Food Waste Reduction Challenge – Let’s Eat the Food We Buy

Would you toss a $10 bill in your garbage can every week? Probably not, yet millions of Americans spend that and more buying food and later throwing it away. 1

Growing crops and raising animals for food requires a massive amount of land, water, and energy, so does harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, storing, selling, preparing, and disposing of it. Food loss and waste occur during every phase of food production and consumption including on farms, at processing plants, on the road, at stores and restaurants, and in our homes.

Crops Being Watered by Sprinklers

In 2012, 34.7 millions of tons of food ended up in U.S. landfills. At 21.1%, food made up the largest category of waste by weight. 2

When we fill up landfills with food instead of filling up people, we squander all the resources that went into producing it, waste its valuable nutrition, and throw away a huge amount of money.

It is up to each one of us to do our part in reducing food waste and we can begin today by figuring out how to stop wasting food in our own households.

Why Do People Waste Food?

If asked directly, I expect most if not all people would say they do not purposefully waste food; however, an enormous amount of food is indeed wasted. This is a case of saying one thing and doing another. Clearly, our society views wasting food as an acceptable and perhaps unavoidable practice. I believe this is the root of the problem.

As we push our shopping carts around the grocery store or wander through the farmer’s market, I doubt anyone is thinking, “I wonder what food I can buy that I won’t eat and will eventually throw in the trash.” I believe we intend to eat the food we buy, but we chronically overbuy, prepare too much food, and are overly optimistic about what our family members or we will and can actually eat.

Woman Scraping Uneaten Food off Plate into Garbage Can

Extra food finds its way into our shopping carts. We grab a bunch of kale because we know we should eat it (even though we hate kale), we load up on hamburger because it is on sale (but forget to freeze part of it when we get home), or we pick up a baguette on the way to the checkout stand (adding it to the two loaves of bread already in our cart).

We do not want to run short of food at meals so we make extra, especially on special occasions when we anticipate people will want seconds or even thirds. At the end of meals, we scrape uneaten food into the garbage disposal or kitchen trash, and the un-served food either follows or is spooned into leftover containers and put in the fridge in hopes that someone else will come along and eat it.

Be honest, does any of this sound familiar?

Our Food Waste Reduction Challenge

Fortunately, my spouse is a dedicated leftovers eater, but we still waste food. A few days ago, I snapped some photos of food waste around our kitchen and later my spouse and I discussed how to avoid wasting food like this in the future.

Oranges

Plate of Oranges with One Spoiled OrangeLast week, we bought a 5-pound bag of oranges at the farmer’s market. The grower does not spray the oranges with chemicals to extend their shelf life, which we appreciate, but the oranges began to spoil before we could eat them all. This is not the first time this has occurred. Our supposed savings for buying in bulk vanish when we end up putting rotten oranges in our composter.

We could start squeezing some of the oranges for juice, but we do not do that now and are unlikely to start. We decided to keep it simple and buy fewer oranges (duh).

Fresh Herbs

We enjoy cooking with fresh herbs but it is difficult to use them up before they dry out or spoil. Sometimes smaller bunches of herbs are available in plastic cartons but that seems more wasteful than wilted herbs ending up in the compost pail.

We could grow our own herbs and cut what we need, but honestly, we are not going to do that. Not buying fresh herbs seems too drastic. We decided to avoid buying fresh herbs sold in plastic cartons and redouble our efforts to use the herbs we do buy.

Salad Dressing

Open Hardly Used Salad DressingsIt was actually my salad dressing collection that prompted this post.

Several months ago in a quest to expand my salad dressing horizons, I bought a new flavor. It was okay but I did not really like it so I bought another bottle, then another and another. As I surveyed these open hardly used bottles, I realized this was a wasteful and costly practice. Technically, my salad dressing collection is not food waste yet, but it would be eventually.

We decided not to buy another bottle of salad dressing until we use all the bottles we currently have on hand, probably not on salads, but in marinades, sauces, and anything else we can dream up.

