Food waste is a problem because it costs Americans billions of dollars in lost revenue, puts a tax on natural and human resources, and harms the environment by contributing to global warming and climate change when food waste is added to landfills and produces the greenhouse gas methane.
The problems associated with food waste are multifaceted. While the sale value of wasted food is often cited as the primary issue, that isn't the only cost of wasted food. Food waste also wastes money on the growing, processing, storing, and disposal of food that is never consumed. This puts a strain on natural resources, like water, land, labor, and energy too.
It is estimated that 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted every year resulting in a food loss value of $408 billion a year with an additional $218 billion in food waste costs due to food production.
What does food waste mean?
Food waste refers to food that goes uneaten. There are many factors that contribute to wasted food. While the food you toss in the trash at the end of a meal is one of them, it is not the only one.
Substantial food waste can occur before the food even reaches the retail and consumer levels from weather issues, processing problems, storage issues, transportation difficulties, and overproduction.
Other common causes of the food waste problem occur in restaurants and food establishments where food is either discarded after sitting on a buffet or thrown away from serving large portions to consumers. Restaurants also waste food in the attempt to provide a wide range of options to customers as some of it is left unserved and uneaten at the end of the day leading to food wasted.
Who Is Producing The Most Food Waste?
While food waste occurs at every stage of food production, distribution, and consumption the biggest source of food waste happens at consumer-facing businesses. Consumer-facing businesses are those that supply food to consumers. This includes restaurants, supermarkets, distribution centers, and manufacturers. In fact, consumer-facing businesses account for 85 percent of food waste.
Part of the food waste problem arises with restaurants that offer large portion sizes to attract customers and the need to offer a wide menu selection. Consequently, food is wasted because it was never served.
Other institutions like schools, hospitals, and hotels, often serve food buffet style and must estimate the amount of food their patrons will consume. Due to strict food safety regulations, food that has been put out on a buffet or in the serving line of a cafeteria cannot be saved and re-served. This accounts for a significant source of food waste.
The Biggest Reasons Food Gets Wasted
There are many reasons food gets wasted from spoilage and improper storage to overproduction of specific food products. Food loss occurs every step of the supply chain from production and transportation to supermarket storage and handling and finally right in your own kitchen.
In nearly all instances, the problem can be lessened with more planning and better food handling techniques.
As noted above, restaurants and institutions face the challenge of estimating the amount of food that will be consumed or requested and often prepare more than is needed, leading to food waste. Better planning can reduce food waste.
Grocery stores also face the challenge of quality control and toss an amazing 43 billion pounds of food every year because it no longer meets their strict quality standards. While some of this food waste is from spoiled or tainted food, food waste often reflects aesthetics, and edible food is thrown away because it has lost its visible appeal. It is estimated that grocery stores throw away $15 billion of edible produce due to its cosmetic appearance.
What are some common misconceptions about food waste?
Many people assume that tossing food scraps and uneaten food into the trash doesn't matter because it is biodegradable and will simply break down in the landfill. While the food will break down eventually, food tossed in a landfill (instead of the composter) poses environmental risks, too.
Organic matter in the landfill does not have access to oxygen and decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen) and releases the greenhouse gas methane. Methane is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and has a negative environmental impact.
Organic matter that decomposes in a compost bin does so aerobically and produces carbon dioxide instead of methane. Aerobic decomposition is more environmentally friendly than anaerobic decomposition which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Why do we waste so much food?
Some food waste comes as a natural part of producing and transporting food from the farm to the table. Severe weather can cause crops to fail and thereby contribute to food waste. Transportation and storage facilities can break down and result in food waste. Supermarkets and grocery outlets waste food if they have an overabundance and it goes bad before being sold or if their storage facilities fail.
Restaurants and institutions, like schools and hospitals, battle providing the right amount of food for their employees or patients and often inadvertently waste food that consumers do not eat.
The most common reasons for food waste at home are buying too much, improper storage, forgetting about food in the fridge, or simply cooking so much food it is not consumed.
Another common reason for food waste at home is tossing food due to a misunderstanding about labeling concerning the best date to use the food. The terms "best buy date", "use by date", and "sell-by date" can be confusing. With the exception of infant formula, these dates can be arbitrary and are voluntary labels. They do not refer to the safety of the food. Instead, the dates refer to the date the food is still at its freshest and the taste is the best.
The best buy date means the food is its freshest if consumed by that date, the sell-by date means the food is still fresh for anyone who buys it by that date, and the use by date is the company's guarantee of freshness (such as soft bread) by that date.
According to FoodPrint, most foods are still perfectly good food for up to weeks past the sell-by date. Even milk and dairy are good for 5 to 7 days past the sell-by date if it has been refrigerated properly. That means millions of Americas are likely throwing away perfectly good food due to a misunderstanding of what the labels really mean.
What Are the Environmental Impacts of Food Waste?
Food waste costs money. While tossing uneaten food in your home in the trash may not seem like a big deal, you may be surprised to learn that just how much money you are throwing away. It is estimated that Americans throw away more than a pound of food per person every day.
But, your grocery bill isn't the only concern. Food waste that ends up in the landfill causes a big problem, too, as it increases greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to global warming.
Food waste also puts stress on the environment because it uses valuable resources like land, water, fertilizers, labor, and transportation.
