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  • Nicole Vuong

Why Food Waste Is Not In Good Environmental Taste



Introduction

Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas...what do these words have in common? Yes, they’re all holidays beloved by many, but they’re days that are especially associated with special foods such as turkey or pumpkin pie. What happens when there’s an excess amount of food? I doubt any child is throwing away their Halloween candy, but time and time again, we see stores selling overbearing amounts of holiday-themed foods and having to throw out anything that they can’t sell. It’s not just during holiday seasons either - it’s every day. Grocery stores alone throw away 43 billion pounds of food annually (1).


We all know that food scarcity is a pronounced humanitarian problem. This means that food waste, especially at the level the U.S. is currently throwing food out, is hypocritical to say the least. But, in addition to its social consequences, what impact does the excess food we dump have on the environment? This article covers the staggering effects of food waste in the U.S.


Some Fast Statistics on the Waste

We already know that supermarkets throw out plenty of unsold food. Of course, it’s not just the supermarkets. Restaurants, schools, hotels, hospitals, households… collectively, they play an even greater part. Just check out these numbers:

  • US restaurants: 22-33 billion pounds of food waste/year (2)

  • Hotels/hospitals: 7-11 billion pounds/year (2)

  • Households: 76 billion pounds/year (2)

  • 40% of USA's food supply wasted/year (3)

  • $161 billion worth of uneaten food/year (3)

While businesses/distributors are undoubtedly contributors to this deluge of uneaten food, much of this waste is a result of consumer choices. Pertaining to the restaurants’ waste, 55% of edible leftovers are left on plates by diners, and even 17% of plates are left untouched (2)! Given that the number of Americans experiencing food insecurity is below 40%, there is enough food supply to support everyone. This prospect makes simply throwing good food away even more wasteful.



Environmental Impacts of Food Waste

Food requires energy and resources to transport, process, package and store, hence why the “further down the chain” a product is in, the more money, energy, and resources are invested into its production. However, regardless of where the food is wasted (at the farm level, manufacturing level, or consumer level), wasting food brings detrimental effects to the environment.

  • Damage to Freshwater: The food we waste consumes “21% of our freshwater, 19% of our fertilizer, 18% of our cropland, and 21% of our landfill volume” (4)! Freshwater is known to be scarce (only about 1% of Earth’s water is freshwater available for organisms’ use), so wasting that much water is certainly undesirable. Additionally, runoff from fertilizer is known to cause excessive phosphorus/nitrogen levels in bodies of water. This not only pollutes freshwater sources, but also can lead to eutrophication, hypoxia, and a loss of aquatic ecosystems. Overall, about $172 billion worth of freshwater is wasted each year due to uneaten edible food (4).


  • The Problem With Landfills: We already know that landfills pollute air, soil and water. Only 5% of food is composted in the US (2), so the remaining 95% being dumped into landfills make up approximately 21% of the landfill’s total volume (4). As the uneaten food decomposes, it releases greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons, all of which exacerbate the problem of climate change. In fact, the food in landfills has a carbon footprint equivalent to that of 39 million passenger cars (4)!

  • Note that much of America’s food is packaged with plastic. Wasting this food means that plastic is also being wasted and allowed to pollute the environment.


  • Loss of Biodiversity: Agricultural practices, such as the use of pesticides, monocropping and deforestation, all threaten ecosystems' health. Biodiversity provides numerous services, from “providing resilience to climate change” to “supporting human health” to “providing in fisheries, forestry, and many other sectors” (5). Given that 40% of the USA’s food supply isn’t eaten each year, the effects of unsustainable agricultural practices become even more frustrating. In other words, food waste branches out into numerous other environmental problems in addition to being ethically questionable as its own, self-contained problem.


Why the Waste?

Great question. It’s mostly a matter of economics, consumer misunderstandings and poor planning.

  • Farm-Level Loss: Farmers tend to grow extra to account for possible decreases in crop yields (caused by bad weather, pests, etc). Furthermore, a decrease in prices for certain crops makes harvesting crops an economic loss (6). In such an instance, farmers are forced to leave their crops to decompose back into the soil.



  • Strict Standards: Consumers do not buy products that are cosmetically imperfect. Think about it: a dented can, a box of bruised strawberries, a box with a fold...they’re ignored in the store, regardless of whether or not the contents are perfectly edible. In the case of romaine hearts, the unsavory-looking outer leaves of the romaine lettuce head are shed at the farm, to the point that more romaine is lost than sold! (To be specific, a 113% loss for romaine hearts…(6).