To make it fun, we will put a $5 bill in a jar on our kitchen counter every time we use up an old bottle of salad dressing. When it is all gone, we will treat ourselves with the money we saved.

Try Your Own Food Waste Reduction Challenge

Games are popular with people of every age and nowadays workplace learning is undergoing gamification in many companies. I believe games can be an effective way to help people learn and change their behavior by making it fun.

Whether you have kids at home or not, or live on your own, identifying and reducing food waste in your home can be educational and fun. Here are a couple of thought starters to get your creative juices flowing.

Food Waste Survey Game

Pink Piggy Bank on Top of Stack of CoinsObjective: to learn what food you throw away and how much it is worth.

Game Play: record each food item you dispose of for a month (a minimum of two weeks if you cannot hack a month). Do not include plate scrapings, but do include leftovers you throw out. At the end of the month, tally the cost of the discarded food by estimating or using receipts. Place that amount in cash and coins in a jar on the kitchen counter and let it sit there for at least two weeks, then donate it to a food bank.

Food Waste Reduction Game

Objective: to reduce food waste in your home and learn how much money you can save.

Game Play: place an empty bowl in a prominent location on the kitchen counter. Find something to use as markers, such as poker chips, pennies, or elbow macaroni and place a hundred or so in a jar (add more later, if needed). Determine the marker value; say $0.50, $1.00, or whatever works for you. Each time someone eats leftovers, or crackers from the open box, or a piece of produce on the edge of spoiling, put a marker in the bowl (it may be useful to determine ‘acceptable’ actions ahead of time). At the end of the month, count the markers and decide what to do with the money you saved.

Do you have an idea for a food waste reduction game? Share it with other readers in the comments section.

Related Posts

References

  1. NRDC – Saving Leftovers Saves Money and Resources, last revised 2014/11/19
  2. U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012, February 2014

Resources

Bottled Water – Social Implications

Water taps across the U.S. stand ready to deliver clean safe drinking water instantly and inexpensively, yet millions of people choose to buy bottled water. This worries me.

Hand Holding Open Bottle of Bottled Water

Water is the essential substance on earth, a necessity of life. Read that sentence again; now pause to consider your life without water.

Hijacking water for profit is wrong. I believe bottled water is a wasteful and even dangerous product. I admit this was not always the case, I used to buy and drink bottled water so I claim no moral high ground.

In this post, we will explore the reasons people give for buying bottled water and its social implications. The previous post, Bottled Water – Cost and Sustainability, provided a real-life cost comparison of bottled water versus tap water and covered the environmental impact of bottled water.

Why Do People Buy Bottled Water?

What does it say about our society that millions of people are choosing to pay an enormous premium to buy water packaged in throwaway containers instead of turning on the tap and filling up a glass or reusable water bottle?

People buy bottled water for a variety of reasons. We will tackle the top four in this post (not in any particular order).

  • Convenience
  • Taste
  • Concern about Tap Water Safety
  • Healthy Alternative to Other Packaged Beverages
Convenience

Two of Author's Reusable Water BottlesGrabbing a bottle of bottled water from the fridge is convenient; so is grabbing a reusable water bottle pre-filled with tap water and there is no lugging of cases of single-serve bottles or gallon jugs from the store to the car to the house.

Away from home, it can be challenging to find a place to refill a water bottle, but a store or vending machine selling bottled water is not always nearby either. Rather than adding more locations selling bottled water, let’s advocate for more public drinking fountains and water refilling stations so everyone can get a drink of water when they are out and about.

Buying bottled water for the sake of convenience does not add up, cost or time wise.

Taste

Until bottled water companies brought it to our attention, most people probably did not think about the taste of tap water. Now we do. Fortunately, tap water filtering devices are available to fit just about any budget, making buying bottled water for taste unnecessary.

Concern about Tap Water Safety

Green Coffee Mug Containing Black CoffeeThe bottled water industry has waged a decades-long campaign trying to convince us that our tap water is not safe to drink and encouraging us to buy bottled water.

