Food waste and food loss are huge problems. Worldwide, about 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste every year. That’s about a third of all the food farmers grow for people to eat.
Meanwhile, 870 million people suffer malnutrition and risk starvation. Saving as little as a quarter of that food would provide enough to end world hunger entirely.
In this post, however, I’ll concentrate on food waste in America. The amount of food we waste has grown much faster than the population over the last 40 years.
The difference between food loss and food waste
Technically, food waste and food loss mean something a little different. Food loss occurs in harvesting, storage, and transportation. Some food loss happens when farmers grow more than they can sell—or when they don’t even bother to ship ugly produce to vendors. Typically, they plow it under.
Food waste occurs when people throw food away. People forget about what’s in the fridge until it spoils. Supermarkets don’t sell everything before it goes bad. Wholesalers throw out ugly food. And restaurants? Throwing out food customers leave on their plates is only one kind of food waste that happens there.
Food loss and waste mean not only the food itself, but all the water and fuel used for planting, growing, and transporting it. It takes about 125 liters of water to grow a single apple. So if you have to throw away one rotten apple, it amounts to pouring that much water down the drain.
In addition, it takes farmland to grow all the food that never gets eaten. About 28% of the world’s farms and orchards produce food that is eventually lost or wasted. Then, at least in the US, most wasted food goes to landfills, where it contributes greatly to the landfills’ production of methane.
How much food do we waste in the US?
The EPA measures food waste in America at the point when it’s ready to be managed as waste. That is, the figures exclude food diverted to feed people or animals. They also exclude food loss in processing and distribution. On the other hand, the EPA defines food waste broadly as coming from residential, commercial, and institutional sectors.
The figures show trends in food waste and the various kinds of disposal.
In 1960, the US generated 12.2 million tons of food waste. The population was about 180.67 million. In 2017, the latest year in this EPA report, Americans generated 40.67 million tons of food waste. By that time the population had reached 324.99 million.
So in those 57 years, the population grew at an annual rate of 1.40%. Food waste in America grew at an annual rate of 4.09%. Between 1960 and 1980, estimated food waste grew by only 800 thousand tons. The population in 1980 was 227.22. So the most explosive rate has happened since then: 5.75% grown in waste compared to 1.16% growth in population.
What happened to all the wasted food?
In 1960, all of it went to landfills. Since then, municipalities have adopted two new disposal methods: waste-to-energy incineration and composting. In 2017, combustion accounted for 7.47 million tons and composting 2.570 million tons. The remainder, 30, 630 million tons, went to landfills. That’s just under 75%.
What are alternatives to food waste in America?
Combatting food waste in America will probably require legislative and regulatory action. That means both enacting new laws and repealing whatever existing laws get in the way of distributing food to people who need it.
But there’s another way to accomplish it:
The Society of St. Andrew shows how people can get directly involved in feeding others. I suppose other similar organizations exist, but I have personal experience with the Society of St. Andrew through “potato drops” at my church.
The organization mostly receives donations from farmers and gives it to food distribution centers. If that’s all it did, hardly anyone would know about its work. And hardly anyone would have reason to think much about food waste.
The potato drop is one way the Society gets people actively involved in food distribution. A couple of times a year over the last six or seven years, the society has delivered about 40,000 pounds of potatoes to the church parking lot.
- The potatoes are too large, too small, too misshapen, or otherwise too ugly to sell in stores.
- Volunteers from various congregations and the surrounding community put the potatoes in bags. Each filled bag is about the size of a basketball, or about ten pounds.
- Food banks and other distribution centers make advance arrangements with the church. They send a truck to pick up a certain number of bags.
- Poor, food-insecure families receive the potatoes.
Whole families participate in bagging potatoes. Even very young children can perform various tasks. Participating gives people an inkling of the magnitude of the food waste problem. After all, 40,000 pounds occupies only a small space in the parking lot. But it takes all morning to bag them and pack them in a solid line of pickup trucks and vans.
Society of St. Andrew sponsors other volunteer activities. Through Harvest of Hope, people go out into fields and orchards to glean. That is, some food is left after harvesting. Gleaners collect it and take it to food banks.
Volunteer activities get people actively involved in combatting food waste in America. They see part of the problem. They feel whatever the weather is doing on the day of the activity. They also feel a pleasant ache from the physical activity. They hear expressions of gratitude from people who collect the food for distribution. Hopefully, they return home with renewed commitment to waste less food.
An ounce of prevention
Activities such as potato drops and gleaning cut down on food waste and loss at farms. They do nothing directly about food waste in grocery stores, restaurants, or homes.
So what can we do to cut down on food waste?
- Buy no more fresh meat and produce than you can eat before it goes bad.
- Keep track of what’s in your refrigerator and freezer so nothing spoils because you forgot about it.
- Eat leftovers before they go bad.
- Serve small portions and go back for seconds if you want. That way, you can clean your plate without overeating.
- If you cook something that doesn’t keep well, make no more than people will eat.
- When you eat out or get takeout, try not to order more than you can eat. Or eat half of it and eat leftovers later.
- Rather than throwing peelings, apple cores, eggshells, coffee grounds, or other non-edible parts of plants in the garbage, compost them. That takes pressure off your landfill.
Other posts about food waste on Sustaining Our World:
Cities and food waste: what works and what seems not to
How innovative food packaging combats food waste
Food waste: a preventable shame
Food waste collection for community composting
Keeping food waste out of landfills
Organics recycling: what it is and how to do it right
Stopping Christmas food waste
Take a bite out of food waste
Food: material-specific data / US Environmental Protection Agency
Global food waste and its environmental impact / Laura Depta, Reset. September 2018
Key facts on food waste you should know / Green Tumble. January 26, 2020