Wasted food is the second-largest component of municipal solid waste in the U.S. In 2010, over 34 million tons of food waste was produced, accounting for almost 14 percent of the total waste stream. Only a fraction of this waste was recovered through composting programs, leaving 33 million tons to go into landfills where the decomposing food produces methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as damaging as carbon dioxide.
Food waste also results in huge energy and water losses associated with producing the wasted food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that people in the U.S. waste about 27 percent of their food. Government scientists today are realizing that finding ways to reduce food waste represents a largely unrecognized opportunity to conserve energy and help control global warming.
Their analysis of wasted food and the energy needed to produce it, reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, concluded that the U.S. wasted about 2030 trillion BTU of energy in 2007, or the equivalent of about 350 million barrels of oil. That represents about 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the U.S.
Timothy Jones, an anthropologist at the UA Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, estimates an average family of four currently tosses out $590 per year, just in meat, fruit, vegetables and grain products. Journalist Jonathan Bloom, who blogs at Wasted Food, tracked residential food waste for three decades, and estimates that as much as 25 percent of the food we bring into our homes is wasted. So a family of four that spends $175 a week on groceries squanders more than $40 worth of food each week and $2,275 a year.
Although food is wasted at the farm, in transit and on store shelves, a study in Tompkins County, N.Y., showed that 40 percent of food waste occurs in the home. Our personal efforts, therefore, play an important part in closing the gap on food waste and all its associated costs.
Here are some simple strategies individuals and families can adopt to help reduce food waste:
1. Plan meals ahead
In the home, one of the best ways to reduce food waste is to plan meals ahead. Making a list of meals for the week enables you to plan meals efficiently to use up the ingredients you have on hand, and ensures that leftovers can be used in subsequent meals.
Planning meals ahead also makes shopping simpler and more efficient, since you’re not buying ingredients which end up unused. About 15% of food wasted in the home includes products still within their expiration date but never opened. And your carefully planned shopping list keeps you from shopping by memory, which usually results in not enough of some things and too much of another.
2. Rotate time-sensitive foods in the fridge and cupboards
A cluttered refrigerator can lead to waste because fresh foods can get pushed to the back of shelves and drawers and overlooked when preparing upcoming meals. Opened cheese packages start to go moldy, fresh produce wilts and unseen food items are re-purchased while the obscured items eventually go bad.
Check your fridge and cupboards regularly and bring foods that will expire soon to the front to encourage family members to eat it, or to use as ingredients in the next meal you cook. Store vegetables in crisper drawers with separate humidity controls. Organize your refrigerator with sections for fresh produce, fruit, dairy and meats so that it’s easy for family members to help keep the refrigerator de-cluttered.
Be sure to maintain the fridge’s proper level of coldness for optimum food storage. You probably have its manual filed away or you can email the manufacturer to ascertain the best settings. If your fridge’s freezer is too cold, produce in the fridge will get frostbitten and spoil. The freezer dial can accidentally be reset as a person rummages around in the freezer.
3. Freeze surplus garden vegetables
Garden harvests are often uneven. Often, there’s a surplus of a crop, such as tomatoes or corn, which we don’t have time to process or room in the refrigerator to store. For people without a garden, there are often discounts on bulk packages of produce, and seasonal discounts for local produce which we want to stock up on. But stored produce has a short shelf life, and some is inevitable lost to spoilage. A great way to deal with this surplus produce is to freeze it.
To make the most of limited freezer space, vegetables can be chopped up and put in freezer bags. In our home, we layer two or three different vegetables in each bag, which makes a ready -to-go soup mix. Large freezer bags can be used, but we prefer the regular size bags since they can be used to make smaller amounts of soup.
4. Process or dehydrate surplus or damaged fruit, produce and meats
So much food is left to waste in orchards, commercial and community gardens, and farmer’s markets where unsold or picked over produce is discarded. In the late summer and fall, many people take to “gleaning” at local farms and orchards, or visit local fruit stands to stock up on fresh fruit. The challenge is to keep this food from spoiling before it can be eaten.
If you have a pressure cooker, it’s pretty straightforward to can your produce for storage and use over the winter months. An easy way to deal with a surplus of apples is to cook them down to apple sauce. The jarred apple sauce can be canned in a water bath for long-term storage, or left for a week or two in the fridge if you have the space. Apples can also be preserved by slicing them into rings and setting them on drying racks. A food dehydrator can also be used to make apple rings and fruit leather, as well as dry and preserve a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and meats.
5. Compost kitchen waste
At the very least, all food waste should be composted. Composting food waste is easy, and the best way to produce your own high quality, low-cost fertilizer. In the kitchen, keep a bucket with lid, or a compost keeper, in a convenient location within close proximity to the chopping board and for family members to scrape their plates into. Compost keepers come with a carbon filter so there is no odor, and the lid keeps fruit flies and pets out of the compost. In the yard or garage, keep a sealed compost bin for pest-free, odorless composting.
Most, but not all, food wastes lend themselves to home composting. Vegetable and fruit wastes, bread scraps, rice, potatoes, pasta and cereal leftovers can be incorporated into home composters, but meats, fish, fats and dairy products cannot. Our comprehensive Guide to Composting lists which foods are compostable and how to make your own compost.
Composting is a perfect complement to your organic backyard vegetable garden, or if you don’t garden, the compost can be used for the lawn and shrub beds as well as your indoor potted plants. Kitchen scraps are high in nitrogen, and the composting process requires a balance between nitrogen and carbon, so the dried vegetative matter from your garden and shrubs can provide the carbon component. And while food decomposing in landfills produces methane, in your backyard compost bin it doesn’t. Composting your kitchen waste and yard trimmings helps divert that waste from the landfill.
In the U.S. today, the price of food is rising faster than the average income, so the cost of wasting food is increasing. As individuals we pay an added cost for wasted food, and as a community our collective food waste has a huge impact on energy and water resources while contributing to the greater environmental impact of global warming. We can, as individuals and families, help to lessen these impacts with relatively little effort.