Waste Not, Want Not: How Reducing Food Waste Can Help Address Climate Change

Landfills are dominated by food waste that produces methane as it rots, a gas 25 times more harmful to our environment than carbon dioxide. (Click to enlarge)
Landfills are dominated by food waste that produces methane as it rots, a gas 25 times more harmful to our environment than carbon dioxide. (Click to enlarge)

By Camille Szramiak-Arneberg

Besides making it easier to do the dishes, there really was a good reason your mother raised you to be part of the clean plate club.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, about 40 percent of all edible food is thrown away in the United States. Supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone, while restaurants throw out around 10 percent of the food they purchase, contributing to one-fifth of all food that ends up in landfills.

Most people seem to have an inherent understanding of the senselessness and tragedy of wasted food while there is so much need in the world. But what if you knew that every time you threw food away you were contributing to another global problem?

Fourteen percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. that are contributing to climate change stem from getting food from the farm to your fork…and then to the landfill. While gas-guzzling vehicles and fossil fuel burning power plants are often the first to be blamed for climate change, the impact of the food we consume on a daily basis is easily overlooked.

According to the EPA, food waste has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s and is now the largest solid waste contributor to landfills. As your dinner remnants sit with 31 million tons of other Americans’ unfinished meals in landfills across the country, they produce methane — a gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. It’s estimated that eliminating food waste would have the same impact on greenhouse gas emissions as taking a quarter of all cars in American off the road.

While the latter might seem a daunting and overwhelming task, eliminating food waste is something that everyone, from individuals to food service companies and restaurants, can be a part of. A recent U.K. survey found that 80 percent of customers want businesses to tackle food waste, and companies are responding by showing more interest and dedication to exploring solutions to the issue. For example, many companies such as Unilever and General Mills have incorporated waste reduction or “zero waste” goals into their long-term targets. They show wisdom in doing so considering consumer sentiment, financial and environmental impacts and emerging regulatory measures. (Boston for example announced a plan to ban commercial food waste last summer.)

The EPA suggests a food recovery hierarchy, ordered from highest priority (source reduction and prevention) to lowest (sending waste to the landfill).  A variety of companies have stepped into this food recovery pyramid at different levels in an attempt to address their food waste problems.

1. Reduction and prevention

Developing countries produce four times the amount of food they actually need. Reducing food amounts should be the highest priority in managing food waste and companies are approaching this in a variety of ways. National chains such as TGI Fridays, Au Bon Pain and Cheesecake Factory all now offer smaller-portion options to side-step the issue of unfinished plates or forgotten-about doggie bag leftovers. Sodexo started operating more than 300 “trayless” cafeterias on college campuses, discouraging students from overloading their trays, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in food waste.  And grocery stores such as Stop and Shop and Price Chopper have saved an estimated $100 million annually by reducing the amount of food in overfilled produce displays.

2. Feeding people

While reduction and prevention is preferable, it’s inevitable that food service companies will end the day with food that didn’t sell. Darden Restaurants and Panera Bread have created programs to efficiently dispose of this food for the benefit of others rather than sending it to the landfill. The Darden Harvest program for example reduces its restaurants’ food waste by donating excess to thousands of food banks across the country. In the past 10 years Darden has donated more than 62 million pounds of edible food to communities in need.

3. Feeding animals

When excess food isn’t fit for humans, the EPA suggests donating the waste to farm animals. The Quaker Oats plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa sells oat hulls, oat fibers and cereal scraps (that’s right, pigs get to enjoy Cap’n Crunch as well) to third-party companies and farmers. The hull of an oat for example makes up about one third of the grain and cannot be consumed by humans, but Quaker Oats sells the hulls for animal bedding or to be burned as biomass to make energy. Because of their initiatives less than 1 percent of the Quaker Oat plants’ waste ends up in a landfill where it rots and produces methane gas.

