While both small and large-scale composting efforts are increasing, in a recent year two-thirds (40 million tons) of our waste still went into the landfills. When the garbage truck drives away, it’s “out of sight, out of mind” — but that’s not the end of the story. In the landfill, food waste rots anaerobically, deprived of oxygen and generating around 25% of all methane emissions in the US.
And methane? Compared with carbon dioxide’s effect on global warming, methane is 25 times worse. Compost, properly maintained, avoids methane production through aeration (add plenty of “brown” carbon-rich matter like dead leaves, straw, or shredded paper!). But we’ll reduce our greenhouse gasses much more by keeping good food out of the compost bin altogether, and helping it fulfill its higher purpose of nourishing bodies. We may feel powerless about the waste happening at the production level (whole truckloads of imperfect or unneeded produce being dumped before ever getting to the grocery store) but we can make a difference in our own homes. Consumer awareness spreads through word of mouth, and eventually impacts the supply chain.
Track your family’s waste
Keep a notebook near your kitchen garbage and compost keeper. For a month, ask everyone to make a note when discarding gone-by food: moldy bread, suspicious leftovers, shriveled oranges, blackened lettuce, anything “expired”. Anything scraped off the plate at the end of dinner. Ask the kids to bring home lunch leftovers instead of dumping them at school. After a few weeks, you should start to see a pattern. Maybe you’re overestimating your household milk consumption, and need to buy smaller cartons. Maybe no one wants to reheat leftovers. Maybe parents are overly optimistic about kids eating fruits and vegetables in their school lunch, and apples are returning with only a few bites eaten. Reduce your shopping quantities and portion size appropriately, relying on the adage “enough is as good as a feast.” And those leftover raw vegetables uneaten in school lunches? Chop them up and add them to the evening stir-fry or soup.
Shop smaller, shop often
Increasingly, our food shopping is accomplished at vast emporiums where enormous containers of food are packaged at “bargain” prices, and the shopping carts are super-sized to encourage bulking up. Shopping is often an exhausting ordeal, full of impulsive purchases and a feeling of “stocking up” to avoid returning overly soon. Buying large quantities can be an excellent strategy to reduce packaging and save money — for nonperishable items like whole grains, legumes, and dried fruits: stored properly, these can keep for years. Buying the giant tub of yogurt, on the other hand, only “saves” if you would normally eat that much yogurt before it molds or expires. Be honest with yourself while you shop: do you truly love salad enough to go through that 16-oz plastic tub of pre-washed greens before they wilt and smell funny? And are you likely to look up a recipe for that interesting looking kohlrabi, or will your busy schedule inspire you to order Thai food instead?
In simpler times, marketing used to be a daily routine: before reliable refrigeration and chemical preservatives, most fresh food needed to be eaten the same day. If you’re lucky enough to have a local produce market that’s a convenient stop on your daily route, consider making it part of your routine. By buying only a few fruits and vegetables at a time (and making it quick, easy, and neighborly) you may be able to stop fearing the depths of your crisper drawer. You’ll shop with your immediate future meals in mind and avoid the panic of preparing for hypothetical future contingencies.
Make a list and use it! Mind the folk wisdom: don’t shop hungry. Don’t be afraid to offer fewer choices on a seasonal basis: perhaps peaches are in the fruit bowl this week, and kiwis the next, but not both at once. You may not be doing anyone a favor by offering six varieties of cheese simultaneously, or four flavors of jam, either. Research shows that an excess of choices can be paralyzing, and ultimately lead to reduced satisfaction once the choice has been made. Maybe in our choice-glutted culture, the road to sanity involves narrowing our options, prioritizing quality over quantity. This week I’ll try the olive bread, and next week the raisin-walnut. If I buy both at once, I’ll enjoy each less.
Know your fridge: keep food visible and rotated
Avoid those inaccessible dark corners. A clean fridge is a healthy fridge, and less likely to harbor mold spores to hasten food’s demise. Monitor the temperature, aiming for the low end of 35-38F: much lower, and you risk ruining produce by freezing, any higher and your spoilage will accelerate alarmingly, as bacteria growth begins to triple around 40F. When unloading new groceries, tuck them behind the open containers bought last week. Always eat more perishable items first — raspberries before oranges, spinach before celery.
