There are consequences to our national habit of sending food to landfills. American food waste has significant environmental, economic, and cultural ramifications.
On average, Americans waste 40 percent of our food supply, which is more than 1400 calories of food per person per day, reports a study by a team of National Institute of Health researchers. The cost of food waste is $136 billion nationally, or about $600 per household each year.
In other words, the food we waste is more than enough to feed the nearly 20% of Americans experiencing food insecurity and hunger this holiday season.
According to WastedFood.com, wasting food squanders the time, energy, and resources—both money and oil—used to produce that food. Increasingly, great amounts of fossil fuel are used to fertilize, apply pesticides to, harvest, and process food. Still more gas is spent transporting food from farm to processor, wholesaler to restaurant, store to households, and finally to the landfill.
Food waste now accounts for more than one quarter of the total freshwater consumption and about 300 million barrels of oil per year!
All these expensive, precious resources literally thrown away on managing food waste?!? What on earth are we thinking?!?!
And if that weren’t enough, food rotting in landfills contributes to climate change and air pollution. Landfills are one of America’s primary sources of methane emissions, and the second-largest component of landfills are organic materials.
When food decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, wet food waste is the main threat to groundwater or stream pollution in the event of a liner leak or large storm.
Food does NOT belong in landfills!
An Ounce of Prevention
Given the prevalence of food waste, what can we do to keep it out of landfills? The Environmental Protection Agency provides a useful resource with its Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy.
At the top of the list is “source reduction,” or, in laymen’s terms, buying less. That means meal planning, making specific shopping lists, and sticking to them. At restaurants, this means ordering sensibly and taking home leftovers.
Reducing waste also means buying locally produced food as much as possible. If farmers have strong local demand for their products, and can deliver foods often fresh-picked the day before, there is naturally less spoilage and waste. And with strong local farm markets and CSA programs, you are less likely to buy more than you need for the week.
How to Stop Food Waste
1. After source reduction, feeding hungry people through food recovery or gleaning is the next best way to curb food waste. Food-recovery groups rescue edible but unsellable food from supermarkets, restaurants, and institutional kitchens.
Gleaning, meanwhile, is the practice of picking crops that a farmer plans to leave in the field. Whole fields are often left unharvested because the crop’s market price won’t justify the expense.
2. Feeding animals comes next in the hierarchy, so don’t feel bad about slipping your scraps to Spot. On small farms, hogs, cows, chickens and other livestock were traditionally fed household food waste, and on a larger scale they could be fed commercial food waste today. Many small and mid-size farmers would be thrilled to reduce their feed costs while diverting food from landfills.
3. Fats and greases can be diverted to rendering plants that make soap. If you’re brave enough, you can try this at home. Increasingly, used cooking oil is being used as a fuel source for diesel vehicles—a home chemistry process which, if you’re brave enough, you can also try at home.
4. Another waste-to-energy scheme is anaerobic digestion. While it’s not yet on the EPA’s hierarchy, the process harnesses bacteria to convert food and yard waste into bio-gas that can power vehicles or create electricity. American farmers have long used the process to create energy from animal manure, but businesses on both coasts will soon use the process to transform supermarket and municipal food waste into power.
5. At the very least, food should be composted, where its nutrients can replenish the soil. Many individuals, schools, universities, hospitals, and municipalities have been doing so for years. Composting costs roughly the same as regular waste collection and, depending on landfill tipping fees, can be even cheaper. Here’s a list of 100 things you can compost.
What comes at a high price, however, is wasting a resource like food by sending it to landfills. When that happens, we squander the time, money, resources, and effort that went into producing that item, while ignoring the environmental impact.
And, that’s no way to celebrate the season of gratitude!