Your stomach growls at you for the third time and you finally pause your Netflix binge session to grab a snack from the fridge. You’re greeted with an unwelcomed scent as soon as you open the door. Remembering that at some point today you do need to adult, you start cautiously investigating the source of the smell.
We’ve all been there at some point; some of us more than others (I’m including myself on this end of the spectrum). Whether you have the occasionally slip-up or your fridge gets a new funky smell every week, food waste and its prevention is an issue that every person needs to be educated on.
Main Problems with Food Waste
I started my research as a way to save my family a few dollars, and quickly realized that I was contributing to a global crisis. In order to start grasping the scope of this wasteful crisis, it’s important to know some of the facts.
U.S. Food Waste
- The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) published a report in 2017 stating that an average family of four wastes about $1,800 on food every year! I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of good that money could do for my family or one of the less-fortunate families in my community. In that same report, the NRDC estimates that 40% of the entire U.S. food supply (this includes every aspect of the supply chain) is wasted.
- The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that Americans wasted 133 billion pounds of consumable food available to the public in 2010. Equaling about $166 billion, that’s a mind-boggling 31% of perfectly good food going to waste.
- NRDC also points out that when we waste foods fit for consumption, we waste the fresh water, fertilizer, and crop land that went into growing those foods. These pieces of the food industry puzzle hadn’t even crossed my mind! Not to mention the resources used to transport said food from farms to stores to our homes.
Global Food Waste
Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the statistics aren’t any better on a global scale.
- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates industrialized nations waste $680 billion. Meanwhile, developing nations waste $310 billion annually due to food loss and waste.
- FAO also estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted annually. This shakes out to be about a third of all the food produced globally for human consumption.
The bigger problem is that food decomposing in our landfills doesn’t have access to oxygen (anaerobic decomposition) like it does if it’s being properly composted (aerobic decomposition). Anaerobic decomposition produces methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a jaw dropping report in 2015 that shows 76% of the nearly 40 million tons of food waste generated in the U.S. ends up in landfills. That means around 30 million tons of food waste went towards greenhouse gas emissions that year!
- The EPA report also mentioned only 5.3% of all food loss and waste in our country was being composted that year.
These astounding facts leave me feeling ashamed, disgusted, and optimistic all at once. I’m ashamed by how much I’ve contributed to the decline of our environment in my short time on Earth. I’m disgusted by the wasteful nature of society and how we’ve taken our home for granted.
Even with all of that, I remain my optimistic self and continue to believe that we as citizens of the United States and of the world can start to right our wrongs. With only 5.3% of wasted food already being composted, that leaves us with HUGE potential for improvement. We just need to start educating ourselves, loved ones, co-workers, and neighbors to get the word out. So, be on the lookout for future posts with strategies for reducing food waste, meal planning tips, recipes, and more!
What is happening globally to address this issue?
In 2015, the UN has made it one of their Sustainable Development Goals to cut food waste in half by 2030. It comes as no shock that many UN member states adopted this goal. Some countries, like Australia, have seen new strategies, programs, and/or policies come from this goal.
For others, these food policies are nothing new. For example, France had been banning food waste in supermarkets since 2012 and the official law was passed in 2016. The unsold good-quality perishable foods become donations to soup kitchens. In addition to this, farmer’s markets or social grocery stores sell unsold food at lower prices. The French may be on to something! This is an amazing way to use would-be food waste to feed hungry and food-insecure people.
What’s more impressive are the results that South Korea has seen after banning food from landfills back in 2005. Now, most residents purchase biodegradable bags for food waste. Residents pay by volume when the bags get dropped off in the designated areas. Some apartments in Seoul have RFID chip reading bins outside for weighing the bags to determine the fee and allow residents to pay via card. Basically, the citizens of South Korea are paying for their food waste which, in turn, has made them curtail their bad habits.
So how do the numbers stack up? Back in 1995, the country was recycling 2% of its food waste. Making a name for themselves in the war on food waste in 2016, South Korea recycled an impressive 90% of its food waste. Their recycling process produces animal feed, fertilizer, and fuel for industrial machines. I can’t wait to see if this successful model is duplicated anywhere else in the world in the coming years!
What is the U.S. government doing to reduce food waste?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Food Recovery Hierarchy to make food recovery an easier process. The most important ways to reduce food waste are at the top of the inverted triangle. Most everyone can reduce their food waste in one way or another before letting it go to the landfill.