Ways to Reduce your Food Waste
You may not be able to solve the entire food waste issue but as a consumer, you can control the amount of food loss your household experiences.
1. Plan Ahead
If you are in the habit of running out to the store to pick up what you need for a meal you likely end up with unused ingredients and food scraps at the end of the meal. By planning ahead you can combine menu items that use some of the same ingredients and save wasting food.
2. Make a List
Making a list of the things you need before you go shopping is a great way to reduce food waste as it prevents overbuying. Make sure to check the fridge and pantry to find out what you really need before adding anything to your list.
3. Be Realistic
Many fall to the temptation to buy lots of fresh fruits and veggies with the intention of suddenly eating healthy. Unfortunately, many also fail and let the fresh produce go bad in the fridge. Get in the habit of shopping realistically and buying only as many fresh fruits and vegetables as your family will eat in the next few days to avoid food being wasted.
4. Shop Small
Just because your grocery store sells items in giant containers doesn't mean you need to buy them. Stop and consider how much of the product your family will realistically use before it goes bad. Buying too much food is sure to lead to more food waste.
If you are serious about reducing food waste, resist the urge to buy some of everything you find appealing. Instead of trying several types of cheese, choose one that everyone will love. Likewise, choose fruits and veggies that are most likely to be eaten right away. If you feel the need to experiment with different foods, choose one new food at a time to help reduce food waste.
6. Stock the Essentials
Keep your pantry and freezer stocked with foods your family uses and loves. This includes spices, seasonings, rice, and grains. When the pantry is well-stocked you are more likely to use up leftovers in a new dish and your family is more likely to eat it too.
7. Don't Over Prepare
No one likes to throw away perfectly good leftovers, but the truth is sometimes the leftovers sit in the fridge and go bad. One way to solve this dilemma is to use care not to cook more than your family will eat at one meal.
8. Take Leftovers Home
Food waste is common at restaurants because they often serve larger portions than you can reasonably eat. But don't let that food go to waste! Bring home your leftovers for another meal or to share with other family members.
9. Use Up Leftovers
Plan the use of your leftovers. Soups, stews, and casseroles are a great way to use leftover meats and veggies.
10. Keep Food Fresh
Take the time to repackage foods when you get home from shopping to keep them fresh. Use the veggie crisper and keep fresh foods visible so you are more likely to eat them before they get stale.
11. Don't Toss Food Before It Spoils
Be conscious of tossing food into the trash before it has actually gone bad or expired. Use stale bread for breadcrumbs or make croutons. Combine odds and ends of fruits to make a fruit salad or fruit cup for dessert.
12. Preserve It
Fresh veggies, fruits, and meats can be frozen to prolong their life. Consider getting a food saver to freeze items efficiently and store them in the freezer. Likewise, if you have an abundance of fresh vegetables from the farmer's market, make sauces or cut them into bite-size pieces and freeze them for soups and stews in the winter.
13. Make the Freezer Your Best Friend
Repackage family packs of meats and freeze them in the amounts you will need for your favorite recipes. Another alternative is to make freezer meals and combine all the ingredients for slow cooker recipes in large freezer bags. This way, entire meals can be prepared at a moment's notice and your produce will always be fresh.
14. Share It
If your favorite recipes make more than your family can eat and you don't want the fuss of reducing the recipe, go ahead and make it anyway and share the extras with a friend or neighbor. That extra bowl of two of hot chili is sure to hit the spot on a chilly night.
15. Compost It
Some food waste is unavoidable, but that doesn't mean you need to throw it in the trash. Buy a kitchen composter, like Lomi, and get into the habit of composting your kitchen wastes like peelings, cores, and scraps of vegetables.
How Your Business Can Help Reduce Food Waste
If you own a food-related business you are in a prime position to help address the problem of food waste. Not only can you cut food waste you can be instrumental in making an environmental impact by not throwing away food items that are still good for human consumption.
Form an educational committee or task force on food waste.
One of the biggest factors affecting food waste and thoughtless food loss is a lack of knowledge or awareness. Forming an educational task force to enlighten and inform your employees and customers can go a long way to reducing food waste.
Set goals and develop a strategy.
Begin by setting goals, along with a workable strategy for ways to reduce the edible food wasted in both your business and the community. Connecting with other businesses on the retail and consumer level to implement common goals can keep wasted food out of landfills while feeding hungry people and improving food security for everyone.
Connect with food waste recovery programs.
Partnering with organizations that collect and redistribute food to the hungry or those faced with food insecurity can go a long way to making your community a leader in reducing wasted food, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the food supply to the unfortunate.
Donate unused food to food banks, food pantries, and other organizations that redistribute food times for the hungry to reduce food insecurity and improve the lives of your community members.
Work with dining service and food vendors.
Get involved with your local dining services and food vendors to find out how you can help them reduce food waste.
Establish a redistribution system.
If your business is a direct contributor to food waste consider establishing a redistribution system to serve the needs of those in your community. This can include opening a food bank or soup kitchen operated by employees or volunteers in the community, but you don't need to do all the work on your own. Look for existing community programs and commit to donating your excess food to them.
While much of the food waste you will encounter can be used for human consumption there will always be some waste that is no longer salvageable. But you can put this food to good use by establishing a composting system to transform food waste into soil that can be used for gardening and growing new food.