  • Labels: “Best if used by,” “expires by,” “sell by”...the labels are intimidating. People are concerned about food-borne illnesses and throw away food to prevent such risk. However, in the process, about 80% of Americans throw away food they mistakenly deem to be unsafe (2). In fact, only food past the “expires by” date should be thrown away immediately. “Best if used by” and “sell by” labels are merely “suggestions for peak quality” and do not imply food spoilage (2).


  • Buying Too Much: Yes, those coupons and flashy sales are enticing, not to mention the encouragement of bulk purchases under the reasoning of “cheaper unit price.” However, this causes consumers to purchase excess amounts, which spoil before the consumer can use the product or are created into leftover portions that are left uneaten. Sometimes, people don’t intend to waste food; they simply forget about their produce or leftovers in the crevices of their refrigerator drawers.


Solutions? Yes Please!:

Here’s some easy DIY solutions you can take part in:

  • Compost your scraps: Composting prevents your food scraps from ending up in a landfill. To compost, bury your food scraps under dirt. If you don’t have a large enough garden space to do this, you can use a compost bin and keep it in a cool spot with sunlight (7). You’ll need to add enough worms though - about one pound of worms per pound of food waste (8).



  • Don’t toss out “ugly” produce: As long as they’re not spoiled, you can still eat produce that has external “deformities” on them. In the case of bruised fruit for instance, add them to a smoothie and the bruise won’t even be visible anymore!


  • Donate: Sometimes, companies don’t donate excess food because the cost of transporting it outweighs the cost of simply dumping it in a landfill. You can help! Donating excess cans of food or boxes of pasta is much appreciated. (Be careful about donating perishable, unpackaged foods such as homemade leftovers, dairy, and baked products though. Due to safety concerns, many food banks are unable to accept such items..)


  • Watch your restaurant order: Try not to order too much. If you do, don’t leave it on the plate - ask for a to-go box and eat it as a snack/meal later. If you’re at a buffet, feel free to indulge, but don’t attempt to recreate a whole mukbang (a popular genre of binge-eating videos) and leave the table with plates of untouched food. Take small portions at a time.


Food waste is a preventable problem with environmental consequences that are largely unknown to the general public. Also, because everyone has to eat, we can all make wise consumer choices while we’re at it. Legislation and corporations have to cater to customer demand, so YOUR voice and actions are important!


Thanks for visiting our website and being an environmentally conscious person! We hope to see you again soon. :)

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.



References

[1] Hazimihalis, K. (2018, October 31). 3 eye-opening facts about grocery store waste. https://www.dumpsters.com/blog/grocery-store-food-waste-

statistics#:~:text=Supermarkets%20throw%20away%2043%20billion,is%20still%20a%20massive%20problem.

[2] Food waste is a Massive Problem-Here’s Why. (2021, February 4). https://foodprint.org/issues/the-problem-of-food-waste/#:~:text=

Approximately%204%20to%2010%20percent,management%20and%20extensive%20menu%20choices.

[3] Food Waste in America in 2021: Statistics & Facts: RTS. Recycle Track Systems.https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/#:~:text

=Here's%20some%20%E2%80%9Cfood%E2%80%9D%20for%20thought,tons%20of%20food%20every%20year.&text=That's%2080%20billion%20pounds%20of,of%20the%20US%20food%20supply.

[4] Simon, B. (2018, July 18). What Environmental Problems Does Wasting Food Cause? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/07/18/

what-environmental-problems-does-wasting-food-cause/?sh=7da6b23d2f7a.

[5] Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. (2018, April 27). Biodiversity at the Heart of SustainableDevelopment.https://sustainable

development.un.org/content/documents/18277CBD_input_to_2018_HLPF.

pdf.

[6] Wozniacka, G. (2019, August 28). Study Finds Farm-Level Food Waste is Much Worse Than We Thought. Civil Eats.https://civileats.com/2019/08/20/

study-finds-farm-level-food-waste-is-much-worse-than-we-thought/.

[7] Rent.com. (2014, July 28). How to Make a Compost Pile in a Small Apartment. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rent/2014/04/

12/how-to-make-a-compost-pile-in-a-small-apartment/?sh=654182430f43.

[8] Brown, P. (2020, January 11). Vermicomposting: How Many Worms Are Needed? Thriving Yard. https://thrivingyard.com/how-many-worms/#:~:text

=A%20good%20rule%20of%20thumb,many%20red%20wigglers%20you%20need.

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