Americans have a wasteful habit of buying and serving up too much food. This pattern leads to an amazing amount of waste. In 2010, that was 34 million tons of food. The census of that year counted a resident population of 308,745,538. That amounts to just over 220 pounds of wasted food for every man, woman, and child in that number.
Food waste counts only what is thrown out, not the amount of overeating that has made obesity such a serious public health problem. That 34 million tons is a larger amount of our total waste stream than any other category except paper. Because recycling removes so much more paper from the waste stream than food waste, food is actually the largest component of the municipal waste stream—14% in 2010.
Try explaining our food waste to people in third world countries who spend their days starving, just wondering where their next meal is coming from. Part of the problem comes from oversized portions at restaurants. People eat more than is good for them, but often can’t finish.
It’s easy to recommend taking a portion of your restaurant meal home with you and having it for lunch later on, but that doesn’t work very well if you’re away from home.
Besides, we throw away a lot of food at home, too. The statistics I have cited don’t include whatever we put down the garbage disposal, flush down the toilet, or compost.
At least at home you can control portion sizes. Serve small portions. Anyone who’s still hungry can get more, but no more than they’ll eat. And if it’s a food that’s not particularly good for a later meal, don’t make enough to have any left over. Train your family to practice zero food waste.
How much could your family save by practicing zero food waste? According to some estimates, food waste accounts for 30-50% of the amount of money we spend on food.
Meanwhile, what’s the environmental impact of food waste? Consider what a 30% reduction would mean to the environmental costs of producing and consuming food:
- Storm runoff
- Energy to operate farm equipment
- Energy to transport food from the farm to the home, with all the intermediate stops at warehouses and factories
- Energy for warehousing, refrigerating, and freezing food
- Energy for packaging
- Energy for cooking
Consider further the environmental costs of food waste itself:
- Rodents and vermin attracted to garbage cans
- Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, produced by rotting food, which accounts for more than 20% of human-related methane emissions
- Landfill space for food waste
- Energy to collect garbage and operate the landfill or incinerator
Time was when parents tried to shame children into eating by telling them about starving children in Africa or somewhere. Then making fun of that kind of table talk became common in print, and I suppose eventually online. More recently, “experts” on obesity reduction have blamed the “clean your plate” club for America’s expanding waistlines and counseled people to make a conscious habit of leaving food on their plates.
Shame! It’s about time to care more about the poor again. We need to learn self discipline, but let’s start exercising it by reducing serving sizes, not by scraping good food into the garbage.
This post is adapted from one of the strategies in my new eBook 125 Ways to Go Green and Save Green at the Same Time: