In the U.S., consumers waste more food in homes than any sector of the food supply chain each year. From making better use of leftovers to learning how to minimize spoilage by properly storing perishable foods, consumers have a direct hand in reducing residential waste. Despite the attention this issue has received over the last decade, there is still considerable effort needed to increase consumer awareness about the impacts of food waste, and how consumers can make meaningful changes. ReFED’s Roadmap to 2030 indicates that ‘Reshaping Consumer Environments’ is a key action area to halving food waste. Our guest author, Joe Brown from one5c, wrote in his newsletter about how consumers can change their habits to reduce food waste.
This post was originally published in one5c, a weekly newsletter devoted to helping anyone identify easy steps they can take to help solve the climate crisis. You can subscribe here.
Are you gonna eat that?
Reducing food waste is an easy win in the fight against global warming. Here's how to do it.
Hello. I wrote you a haiku:
This, a strawberry
It is the springtime’s best fruit
You can eat it whole
Before you throw your phone across the room and mutter something about how the internet is a rotten tree, fecund with ripe stupidity (fair) and that I’ve lost my mind (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), tell me if this photo looks familiar:
Do you chop the tops off your berries? If so, you’re throwing away one of the most beneficial parts of the fruit. Strawberry leaves contain iron, calcium, and vitamin C. Some folks even claim that the leaves’ diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties can ease arthritic pain. These greens are high in polyphenolic compounds, which have acres of positive benefits. How do strawberry leaves taste? They’re leaves. They taste like leaves. Maybe a hint of citrusy something going on. Try for yourself, add them to a salad. If you’re making a smoothie, toss the whole berry in. You won’t notice it, and you’ll get all that good stuff 👆.
Our berry is one example of something we Americans are particularly good at: Throwing away perfectly good food.
Grocery stores are major perps, of course. I have a friend who, for years, fed the ducks she raised using produce “garbage” from a nearby Whole Foods. The ducks didn’t care about the odd wilted green, and she’d often find perfectly good stuff in the bags and eat it herself. I never heard of anything bad happening to her or her ducks as a result of this yuppified dumpster diving. I mean, I guess it didn’t work out so well for the ducks; you could technically blame all that premium organic trash for hastening their demise.
According to the nonprofit ReFED, which has a great blend of third-party and exclusive data that they present in a sweet online tool, retail stores accounted for 10 million tons of wasted food. That’s TWENTY BILLION POUNDS of stuff that hit its expiration date or went “bad” on shelves, stuff that got damaged, stuff someone just didn’t like the look of, and so on. Food service is an even bigger problem, wasting more than 12 million tons. Yes, you have every right to send back that slightly over-cooked steak—but do you have to? (Also, consider the vegetarian option.)
As huge as those sectors are, the two of them combined don’t come close to the number one offender: “Thirty-seven percent of food waste takes place on the consumer level,” says Minnie Ringland, Climate Analyst at ReFED. According to her team’s research, we waste 30 million tons of food per year in our homes. Some of the stuff we throw out is inedible, sure. We may not have a use for coffee grounds, eggshells, and the various other scraps that end up in our compost piles, but a lot of strawberry leaves and leftovers die in vain. “This is one area where an individual can make a big difference,” she says.
She’s right. Americans waste a lot of food. According to the EPA, 24 percent of American trash used to be food. It’s the largest contributor to landfills, by weight. The National Resources Defense Council reports that the average American throws away 400 pounds of good eats a year, which equates to 1,250 calories per day, per person. That’s like half of what you’re supposed to consume.
My family is as guilty of this as any other—maybe worse. I started researching this because I was looking for tips and tricks that I could use in our house. Feeding America estimates [PDF] that 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure, and the other day I threw out something like two potatoes’ worth of leftover fries. Last night I dumped at least a half-pound of beans; I always make too many. I also let a pint of ricotta turn into a science experiment in the back of the fridge. Again! Why do I buy ricotta? I either need to start a mold farm or just stop it with the pizza bianca.
What’s so bad about a bunch of food in landfills? Isn’t it better than plastic bags and old shoes? Won’t it just decompose and become dirt? Unfortunately not. According to the EPA, being crammed into a landfill keeps the organics from breaking down properly. Ringland with the science: “The thing about a landfill is that everything in it gets piled on top of each other, which creates an anaerobic environment.” (That means there’s no oxygen.) “The bacteria that thrive in those conditions produce lots of methane,” she says. As a reminder, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that’s “more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.”
These emissions are in addition to the ones we generate when we produce our food—because it’s not like we’re all out there plucking apples off wild trees. Most of what we eat is the result of agriculture, and agriculture is the result of diesel fuel.
It takes four to six gallons of diesel to farm an acre of land. This paper is from 2012, so let’s give John Deere some credit and use the low end: 4 gallons of diesel fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, burning a gallon of diesel makes around 22 pounds of CO2; so to harvest an acre of cropland, you’re making 88 pounds of greenhouse gases from the tractor’s emissions alone. Tilling and other ag practices like crop dryers create emissions too, and then you have to get the food to the factory or the store, and and and and and… I’m not going to chase all those numbers down, so the following scenario is pretty conservative:
An acre of land will get you around 2,520 pounds of flour, which could be used to make roughly 1,279 loaves of white bread. That means every loaf of bread you waste—because it went moldy in the back of the drawer, because your kid (my kid, tbh) has a habit of taking one bite and throwing the rest on the floor, whatever—every loaf of bread produces 0.07 pounds of CO2. That sounds like nothing, but if everyone in America wasted just one loaf of white bread per year, that would be 23 million pounds of CO2 produced for nothing. And then that bread would probably rot in a landfill, spewing methane.
