Over 25% of the food that we purchase as consumers will never be eaten, and will eventually end up in the trash can. This amounts to over two thousand dollars worth of produce, grain, and protein sent to the landfill per household each year (Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.) In personal discussions about saving money, living sustainably, and protecting biodiversity, food waste is almost never mentioned, despite the fact that it affects every species in the world. Food waste, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations, is any removal of food from the human supply chain that has been named inedible, mostly as a result of “economic behavior, poor stock management or neglect." For everyday people, the edible waste amounts to about one pound of food per person, or one hundred and fifty thousand tons as a nation, per day. Globally per year, this equates to about two billion tons. This means that one third of all food produced is never consumed and ends up in the trash. Unfortunately, when the food is “wasted,” it does not just disappear. Discarded food is sent to the landfill, uses up an unbelievable amount of resources, and releases tons of methane. To prevent irreversible changes to the climate and a global temperature rise of 1.5°C, the issue of food waste must be properly addressed. Lack of food and cooking knowledge, meal planning, and organization have contributed to the massive financial and environmental issue of food waste. Putting the aforementioned skills to work, providing public education on food waste, and implementing methods like composting and meal planning would help to prevent and resolve the problem. In result, people all around will save money, save space in the landfills, and save the planet. Over the years, as political and cultural life has changed in the United States, so has the way we see food, food waste, and food scarcity. As the nation became richer, consumers started wasting more and more food. During the Great Depression, after the stock market crashed, many citizens struggled financially to feed their families and had to find creative ways to stretch their budget and resources to put food on the table. Many families managed personal gardens with diverse crops, and families in rural areas hunted for animals. According to Living History Farm, “on radio and in women's magazines, home economists taught women how to stretch their food budget with casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast or waffles.” The public could not afford to waste food, and in turn these subjects were in such high consideration that they showed up in magazines and on the radio. Food was hard to come by, and planning out meals was a necessity rather than a luxury. It was work to put food on the table.
During the Great Depression, those who had food were very frugal and conservative with it. However, many people were not so lucky – they weren’t able to cook meals on their own, so they had to go to “bread lines” or soup kitchens. Feeding the public was a community effort, and many better-off families participated in giving food to each other and other families so that no precious food was wasted. To waste food was a crime; people didn’t know the next time they were going to have a good meal so they took what they got. Even the seemingly unwanted food scraps are more likely discarded today than in the 1900s, when almost every food scrap was used. People had more of a use for food scraps and leftovers than we seem to now: they could come in handy in gardens or feeding animals. Often, people kept them all stored in a barrel or pot until it came time to use it. Desperate individuals would even eat the scraps; every bit of food was precious. Deaths related to starvation had even been reported in several cities.
After the Great Depression ended, the nation continued into World War II, dealing with the scarcity of food once again. According to author and historian Char Miller, many families planted victory gardens in the backyard in order to supply themselves with food because a lot of the country’s resources including rubber, clothes, and even food were going to the soldiers.
Now, over seventy years later, many crops are monocultures, meaning that some farms are growing only one crop commercially throughout the whole year and not rotating three or four crops in the same soil: this is a problem on its own, because the nutrients and quality of the soil are diminishing, but monoculture is a way to mass produce food with the benefit of making money.
According to the organization LFHW, which analyzes the causes and development of food waste, another root of waste is the growth of fast food and restaurant corporations. This process led Americans to focus less on the quality of the food and more on the price. As stated before, mass production makes a lot of money, and corporations often value quantity over quality.
Looking at this process more specifically, the way food was grown completely transformed after the end of World War II. Furthermore, our viewpoint on food wasn’t the only thing changing – the country was experiencing many technological advancements in the years that followed WWII, transitioned into the Cold War and, finally, the twenty-first century. The years directly after the end of WWII brought on many agricultural discoveries, such as the development of chemical pesticides and fertilizers from different chemicals made for explosives during the war. This set the US on the road to mass production and price reduction, and when food costs less, people care less about it and care less about how much food is wasted.
Food waste occurs in all stages of the manufacturing process: production, farming, processing, while the food is being processed or cooked and getting ready to be sold, retail, and the final stage of the food process: the consumption phase.
In high income countries, such as the United States, most food waste occurs in the consumption stage. One of the causes of waste during this phase is poor planning, which can happen anywhere from when the consumer enters the market to when they throw uneaten food away in the garbage can. Often, when shopping for food, people do not make a set list that describes exactly what they need, and they just focus on what they see that’s appealing, which in many cases results in double purchasing. People often find themselves with too much or too little of one thing. For example: buying a bag of granola when there’s already a half-full one in the pantry, or forgetting salad greens for the week. Jonathan Bloom highlights this issue in his book American Wasteland, which describes the different types of food waste. In the section about household food waste, Bloom tells the familiar-sounding story of a couple who is attempting to fit new groceries into their refrigerator, but instead of finding room, they find duplicates of the aforementioned groceries, like a red onion and a bunch of mint. Issues like these happen because many people don’t create a meal plan or a grocery list for the week. Let’s face it, many people are not concerned with the preparation before entering the grocery store. People lead busy lives, and because for many middle to upper-class American families, putting food on the table isn’t a struggle, weekly groceries become an errand without consideration.
