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Food Waste

Food Waste

Going to Waste

Americans throw away more than 35 million tons of food each year. That includes everything from coffee grounds, onion peels, and eggshells to perfectly edible foods in unopened packages and leftovers. Food waste is generated by households, as well as farms, restaurants, schools, and supermarkets. All of that food waste is a type of organic waste, the largest category of municipal solid waste. After recycling and composting are taken into account, food waste is the largest category of waste that ends up in our landfills.


A Growing Problem

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste in the United States has tripled since 1960. In landfills, its decomposition generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. To help reduce methane emissions, many states and municipalities are incorporating programs and regulations that divert this waste away from landfills, including programs that harvest imperfect produce for food banks and mandatory composting for large-scale waste producers, like hospitals, supermarkets, and schools.


Too Good to Waste

Despite these efforts, food waste still accounts for 21 percent of what gets dumped into landfills. Part of the problem is the extensive supply chain that moves food from farm to fork—with stops along the way at processors, distributors, grocers, restaurants, institutions, and private kitchens. Losses along the way include crops damaged during harvest or shipping, or that spoiled before they could be processed or sold to consumers. All told, food waste comprises a whopping 40 percent of the nation’s total harvest. Accounting for the inputs required to grow, process, and distribute food—including fuel, fertilizer, water, and labor—reveals why wasting the final product has such high environmental and economic costs. Scientists working with the USDA estimate the cost of food waste at $165 billion annually—a loss of over $1,500 each year for an average family of four.


On the Far End of the Fork

Increasingly, farmers and grocers alike are turning bruised berries into jam, brown bananas into bread, and excess tomatoes into salsa and sauce. Restaurant chefs know that maintaining their food inventory can mean the difference between breaking even and a business bust; increasingly, they’re monitoring portion size and finding new ways to get flavor out of every morsel that comes through their kitchens.

Consumers also have a role to play. When shopping at the farmer’s market, ask for discounted “seconds”—crooked carrots and other aesthetically challenged yet edible fare that might otherwise go to waste. At the grocery store, purchase only what you can use before it spoils. In restaurants, order light and ask for a doggie bag to take home leftovers, and then be sure to eat them promptly.

In your own kitchen, devote a shelf in the fridge to items that should be used first, and experiment with recipes for soup stocks, casseroles, and other dishes that feature leftovers and edible food scraps. Lastly, consider that expiration dates on packages may not mean that a food has spoiled or is unsafe to eat. Those dates are usually suggestions that indicate peak freshness. Taking these steps could result in significant savings for you and your family.


Waste Wisely

Of course, some food waste is inevitable, even when you take steps to reduce and reuse. Composting at home is a great way to dispose of organic waste responsibly. But if you’re short on space or time, consider utilizing local food waste composting collection services. Roughly 2.4 million homes in more than 3,000 communities across the country now have access to these services. To find out what’s available in your area—including service providers—contact your local solid waste management facility or cooperative extension.



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