Let’s part company with the doom and gloom now and realize something awesome: We can fix this. Food waste is low-hanging fruit (sorry), comprising 4 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Which means we regular people can make a hell of an impact if we eat, order, and shop smarter.
Here are some legitimately easy ways to cut down on food waste:
Log your leftovers
Remember our plastic hit-list? Same idea: Spend a week or two writing down every piece of edible food that leaves your world uneaten. If you’re like me, you have a rotation, staples you make on a regular basis; tweak them to make sure you never waste a crumb. I, for example, know that I make more beans than I can eat before they spoil—every time. I know that I throw out about a third of them, so next week I’m going to make two thirds of my recipe and see how that goes.
Shop strategically and do curbside pickup
I don’t know if you can call it a bright spot, but one thing that’s changed in our lives since the start of the pandemic is that we rarely wander through the grocery store, idly grabbing things off the shelves anymore. We order online and pick it up, already bagged and paid for. (Hey, Hannaford—how about some kind of reusable bag exchange?) The result is a very targeted list and a dramatic reduction in impulse buys, which definitely reduces waste. “Hold onto your receipt, too,” says Ringland. “Keep track of what you’re throwing out.” The next time you order, skip the stuff you didn’t use.
Don’t trust expiration dates
“There’s no federal standard for date labels,” says Ringland. “The ‘best by’ or ‘sell-by’ labels are better indicators of quality, not safety.” Not to start spinning conspiracy theories, but companies will make more money if you throw away edible items because they “expired” and then buy more. They’re incentivized to be aggressive with those dates.
Taste or smell your food, and only toss it if there’s something off. You’ll probably find that stuff lasts days or weeks longer than what’s printed on its package. Here’s a disclaimer, just to put Simon, my lawyer at ease: Be careful. one5c is not liable for any injuries or sickness that is a result of readers eating expired food.
Yes, of course there are startups trying to help
Companies like Imperfect Foods and Misfit Market sell perfectly good food that grocers don’t want to put on their shelves. Produce from these companies can be cheaper than regular retail, and, if you live in an area with poor access to a variety of fruits and vegetables, you can see how they’d offer a quality-of-life boost.
Ringland also tipped me off to an app called Too Good to Go, which connects you with local eateries that have end-of-day or day-old food that you can buy for cheap. There isn’t anything available my rural hood, but if you live in a city, it could be a good option. If you’ve worked in restaurants, you know how what ends up in the dumpster at closing time; it’s a travesty. Somebody give this a shot and let me know how it goes.
Make someone else’s day
If you’re about to leave town and the fridge is full, or you notice a bunch of food that’s about to turn the corner before you can eat it, make a huge meal and invite some friends over.
You might also consider donating it. Many areas have "mini pantries" (blessing box is another common term) that families in need rely on. You’ve probably walked by one: a little cabinet on a stick on the street, often in front of a church or community center. Our local box even has a cooler underneath it for perishables. Don’t put rotten food in there, obviously, but if you have something that you won’t get to use in time, someone else could probably beat the buzzer.
Stop throwing away perfectly good food
Here’s a partial list of edible stuff you’re probably tossing for no reason:
- Cauliflower leaves and stems. Don’t waste time delicately extracting the florets from the head, just chop the whole thing up, leaves and all. When the leaves get all crunchy in the oven or on the grill, they’re the best part of the whole head.
- Strawberry leaves. See above. If you don’t remember reading about this, see a doctor.
- Citrus peels. You can grate or blend these into smoothies, sauces, soups, and more. You can also candy them—great on ice cream.
- Broccoli stems. Super yummy. Slice into discs and roast them. Serve with dip.
- Watermelon rind. Do you pickle this stuff? You should.
- Bones and gristle. If you eat meat, anything you can’t chew should go into a bag in the freezer. When the bag is full, make stock. I use a pressure cooker, and it takes 90 minutes from start to finish. In addition to making a far superior broth, you’re saving money and not wasting the 50 grams of paper and plastic that makes up one of those quart-size containers.
- Every vegetable trimming. My friend Adam, a fantastic and thoughtful food writer, taught me to put anything and everything in a pot and make stock out of it. Potato skins, onion peels, celery heels, carrot tops, green bean nubs, mushroom stems, etc. Drop it all in another bag in the freezer and cook it up on the regular. Add your bones, whatever. I call this “Sachsian Trashwater,” and I use it to make soups, flavor up a stir fry, spike sauces and gravies—it’s indispensable. If you’re making vegetable-only stock, the boiled and depleted husks become the best thing to add to your….
After you’ve done everything you can to reduce food waste at home, you get to reap the benefits of any non-meat, non-dairy food waste you still produce. Compost is magic, and even if you have a teeny tiny sliver of outdoor space, you can add organics to a pile or a tumbler and make the best fertilizer ever. A thin sprinkling of the stuff on pretty much any plant will make it very happy, but if you don’t have plants, you can give it to a neighbor or donate it to a community garden.
When scraps decompose in compost, it creates a totally different situation from that landfill-methane nightmare. You’re allowing oxygen into the equation, and “the bacteria that proliferate in an oxygenated environment do not produce methane,” says Ringland. They do emit a small amount of CO2, but it’s significantly less than the methane from food rotting in a landfill.
If you don’t have a place to compost, many municipalities have programs that will allow you to drop your organics off. Some will even come to you. Here’s a map that can help you find a compost enabler.
I truly believe food waste is a solvable problem, and the solution is in our kitchens and restaurants and grocery stores. Let me know if you have any other tricks, and I’ll share them on the socials. Also, if you’ve got recipes for food you’d otherwise throw out, I’d love to hear them. It’s getting to be primo produce season on the East Coast, and I’m ready to eat some trash.
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The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect ReFED's views and opinions.