Following in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12, the EPA and USDA created a national goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. This is a huge undertaking, but they are taking big steps to see it through. They’ve adopted a strategy that has them working closely with businesses and organizations of all types to help them recover their food waste. As part of their continued efforts, the EPA offers the Food Recovery Challenge. The USDA offers an extension of the EPA’s challenge with their U.S. Food Waste Challenge. It’ll be exciting to see how these agencies help shape the war on food waste over the next decade!
What impacts can reducing food waste have on us?
One of the biggest and arguably most important byproducts of reducing food waste is lowered greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, FAO reported that food waste ranked the third highest producer of greenhouse gases, just behind the U.S. and China. After interviewing a chief sustainability officer for a U.S.-based engineering and refrigeration transport firm, National Geographic discovered the environmental impacts don’t stop there. Farming uses 38% of the earth’s farm-able land and 70% of the fresh water. Fortunately, reducing food waste will improve the efficient use of both of these natural resources.
If everyone pitches in and starts to follow the FDA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, we will also see an improvement in the finances of the entire food supply chain. It’s a pretty simple concept; the more food we waste, the more money we spend. More importantly than that, we can feed the hungry!
In that same interview, National Geographic reports over 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. In addition to that, current food production amounts can sustain every person on the planet and the estimated 2.5 billion people to come in the next 35 years. Adopting the practices of the Food Recovery Hierarchy or something like it would have global life-changing affects!
Aside from composting, can food waste be reused?
It absolutely can, and it’s amazing to see how creative people are getting! There is an impressive number of companies sprouting up that are breathing new life into would-be food waste.
Unwanted or “Ugly” Food Products
- Toast Ale (UK) founder Tristram Stuart had the brilliant idea to use old bread (not moldy) to brew beer. Now, they have branched out to the U.S. and South Africa.
- On the other side of that equation, Regrained (U.S.) turns the spent grains from brewing beer into supergrain bars.
- Misfit Foods (set to launch in the U.S. in 2019), Rubies in the Rubble (UK), BarstensVol (Netherlands), Snact (UK), and Barnana (U.S.) are some of the other companies addressing the issue of food waste. I actually discovered Barnana at a local grocery store while researching for this post!
Re-purposed Waste Products
It’s amazing to see so many people passionate about re-purposing food waste into desirable foods, but the ingenuity some people have is astounding!
- The UK-based company Aeropowder has turned leftover (and wasted) chicken feathers into biodegradable insulation for packages like meal kits.
- Circular Systems (U.S.) has created Agraloop™, a more sustainable process that turns crop waste like banana tree trunks and pineapple leaves into fabric for clothing.
- The Netherlands company Fruitleather Rotterdam uses discarded mangoes to produce durable leather. The company is currently working hard to develop Fruitleather that’s durable enough for shoes and handbags. How’s that for ingenuity!?
Let’s be real, some waste is unavoidable. That’s where anaerobic digesters come in. An anaerobic digester, also called a digester, is a system where the natural process of anaerobic decomposition safely takes place. Organic matter like table scraps, manure, and fats can be used in these systems. While each digester will be built differently for each product, the process for each system is the same.
While the resulting methane (among a few other gases) is an issue in landfills, we collect it in digesters as biogas. We use this renewable energy source to create natural gas, compressed natural gas, and liquid natural gas. Digestate is the resulting organic matter leftover after the process is complete. Digestate has been useful for things like fertilizer and livestock bedding. Due to it’s ability to re-use waste for energy, digesters have been gaining in popularity among multiple countries.
Food for Thought
Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” For far too many years, I’ve been oblivious to how serious this problem is in our world. Sure, I ate leftovers and contributed table scraps to my family’s compost bucket growing up. I knew I shouldn’t waste food, but I never learned much about how to prevent or utilize my potential food waste. I was most certainly unaware of the negative impact my food waste had on the environment.
Over the last several months, I’ve been digging deeper into the issue because I am tired of paying good money for conducting unintentional science experiments in the back of my fridge. After doing my research, I’m more fired up than ever to do better. I hope this has sparked something in you as well, and that it spreads like wildfire.
Like the title says, this is just Part 1 of this guide. In Part 2 you’ll discover personal food waste triggers and some key tips and tricks for reducing your food waste. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! What’s been your biggest struggle with food waste?