charity, it’s better that they get put to use by someone than end up in a landfill.
Decrease Your Environmental Footprint by Focusing on Prevention of Food Waste
As you can see, food waste doesn’t just affect one person. Food waste affects us all with its impact on the environment, economy, and contribution to food scarcity. In addition to all of the ways mentioned, there’s even more that you can do to lower your carbon footprint and prevent food waste at home.
You can start by choosing a more sustainable diet, like shopping for local products or ingredients that are in season. These items might not be shipped from faraway places, lowering the number of emissions needed in transport. Buying local can also directly support growers or producers in your community. Don’t be afraid to pick up the ugly fruits and vegetables that other people are picking over just because of the shape or color. At the end of the day, the taste and quality are what’s important.
Lastly, make sure that your kitchen is well-organized. Each time that you bring home a grocery haul, be sure to move older products to the front of your fridge or pantry so that they get used first. Put newer items or items that expire quickly toward the front so that they get used first. This system is called FIFO (first in, first out) in the food industry. Using FIFO helps you keep track of how long you have to use something and prioritize the dates on packaging.
All of these tips can add up over time. Each time that you make an effort to reduce food waste, you’re helping yourself, your community, and the planet.