Plastic Free July Day 19 - Food Waste

(Blog post updated in July 2022)

In a country with over 42 million people who are food insecure, it's hard to fathom how much perfectly good food we throw away every day. Conservative estimates say that 40% of all food in the U.S. is wasted. This includes food coming from all levels of the supply chain, from farms to distributors to grocery stores to restaurants-- and finally to consumers. 

Reducing food waste is one of the top actions that everyone can do to prevent the climate crisis, because it means saving water, energy, and reducing the need for plastic packaging. 

When food is wasted, the majority of it ends up in landfill.

Food is 20% of the stuff in landfills, and it’s the number one contributor to landfills by weight. When it breaks down, it produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas about 30x more potent than CO2. However, to truly calculate the environmental impact of these losses, we also have to look at all the resources that have gone into that food getting to landfill, from seed to trash can. This graphic from the NRDC sheds a light on some of the cost of these resources: 

NRDC Cost of food waste

So, if all this food is being wasted and it has such a tremendous impact, who's to blame?

This graphic explains the breakdown of where in the supply chain this waste occurs: 

NRDC Food Waste supply chain

As the graphic shows, consumers are the largest wasters of food, plus their waste has the largest impact because the food has now gone through every step of the supply chain, using resources each time. However, if you simply point fingers at consumers, it's easy to miss the bigger picture.

Waste occurs at every level; after all, over half is wasted before it even reaches the consumer. 

It all starts at farms, who usually grow a surplus of food as an insurance against crop diseases or unexpected weather. Furthermore, cosmetic standards in the food industry are very strict, meaning that a large part of farmers' crops gets thrown away or stays unpicked in the fields because it’s too crooked, small, big, or weird-looking, despite being completely edible. These practices lead to financial losses for the farmers, and means that 800 to 900 million tons of food every year never even makes it off the farm.

Then, the food gets sent to distributors, like grocery stores. In 2010, the USDA estimated in-store food losses at 43 billion pounds, equivalent to 10 percent of the total retail food supply. What’s causing this waste? Part of the problem is the unpredictability of demand, which usually leads stores to over-purchase and leads food to spoil. Also, supermarkets are expected to keep shelves stocked 24 hours a day to create an image of abundance, which inevitably leads to waste due to overhandling, the weight of food piling up, and intolerance for bruised or imperfect looking food. A third issue that causes waste is the policies regarding sell-by and use-by dates (which, by the way, are not federally regulated or standardized). Many stores have the practice of throwing away food when it’s within a few days of its sell-by date, leading to the waste of perfectly edible food. 

There are tools that grocery stores are implementing to reduce waste.

For instance, grocery stores with ready-made food who stop preparing and replenishing displays as closing time nears waste much less food (one grocery store reported it threw away 50% of their rotisserie chickens every day, with the majority of them cooked during the last hour before closing) because the store feels pressure to keep things highly stocked until the last minute. Also, stores can adjust their displays to create perceived abundance without needing to stock an excess of food. 

While it’s important to recognize the role that farmers, distributors, and grocery stores play in creating food waste, overall households are the largest contributors to food waste, and the food that they do waste has a larger impact.

ReFED estimates U.S. household food waste totals 238 pounds of food per person annually, which costs $450 per person. Because it has undergone more transport, storage, and often cooking, throwing food away at the consumer level has a larger resource footprint than at any other point of the food chain (A McKinsey Consulting study reports that household losses are responsible for an average of eight times the energy waste of post-harvest losses). 

There are lots of reasons why this happens-- some of the largest culprits include impulse buying, buying too much due to packaging, oversized fridges, and a misunderstanding of “sell-by” and “best-by” dates. A lot of other food waste could be prevented by a better understanding of proper food storage and how to revive food that’s past its prime. Finally, the last missing piece is that many people don’t have access to reliable composting systems to dispose of their food waste responsibly. 

The good news is, this hasn’t always been such a big problem, meaning we know we’re capable of changing.

Americans waste 50 percent more food today than we did in the 1970s; what can be done to bring this back down? 

NRDC Solutions to food waste

Clearly, many solutions come from a more institutional level, like changing cosmetic standards federally, streamlining supermarket ordering systems, providing items for customers in bulk, and even grocery stores switching from “bulk” deals (i.e. buy one get one free) to ½ off or mix-and-match deals can prevent customers from buying too much. Furthermore, programs that provide food that would otherwise be wasted to low income or food insecure households seems like a no-brainer solution that is unfortunately not widespread enough. 


However, there are lots of steps consumers can take to reduce their food waste, from grocery stores to the kitchen to the compost bin: 

  1. Plan your meals ahead of time. Plan out the meals that you want to cook during the week, and try to stick to the recipe. If your recipe asks for one carrot, buy one carrot. This will prevent the purchasing of foods that might get wasted. Before going grocery shopping or going out to eat, check your fridge to see what you already have in there to cook or eat as leftovers. Try not to go grocery shopping until your fridge is almost empty. 
  2. When you’re cooking, think carefully about the serving sizes of what you’re going to eat. One study found that serving sizes in the Joy of Cooking cookbook have increased 33.2 percent since 1996, leading to either overeating or food in the trash. If you know you’re not that hungry, there’s no need to make more than what you’ll eat. 
  3. There’s nothing more frustrating than when a recipe calls for one pepper or a teaspoon of some obscure spice, but you end up having to buy a package of four or an entire bottle you’ll never use up. If they’re accessible to you, buy dry items from bulk bins and buy unpackaged fruits and veggies so you only have to take home what you need. 
  4. So much produce gets discarded by farmers, supermarkets, and consumers because of cosmetic reasons. You can be a part of the solution by choosing to purchase “ugly” produce, or produce that’s misshapen, over or undersized, or scarred. Some subscription boxes like Imperfect Produce are working specifically to distribute ugly produce, and save you some money in the process. You can also ask your local farmers at the farmer's market to offer ugly produce that would otherwise be thrown away. 

Imperfect Produce

  1. One estimate says that misinterpreting date labels (like expiration dates or best by dates) contributes to 20% of avoidable household food waste. In the US, date labels are not federally regulated or standardized, so they can be confusing to interpret. Some quick tips: “sell-by” is information for the grocery store, not the consumer-- this is not an expiration date! “Use-by” and “Best by” labels indicate suggestions of when the food will be it’s freshest, but it is not an indication of safety. Trust your eyes, nose, and taste on this one, and don’t jump immediately to throwing it out.
  2. Another important tip to keeping food longer is learning how to store it properly to maximize its shelf life. This handy tool from Save the Food allows you to look up different types of food and read about the different options of how to store it to keep it longer. Some of these really surprised me-- I had never considered putting apples in the fridge, but they can keep up to 6 weeks in there. This tool also offers suggestions for cooking with or using the food once it’s just starting to pass its prime. 
  3. Which leads me to my final point: brush up on meals and recipes to use food that’s going bad! One of my favorite solutions for fruits that are just getting mushy are to freeze them and throw them in a smoothie. Once they’re blended up, you can’t taste a difference, and you’ve saved some food from going to landfill. This tool from Save the Food provides recipes for using up old food, food scraps, and otherwise “undesirable” food to keep it from being wasted. 
  4. As a last resort, find out if there's a composting program near you! Many cities provide curbside green-waste bins, but it's important to look up their guidelines online because what they can accept varies by location. If it's accessible, you can also consider installing a compost in your backyard-- here's a handy guide

Almost all of the data and graphs in this post come from the amazing 2017 report by the NRDC titled “WASTED: How America is losing up to 40% of its food from farm to fork to landfill.” Check it out for more stats and solutions!

Join the conversation!