We love glass dishes for fridge storage: you can easily see the contents through the glass, and you can fill them with hot leftovers without worry about plastic “leeching” into your food. You can buy them with plastic lids, but the lids will crack over time. We prefer the Abeego Flats, an easy-to-use natural plastic-wrap alternative: reusable, washable, and versatile, transforming any mixing bowl into instant storage.
If you must buy a lot of produce in advance, store mindfully! We recently discovered FreshPaper, a simple innovation that could drastically reduce your fruit and veggie spoilage. Infused with organic spices which act as natural preservatives, a sheet of FreshPaper in your fruit bowl or fridge drawer will extend produce life by 2-4 times! Beyond that, most produce will keep best wrapped but not wet (if you wash it first, dry before storing).
Some basic (but little known) chemistry facts come in handy: some fruits emit ethylene, an odorless gas that will accelerate the ripening and spoiling of many other fruits and vegetables. Keep these ethylene producers segregated in your fridge, and save yourself pounds of waste. Gassy fruits include apples, melons, and most stone fruits such as peaches and plums. Also bear in mind that many fruits, including avocados, pears, and tomatoes, should be kept at room temperature: preferably in plain sight on your countertop, where you won’t forget to consume them at the height of their succulent ripeness.
Choose the funny-looking fruit
It’s human nature to choose the nicest specimen available. A child will almost always pick the larger, unblemished fruit, even if she ends up eating only a quarter of it. Challenging this instinct is tough, but it’s becoming an important piece of social activism in combatting food waste. Some farmers report that less than half of what they grow leaves the farm, largely due to aesthetic and size requirements; the total wastage is hard to calculate.
In Europe, the “Ugly Fruit” movement has been gaining traction among those outraged by food waste as well as individuals needing a more affordable way to get healthy fresh food on the table. Spearheaded by the Fruta Feia (“ugly fruit”) buying cooperative in Portugal, which purchases produce which falls short of aesthetic standards directly from growers, proponents are trying to break down the illusion that external perfection means higher quality. The modern insistence on blemish-free apples, perfectly straight cucumbers and zucchini, and spinach with uniformly perfect leaves has resulted in irrational prejudices which are hard to shake. But heirloom gardeners know a secret: unattractive specimens can be far sweeter and tastier than the bland bred-for-looks mass-market options.
You can get around the perfect-appearance trap by buying direct from the grower, at farmer’s markets or through CSAs. Challenge your own assumptions when choosing what to take home: remember that if everyone passes over that misshapen plum, it will end up in the compost, or worse. A squash or root vegetable with a slight abrasion will be just fine if you cook it promptly: think of it as a rescue mission.
And take it beyond the produce section! Packaged foods get thrown out if their packaging is damaged — labels torn, cardboard bent, cellophane crumpled. In many cases the “safety sealing” of such an item is perfectly intact, but shoppers pass it over in favor of more picture-perfect specimens; soon an alert staff person will send it to the dumpster. If you notice such an ugly duckling on the shelf, consider adopting it and taking it home, assuming it’s on your shopping list. Ask your local market what they do with blemished or unchosen products; encourage management to work with local food banks or community organizations.
Abundance addiction: the American weakness
Our puzzling problem, since coming into widespread national prosperity and political power, has been increasingly bountiful food production and a culture of conspicuous consumption. This affects all of us, even if we avoid the malls and reuse/recycle conscientiously. A full refrigerator offers a sense of security, and we tend to like to have plenty of options available: a choice of fresh fruit, a choice of salad dressings, breakfast cereal, or sandwich filling. It’s become traditional to offer second helpings, and to always cook extra for fear of a larger appetite going unsatisfied. We fill plates and lunch containers extra-generously, as though food were a potent symbol of family love. Perhaps our cultural fear of a loved one “going hungry” has deep roots to a time when hunger was a more realistic danger for most of us: our grandparents or great-grandparents likely survived the Great Depression, and emerged from that lean and frightening time to initiate new family values and customs around food.
Our current food waste, as well as our obesity epidemic, may be the unfortunate legacy of their well-meaning celebration of the return to boom times.
Try experimenting with cooking (and serving) the quantity you expect your household will actually eat. Offer moderate servings, then sit down and eat together, relaxed and mindful of the food’s flavors and textures. Eating slowly encourages awareness of satiation, and if we’re enjoying one another’s company we’re less likely to crave an extra portion. If we can let go of our anxiety about someone wanting more, mealtime can begin to be a time to connect, rather than load up on calories.