Poor planning can also happen at home when cooking. People don’t think about what they are going to eat before they eat it, and they have no idea what’s for dinner until dinnertime. Even while cooking, most people don’t know what or how to cook, or how much to make! Referencing a survey directed by Eddie Yoon of Harvard Business Review, only 10% of people like cooking, and half of the remaining despise it. This troubling statistic helps us to understand the many common mistakes Americans make in the kitchen, such as making too much food, ruining food as it’s being cooked (such as overcooking or undercooking), with the only choice being to toss away the unwanted food.
The increase in serving sizes has also impacted food waste. This seems like such a small detail, but all of these seemingly unimportant specifics are what cumulatively contribute to almost four hundreds of pounds wasted per year, per person, according to the FAO. Restaurants have increased serving sizes in order to sell more food and raise prices, and this increase has changed people’s perception of how much one should be eating, ultimately resulting in food being left on plates and eventually ending up in the garbage can and then in the landfill. In 1960, the standard dinner plate size was nine inches in diameter. Now, it is twelve inches. That’s over a 30% size increase.
Another cause for food waste is lack of education around “best before” dates. Many people are uneducated about how to correctly analyze what the dates on their jug of milk mean. In fact, there are three different dates: “best before,” “use by,” and “sell by.” The “best before” date is a suggestion used to indicate when the customer should consume the product for the best quality; contrary to popular belief, depending on the product, it is safe to consume products for up to a week after the “best before” date has passed. The "use by" date is the real warning – if products are eaten after this date, the consumer could become sick. The "sell by" date is aimed more at retailers, and by that date, usually one-third of the product’s shelf life remains before it is unsafe to eat.
Even though the product is still generally safe to consume past the “sell by” and “best before” dates, many people will toss out half-full containers of yogurt or flour. Many of these issues fit into the problem of poor food education and poor planning – and it makes sense, because before these times, when and what was going to be served for dinner was very much on everyone’s mind. Since we've become disconnected with our food and our food systems, this subject has begun to seem like it is less important to our lives and wellbeing. Food waste has many consequences, including environmental and financial consequences. One of the biggest environmental consequences of food waste is deforestation. This may come as a surprise because food doesn’t seem directly related to forests, but food waste directly contributes to increased deforestation of tropical forests because of the increase of land used to produce food. Currently, 1.5 billion hectares and counting, which is over 30% of all agricultural land worldwide, is lost to food waste (Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins). As more food is wasted because standards are rising around the world, more land is being converted into farmland and precious forests full of irreplaceable biodiversity are disappearing at a rate of one hundred acres per minute overall.
Mostly, forests – especially the Amazon Rainforest – are being cleared away to raise cattle and their feed. This happens at a rate of around 27 soccer fields of forest per minute (WWF). About 17% of the Amazon Rain Forest has been destroyed in the last 50 years. Unfortunately, many species in the world, including ourselves, are very reliant on the rainforests. Forest degradation and deforestation can directly cause “climate change, desertification, soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and a host of problems for indigenous people.” (Pachamama Alliance). Simply put, deforestation negatively affects our safety, our food supply, our health, and the health of the planet. It’s not just our species, though. The reason the Center for Biological Diversity states that we are currently in the sixth mass extinction is because depletion of forests directly affects an incredibly diverse amount of species that call the rainforests home. And when those forests are taken away, the animals and plants and organisms cannot adapt quickly enough to the harsh, barren deserts that have replaced them. Furthermore, as the rainforests get destroyed, so will our home. By cutting down trees to grow food that is essentially only going to pollute, we are putting ourselves and the world in an extraordinary amount of danger.
Forests are not the only precious resource going to waste. Approximately 25% of the United States’ freshwater is used to produce just the food that will end up being thrown away and wasted (FAO). This will result in extreme depletion of water supply. If we run out of water, the worldwide famine could grow and produce results that none of us are willing to see. Besides water, another crucial and necessary resource that is disappearing before our eyes is energy in the form of oil and fossil fuels. Already dangerous to collect and refine, wasted oil is a big issue. Oil consumption needs to slow down and eventually stop, and food waste is contributing to the problem, not the solution. Mostly, oil is wasted in the transportation of food, but it is also wasted in the energy used to grow and produce the food and also to prepare the food.
Food also takes up precious space in landfills. These landfills are already running out of space, and all the food thrown away is not helping. First of all, food is the largest source of waste in the United States. More food ends up in landfills than plastic! On average, about 20% of what goes into landfills is food. This might seem like a low number, but it equated to over 35 million tons in 2012 (NPR). Even more concerning than the space in landfills is the amount of a greenhouse gas called methane released by the slowly rotting food. Methane gas is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide gas and, consequently, one of the most harmful and dangerous to the wellbeing of our ecosystems. The biggest contributor to methane production worldwide is food waste. If food waste slows down, the reduction in methane will have unbelievably positive effects on the environment. Methane gas is produced in the landfills when the food decomposes, and it increases directly alongside the increase in food waste. Many of this food thrown carelessly into the trash could have been consumed safely.
