Each year, we waste 1.4 billion tons of food globally. The United States contributes the most to this number with a whopping 40 million tons of food waste, which is roughly 219 pounds of waste per person. Currently, food waste is the primary form of waste in landfills in the United States. Households are responsible for 43% of this waste, while restaurants and grocery stores contribute another 40%. The time of year also impacts how much food is wasted. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, food waste increases by up to 25%. But why is there so much waste? What can we do about it? Keep reading to find out.
Why does the U.S. produce so much food waste?
Misunderstanding expiration labels
One of the main reasons why there is so much food waste is because of misinterpreted expiration labels. Depending on the product, a range of nomenclature can be used, including “sell by,” “expires on” or “best by.” Studies show that over 80% of Americans discard perfectly good food because they do not understand expiry labels. Instead, in an attempt to prevent food-borne illnesses, they throw out products based on these arbitrary labels.
Baby formula is the only product that the USDA requires to have an expiration date. Otherwise, manufacturers are not required to provide best-before or use-by dates. This has led to a lack of regulation of best-before labeling, which makes it difficult for consumers to interpret.
There are two reasons why producers continue to use best-before or use-by dates. The first reason is that society has become accustomed to checking for these dates on products and they are useful for supermarkets to check to ensure shelves are stocked by product batch. The second reason is that manufacturers prefer to give a guarantee of when it is best to consume their products by.
This way, they cannot be held liable if products become stale or dry beyond a certain time. While the products are still edible, they will not be the same quality as when they were first produced. Following these arbitrary dates leads to excessive amounts of food waste, which can be avoided by examining foods carefully before discarding them.
Produce that is not perfectly shaped, has marks, and is oddly sized or discolored is often thrown away even before leaving the farm. These fruits and vegetables do not meet marketplace standards and account for 20-40% of the total harvested produce. In supermarkets, products that are packaged but look a little different have a higher likelihood of not being bought compared to other produce, irrespective of their quality. This results in excessive waste of fresh food that is safe and healthy to eat but looks “ugly.”
Buying and/or cooking excess food
Despite growing rates of food insecurity in America and factors that contribute to it (such as inflation and supply chain problems), the U.S. and other developed countries are key contributors to global food wastage.
Particularly during the holiday season, a key factor that comes into play is buying or cooking excessive amounts of food. By overestimating the amount of food they will eat and purchasing impulsively, food and produce tend to go uneaten. Leftovers and food scraps that can be consumed or composted are also thrown away, which further exacerbates food waste’s negative implications on the planet.
Economic and environmental repercussions
Considering that between 30-40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted each year, there are several repercussions on the economy and environment. Overall, food is responsible for 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, negative environmental impacts increase with food waste in landfills. When food is thrown away, it contributes to nitrogen pollution. This causes algae blooms and dead zones that disrupt local ecosystems.
Besides environmental harm, wasted food also means wasted money. Each year, $218 billion worth of food is wasted in the United States, and most of it comprises dairy products. In fact, the average family in the U.S. throws out $1,600 worth of produce each year. By combatting food waste, we can limit the damage to our surroundings and our wallets.
How to tackle food waste
But how do we resolve the increasing problem of food waste? Here are three easy-to-implement strategies.
1. Check your food!
Observing changes in the texture, taste or smell of foods is a simple way to spot signs of spoilage from naturally-occurring microorganisms. These include bacteria, yeast, or mold that decompose perishable items. While these can be harmful, they are unlikely to make individuals very sick.
However, unlike naturally-occurring microorganisms, pathogenic bacteria can make people quite ill. Pathogenic bacteria come from mishandling and contamination. They do not typically affect the look, smell or taste of foods. To combat this, it is important to ensure that the food you eat is handled properly – at least within your control. This includes storing items at appropriate temperatures and preventing cross-contamination – for example, raw meats touching other items that you will eat raw.
2. Stay organized
Planning your meals ahead of time is an easy way to prevent overbuying fresh produce that you may not require. This may include completely planning your meals out in advance or having a grocery list that you will stick to for a specific shopping trip, preventing the purchase of other unnecessary items. For storage, it is best to store your food in a simple, easy-to-see manner. This way, it is easy to utilize items you have, sort them and track what needs replenishing.
3. Utilize leftovers and food scraps
Finishing up or composting leftovers promptly is crucial to limiting food waste. Maximizing food scraps is also a useful strategy. Veggie scraps and peels can be turned into broths or used to make chips. There are also several resources online that offer solutions for using up food scraps. One of my personal favorites is Carleigh Bodrug (@plantyou) on Instagram, as she has an entire series of reels dedicated to “Scrappy Cooking.”
Overall, much action needs to be taken to prevent excessive food waste, particularly in the U.S. What steps will you take to ensure that you do your part?
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