I grew up next door to my grandparents who survived the Great Depression. They taught my sister and me to “waste not, want not.” It was a saying we heard throughout our childhood. My grandfather even had a game he called the “Clean Plate Club.” If you ate all the food on your plate, you were a member of the Clean Plate Club. My eyes were always bigger than my stomach, as my grandfather used to say, and I would wind up putting more food on the plate than I could eat. I rarely was a member of the Clean Plate Club. I carried that habit into my adult life, and frequently ended up scraping food off my plate and into the garbage. However, that bad habit ended last summer when I started to learn about food waste.
So much food is wasted globally. My grandparents would shudder at the thought. A report released in January estimates that 30 to 50 percent of the four billion metric tons of food produced globally every year is wasted (1.2 to two billion tons). Food waste in developed countries, according to the report by the London-based Institute of Mechanical Engineers, happens because of retail and consumer behavior. Between 30 to 50 percent of all food bought in develop countries is thrown away by consumers.
The environmental impact of food waste
Climate change is one of the most important issues of our day, and food waste contributes to it. More than 97 percent of the food we throw away ends up in landfills, according to the EPA. Rotting food produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas (GHG) with a warming potential 20 times greater than carbon dioxide. Methane is the second most prevalent GHG in the U.S. emitted from human activities, according to the EPA. In 2010, methane accounted for about 10 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions from human activities. Keep in mind that the U.S. is the second largest emitter of GHGs in the world.
What consumers and food retailers can do to reduce food waste
Learning about how much food is wasted in western countries caused something to click in my mind. I suddenly realized what my grandparents had tried to teach me as a child. I researched what I could do to reduce the amount of food I wasted. The first thing I decided to do was put smaller portions on my plate. I also wanted to reduce the amount of food I let rot in the refrigerator. I discovered that the EPA provides much information about how consumers can reduce food waste on its website. Some of the tips include:
- Cook or eat what you already have in your refrigerator before going to the grocery store and buying more food
- Plan what meals you will cook before you go shopping and buy only what you will need to cook them
- Buy only what you will realistically need and will use. Don’t buy in bulk unless you will use all that you buy
Consumers are not the only ones who waste food. Much food is wasted in restaurants, cafeterias, and other places where people buy and consume food in public. The EPA has a great program for food retailers called the Food Recovery Challenge, which asks participants to reduce as much food waste as they possibly can.
It will take both consumers and food retailers making concerted efforts in order to reduce food waste. Perhaps one day there will be such little food waste that everyone will be a member of the Clean Plate Club.
Image credit: Flickr user, stevendepolo