Keep in mind, we do more than just drink tap water; we make our coffee, brush our teeth, and wash our hands and bodies with it too. If tap water were unsafe, drinking bottled water would not protect us.

Today most Americans can turn on their tap and receive clean safe drinking quality water for around a penny a gallon. However, this was not always so.

During the 1970s, water and air pollution had gotten so bad, Americans took to the streets and airways demanding the U.S. Congress take action to stop companies from dumping toxins into the air and water. In response, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and enacted far-reaching environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Sadly, some American’s tap water falls below EPA drinking quality standards or in rare cases is actually unsafe to drink. The culprits responsible for poor quality or unsafe drinking water are companies, corporations, and individuals who dump and spill toxins in our waterways and water bodies either accidentally or on purpose.

Let’s focus on stopping pollution, not stocking up on bottled water.

Healthy Alternative to Other Packaged Beverages

The bottled water industry is cashing in on Americans’ concerns about obesity by promoting bottled water as a healthier alternative to other packaged beverages. Many bottled water companies also sell those other beverages so whether we switch to bottled water or not they still make money.

Happily, we can say yes to drinking more water and no to bottled water by filling up our glasses and reusable water bottles with tap water.

Ethical Bottled Water

A scary trend in the bottled water industry is the emergence of so-called ethical bottled water brands. These companies and corporate divisions claim they will contribute a portion of each sale or a percentage of their profits towards providing disadvantaged people with access to clean drinking water, usually in developing countries.

Rows of Green Dollar Signs

Ethical bottled water brands target our wallets and our heartstrings. Convincing bottled water drinkers that buying ethical bottled water helps people in need enables customers to justify buying bottled water and feel good about it. Moreover, new customers may be enticed into buying bottled water because “It’s for a good cause.”

Helping communities gain access to clean drinking water is critical and important work, but selling more bottled water is not the way to do it.

Drinking Fountains and Water Refilling Stations

While preparing for this post, I was heartened to read about cities, counties, schools, colleges, and state and national parks that are discontinuing selling bottled water and making drinking water more accessible by deploying portable water refilling stations at events and installing hydration stations where thirsty people can get a drink of water or refill a reusable water bottle.

Evanston, IL Portable Water Refilling Station - Photo: Hannah Ellsbury, Ban the Bottle

Putting Bottled Water into Perspective

Every one of us living in the United States relies on one or more of the 73,400 municipal water systems to deliver clean safe drinking quality water to our homes, schools, and businesses and to whisk away everything we flush down our drains, disposals, and toilets, regardless of whether we drink bottled water or not.

In a 2013 report to Congress, the EPA stated our nation’s water infrastructure needs an investment of $348.2 billion over a 20-year period (2011-2030) to upgrade, replace, or install thousands of miles of pipes, water intake structures, treatment plants, storage tanks, and security measures. 1

U.S. bottled water drinkers spent $13 billion on bottled water in 2014 and they are expected to spend even more in 2015. 2 If sales remained at $13 billion a year, after 20 years, Americans would have spent $260 billion on bottled water, enough to cover 68% of the cost to upgrade and modernize the entire water infrastructure of the United States.

Little Girl Drinking a Glass of WaterClearly, the money exists in the overall money pool to ensure that every person in the United States has access to clean safe drinking water; it is just that some of it appears to have been misplaced in the bottled water industry’s bank accounts.

Let’s say yes to clean safe tap water for everyone and no to bottled water.

I am looking forward to the day when carrying around a reusable water bottle is the norm and filling it up is fast and free at millions of public water refilling stations across the country.

Related Posts

References

  1. U.S. EPA – Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: Fifth Report to Congress, April 2013
  2. International Bottled Water Association – Bottled Water Sales and Consumption Projected to Increase in 2014, Expected to be the Number One Packaged Drink by 2016, 2014/12/04

Resources