Financially, food waste causes many problems as well. Annually, an estimated total of $165 billion goes to waste along with the food it paid for (Washington Post). This amount of money references both the production and consumption stages. When food is thrown away, the imaginary money that was used to pay for that food, to pay for the gas to transport the food, to pay the workers who farmed the food...is going into the trash already. According to author and low waste expert Bea Johnson, over 15% of finances can be saved by not wasting food.
It is difficult to consider solutions that take place during the early stages of food production and distribution, because many everyday people aren’t in a position to make change at this stage. One cannot just go to a farm and demand that the farmers throw away less of the fruit that they have decided isn’t up to their standards. Fortunately, there are many things that consumers can do in order to lessen the amount of food sent to landfill!
One of the biggest and most important solutions that can be implemented in one’s home and is easy to do is composting. According to the NRDC, composting doesn’t take that much work. “Food is going to rot, no matter what. All you have to do is help,” says Darby Hoover, their senior research specialist. To compost, all that you need to do is collect all the food scraps that would normally be thrown away and put them in a small outdoor or indoor bin. In the summertime, the food scraps need to be turned once a week, and in the wintertime, about every three or four. Composting is very versatile and there are many different varieties or types of composting. Even individuals who live in a big city or in an apartment building can compost easily. Environmental activist Lauren Singer has spoken about how she freezes her food scraps in her New York apartment and then drops them off at a community compost drop off once a week.
Composting may take a few extra minutes each week, but the results are completely worth it. In fact, composting keeps about 30% of household waste, from both the kitchen and the garden, out of the landfill, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If these scraps had made it to the landfill, they would take up space and release toxic methane gas for years before they decomposed, contributing to global warming. When they are instead put in a healthy compost system, they will decompose naturally in much less time than they would in the landfill. What’s different about landfills and a small, personal composting system is that in the dump, food waste and other materials that could naturally decompose in a short time, for example clothing made of linen, hemp, or cotton; plants and garden scraps; and paper products, is that they are not exposed to oxygen and the other necessary chemicals to decompose, because they are constantly being covered up by more and more plastic and other waste. Because of this, the waste process is rather harmful.
In contrast, composting is actually good for the environment. Besides taking much less time and space, the food scraps and compost enrich the soil, whether that is the earth at the bottom of the compost pile or the soil around the plants where the compost is distributed after it is ready. It also reduces the need for chemical fertilizer and other conventional gardening products that prove harmful to the ecosystem and kill the nutrients in the soil. Compost is able to keep the nutrients in the soil and even restore what has been lost because it encourages the production of bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter in the creation of humus, which is nutrient-rich and essential to the growth of plants.
Another solution that is just as effective, if not more effective, than composting is education. As stated before, people just don’t know about food waste, and much of the food system and processes have been hidden from us. Furthermore, education covers more than one solution: people can be taught how to meal plan, how to compost, how filling up landfills destroys the earth, and strategies for cooking and purchasing food in a manner that makes waste less likely! Most people have access to this information with the Internet, but unfortunately, it’s almost never publicly taught in schools or workshops. If children are influenced by these ideas from a young age, they will learn to implement them habitually. As John F. Kennedy said, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” Education brings direct access to knowledge and the privilege of asking questions and getting them answered. Kafoumba Doumbia of Columbia University notes that “education is the process of gaining information about the surrounding world." Also, the things taught in school and in professional settings are almost automatically interpreted as “important” and necessary, so the effect that education would have on raising awareness and consideration of food waste would be incredible and tangible. What’s more, education makes people more productive with what they’re learning about and in general. This way, people will take the issue of food waste seriously. People trust authority, so education is crucial in getting people’s attention.
Another solution would be food rescue. Much of the food thrown out is still safe to eat! Food rescue, also known as gleaning or recovering, is collecting and distributing food from restaurants or even people’s homes and distributing it to areas where food insecurity and scarcity levels are high. This solves two problems at once: food waste and hunger. In fact, this practice began during the Great Depression as yet another method people used to prevent starvation!
Food waste is a huge problem that affects everyone living on this earth, not just humans. Food waste has increased since the end of World War II, and it is caused by lack of education, planning, and knowledge. If we don’t do anything about this, it will continue until it is blown out of proportion and it will have unimaginable effects on the world as we know it. After all, edible waste still contributes to the release of tons of methane per year from the landfill, as well as financial and organizational difficulties and deforestation. Above all, the solution is extremely easy and beneficial in more than one way. If this issue is explained in schools, spoken about in documentaries, and the overall information is made more accessible, massive change will take place. The alternative is much harder – food scarcity, deforestation, poverty, extinction – so the least you can do is bring this up in conversation, shop smarter, and maybe even start a compost bin.
If humans created this terrible problem, we can definitely solve it.