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.
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.
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.
Last 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).
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.
It 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
Objective: 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.
- Bringing Your Own Lunch to School or Work is Green
- Composting Can Change Our Culture
- Dine In – Cooking and Eating Meals at Home is Green
- NRDC – Saving Leftovers Saves Money and Resources, last revised 2014/11/19
- U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012, February 2014
- Civil Eats – The Environmental Action Everyone Overlooks: Five Easy Ways to Reduce Food, by Chris Hunt, 2013/05/03
- National Geographic – One-Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done, by Elizabeth Royte, 2014/10/13 (link no longer valid as of 2015/03/09)
- U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization – Food Wastage Footprint (video)
- U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization – Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources Summary Report, 2013
- U.S. Department of Agriculture – The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States, by Jean C. Buzby, Hodan F. Wells, and Jeffrey Hyman, February 2104
- U.S. Department of Agriculture – U.S. Food Waste Challenge
- U.S. EPA – Food Recovery Challenge