Treasure your leftovers (or don’t make them)
The trick with leftovers is to stay alert: refrigerate promptly, and use them the next day if possible. Familiarize yourself with basic food safety practices to enhance your confidence when reheating. If you’re cooking large quantities, make sure the dish will reheat well, and your table will be happy to see it for dinner again tomorrow. Eating the same dinner twice is a time-honored strategy to save prep time for the cook, and most stews, soups, and casseroles are just as tasty the second time around. If it’s not enough for another meal for all, it can make a perfect, no-prep lunch for one, with a quick freshening in the office microwave. Before you start contemplating what you’re craving for dinner, notice what needs to get eaten. Dice up leftover meats to quickly stir-fry with whatever vegetables have been waiting in the crisper the longest.
Restaurants are under consumer pressure to serve large portions, and they in turn may subtly pressure customers to over-order, encouraging appetizers, salads, and desserts in addition to an ample main course. Diners require both awareness and confidence to order less or share dishes with a companion, with an eye to finishing everything on the plate. The worst offenders in restaurant waste, unsurprisingly, are buffet establishments where customers gleefully pile plates high, feeling they are getting a “better deal” even when the plate is left half-full (and where everything must be thrown out within a few hours of placing on the buffet table). Only half of us take our excess restaurant food home: ask for a doggy-bag, or better yet tuck your own reusable container into your bag to further reduce waste.
Preserve it before it goes south
As gardeners, we’re often faced with an abundance of one crop in a bumper year: a glut of apples, a feast of tomatoes, a landslide of green beans. Eating them all fresh is laughable, and without our own distribution network, even giving the bounty away can feel daunting. That’s when we turn to preserving: we break out the dehydrator, the canning jars, or the freezer bags. Give your fridge an honest assessment every couple of days, and make other plans for anything you don’t expect to use.
Canning is the method of choice for large quantities (it’s inefficient to can one jar of anything). The dehydrator is wonderful for fruit, the freezer is often preferred for veggies, or small quantities of anything. We reuse clean yogurt containers for freezing leftovers, meats, and veggies: label and date everything clearly in permanent marker, so you can scan your freezer at a glance. Clean and chop vegetables before freezing. Then…use it! Feel like an afternoon pick-me-up? Instead of reaching for a box of empty-calorie crackers, pull out a small frozen leftover, transfer to a bowl, and microwave for a much more sustaining snack. Need a quick hot soup on a cold evening? Sauté an onion, add last night’s leftover dinner plus a bag of chopped frozen veggies.
If all else fails, keep it out of the landfill
Participate in your city or town’s recycling program, if you’re lucky enough to have one. If not, get creative about composting your own waste in a backyard tumbler or upright bin. The result? Enrich your houseplants if you don’t have a garden, and delight gardening friends with gifts of your nutrient-packed finished soil amendment. Another great option is bringing your food scraps to a nearby community garden if they welcome compost donations, or finding a friend or neighbor willing to take in your leavings.
The impact of our food waste reaches far beyond the nearly 40 million tons of formerly-delicious rotting landfill. Each one of us throws away, on average, the food equivalent of $28-$43 each month: imagine if that money was instead going to your favorite charity, into your retirement account, or toward a child’s dance or music lessons. Also consider, as we teeter on the brink of a national water crisis, that 80% of freshwater consumption is guzzled by food production. If 40% of that food goes uneaten, we’ve squandered more water than the total use of all US households combined.
It’s no surprise that a growing movement of middle class Americans, in addition to those in real need, have turned to “dumpster diving” and other forms of scavenging or “reclaiming” food headed for the landfill. Disillusioned young people calling themselves “freegans” try to opt-out of the food commerce all together, subsisting only on what can be obtained for free. The flagrant waste of the food system is becoming more visible, and critics are not afraid to make an example of themselves in order to point out the unsustainable madness of what we’re throwing away.
We don’t all have to abandon the supermarket entirely, or forego the pleasure of a nice dinner out from time to time. By incorporating food-waste awareness and habits, we will naturally make small meaningful adjustments in our daily cooking and eating. The resources we conserve today will help feed our great-grandchildren, who may find themselves with a different set of problems than “too much food”.