When I found out that approximately 1.3 million metric tons (approximately 1/3) of food produced in the world for human consumption was wasted annually, well let’s just say I was a little unsettled. And, I’m not exactly sure what a gigatonne is (it seems big, one might say gigantic, even), but when I found out that it’s estimated that food waste produces 3.3 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases, well that concern grew to full blown panic. Okay, maybe not panic, but you get the point. But just in case you don’t get the point, let’s talk about what all of that really means and why it’s a problem.
One, it is really causing some issues for ol’ mother earth — that 3.3 gigatonnes (that means 3.3 billion metric tons, because I actually do know what a gigatonne is) of of wasted food accounts for 8% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. That would put food waste as the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world if it were a country (after China and the United States). It also makes for pretty inefficient use of waterland land, which can lead to diminshed natural ecosystems. In addition, all of that uneaten food ends up in landfills, where organic waste is the second highest component of landfills in the U.S., and the largest source of methane emissions.
Two, it’s costing gigatonnes of money. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, that food waste amounts to roughly $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries. In developing countries, more food is wasted because of distribution or logistics issues, but in industrialized countries is generated by consumers, retailers and restaurants, which end up throwing good food away. In the U.S., the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that American consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion growing, processing, transporting and disposing food that is never eaten.
Three, it’s also a social issue. So while we’re (the proverbial we, I suppose) over here wasting 1.3 million tons of food, 48.1 million Americans were living in food-insecure households in 2014. According to EndHunger.org, reducing U.S. food waste by only 15% would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans each year.
The good news is that changes are already happening in the industry and we are not helpless as consumers. In June 2013, Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Date (ReFED) launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, which emphasized the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy that ranks ways to prevent and divert wasted food from most preferred to least preferred. The program had over 4,000 participants by the end of 2014. Then in September, 2015, the USDA and EPA announced the first ever national food waste reduction call — aiming for a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030.
And now to the good part (and I’m sure why you’re reading this), what can you do?
Think. Be a smart shopper, think about what you are buying and when it will be eaten. Plan out your meals and create shoppings lists so you are only buying what you need. Consider where your food comes from — buying products that are produced sustainably and locally eases the pressure on natural resources (and not to mention supports local farmers and communities).
Eat up. Just like my grandma used to say — clean your plate. Eat all of the food you are served. Be conscious of portions and bring leftovers home from restaurants. And if you’re at home try to figure out creative ways to use your leftovers.
Don’t read labels. Just kidding (kind of). Food labels have long been a source of both contention and massive amounts of food waste. In general food labels have been arbitrary and the dates listed have little to do with food safety and more to do with peak quality. A report released last year found that standardizing date labeling could help divert nearly 400,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year.
So use the labels as guidelines rather than law. A good general rule I use is that if it smells bad, it’s probably bad. Here are a few more:
- Eggs are edible for at least 12 weeks.
- Milk lasts for five to seven days after being opened.
- Bread kept in the refrigerator will not grow mold as quickly.
- Canned goods last for two years.
- Packaged greens and vegetables can still be eaten after the “use by” date. If they are slightly wilted toss them into a soup or cook them. Check out this article from Refinery29 that gives you more tips on using your old food.
And don’t worry, more help is on the way. Last month the two largest trade groups in the grocery industry — the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association — announced that they’ve adopted standardized, voluntary regulations to clear up what product date labels mean. So where currently manufacturers can use any of 10 separate label phrases like “expires on,” “better if used by,” “absolutely do not eat after,” “you might not die if you eat before,” (just kidding, those last two aren’t real, but I would kind of like it if they were), they will now be encouraged to use only two: “Best if Used By” and “Use By,” which indicates optimal quality and food safety, respectively.
You can find more tips from the EPA to reduce waste at home here.
And if that weren’t enough, check out some of the below companies that are making it much easier for us all to waste less food:
Billions of tons of perfectly edible fruits and veggies are dumped in landfills every year because commercial grocery stores deem them unfit to sell, but Imperfect Produce believes that fruits and veggies should never be rejected just because they’re cosmetically-challenged (beauty is on the inside, folks). They source imperfect produce from farms and deliver directly to customers (yours truly included) in the Bay Area and Los Angeles at prices 30-50% off. Boxes are customizable — pick the size, all fruit, all veggie or organic. They also offer community drop-off points, a bulk ordering program, and if you snap a photo of your ugliest fruit or veggie and post to Facebook or Instagram, they donate 5 pounds of food to the Alameda Food Bank. Yes, please!
Along the same lines, Maryland-based Hungry Harvest is another subscription service for “ugly” fruits and vegetables. The company recovers surplus produce from farmers and wholesalers and delivers them straight to your door. They offer $15, $25 and $35 subscriptions boxes and donates a healthy meal to someone in need for every delivery it makes.
Love Food Hate Waste
Love Food Hate Waste is an app that helps you reduce waste at home. The app helps you cut food waste in two ways. Number one — it provides recipes based on the the leftover food in your kitchen. Score (I mean, I always have wanted to find a recipe that combined my leftover mac & cheese with my leftover takeout)! Number two — it also has a sophisticated set of planners that helps you plan what you’re cooking, what the portions should be and what you need to shop for. Double score!
MOGO is an app that aims to repurpose the 10% of food that the average restaurant has leftover every day. The app connects consumers (me) to a network of restaurants that offer leftover food at a discounted price. Restaurants, which at this point are mostly fast casual restaurants, list their offerings and customers select the meal and pay through the platform.
Too Good To Go
Similar to MOGO, Too Good To Go (coming to the U.S. in 2018) allows users to order delicious food from local restaurants, cafes and bakeries that would otherwise be thrown away. Customers get to access to the leftovers at a portion of the price and then collect it up to an hour before closing time. And the food comes in “official” environmentally friendly Too Good To Go on-the-go sugarcane boxes. Sweet deal, if you ask me.
Copia works with restaurants to recover surplus food and deliver it to local nonprofits in need. They also help those restaurants track their surplus trends, make better buying decisions and access tax deductions. As an added bonus they send photos and testimonials back to the restaurants of the people they helped feed.