4. Industrial uses and composting

A new startup spearheaded by students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management called Spoiler Alert steps into the scene at the end of the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy in a last ditch attempt to divert food waste from landfills. Spoiler Alert is designed to connect food retailers with large quantities of already rotted food with farmers, composters and bio-energy producers who are capable of “converting that waste into less energy-intensive forms of fertilizer and fuel.”

The last solution in the pyramid is to send food to the landfill, which is unfortunately the easiest and most commonly selected option. Every company’s waste stream is unique and each must determine their best solution and where they can fit into the pyramid. As consumers we can reward companies that make efforts to divert their waste away from landfills with innovative solutions and programs that are benefitting local communities as well as the environment.  But all of the responsibility can’t fall on the private sector. Consumers can make smarter choices to alleviate the impact of food waste by not “overbuying” in the grocery store, managing portion sizes, composting spoiled food and not falling prey to eyes that are too big for their stomachs at meal time.

Long live the clean plate club!

Image credit: EPA

Camille Szramiak-Arneberg, a graduate of the College of Communication at Boston University, is an independent corporate sustainability consultant with interest and experience in the food and beverage and healthcare industries. She has worked on projects for clients such as Keurig Green Mountain, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé Waters. She is currently working with the Lwala Community Alliance, a nonprofit that addresses women’s empowerment, education and healthcare issues in Kenya. 

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10 responses

  1. A helpful article–thanks. I’m not sure what the answer is. Personally I benefit from the waste when traveling, often retrieving pizza, fruit, breakfast burritos from airport trash cans. I suppose it’s an affliction of affluence–we don’t have to save every scrap to eat later, as there’s plenty more where that came from–and our society’s Goldie Locks attitude–if something’s not exactly how we wanted it fixed, we just toss it. Plus there’s no disincentive–most places disposing of trash is lumped in with the cost of collecting recyclables. And food is very cheap in USA compared to other places in the world–thanks to subsidies for BigAg, lack of factoring in environmental costs (such as Dead Zones and carbon emissions), and drawing down of soil levels and aquifers.

    A title suggestion: “Waste Not, Warm Not”… :)

    1. Hi David,
      Thanks for your thoughts! I thought what you said about our society’s Goldie Locks attitude was particularly interesting and is worth addressing….somehow. I remember at our college dining hall I used to watch the people who worked at the ‘burrito station’ throw away the entire top half stack of tortillas whenever a new package was opened! It always made me cringe and I think the perceived abundance of food in our country as you said makes people not care as much about throwing away ‘less than perfect’ items.

  2. “Fourteen percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. that are contributing to climate change stem from getting food from the farm to your fork…”

    I’m not doubting this, but it would be good to have a citation here. Any one know where this data comes from?

    1. Hello Anderson at the House. My apologies for the delayed response and for not citing that statistic. There are actually varying numbers on this and I took the more conservative one. Some studies actually cite that food production makes up almost 1/3 of greenhouse gases! Here are some sources: http://animals.howstuffworks.com/mammals/methane-cow.htm http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/31/climate-farms-idUSL5E8LUFDP20121031

      And this one was where I pulled the 14 percent statistic from as it says “Fourteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere come from steps in the food production lifecycle, including the growth, manufacturing and transportation of food.” http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/food-waste-brief-august-2013.aspx

      Hope that helps!

  3. This is a really good article in terms of laying out practical measures. I think the food waste issue has to go to the front of the priority list for many reasons. It has huge impact on global warming, traffic, garbage bills. It has huge consequences for hunger — in effect, we spend more to throw good food in the garbage than we spend to feed good food to people on low income. It leads to many partners working together and working through divisions that have no relevance to the left-right and other divisions that have all failed to deal with the issue productively. It breaks down silos of government. It challenges the organization of food chains as linear affairs and reaffirms the circular nature of the food cycle.
    When I tally up the list of factors that merit action in my book, Food for City Building, the point that amazes me is that the issue doesn’t make the list of many otherwise astute groups such as the promoters of C40 and the “smart city movement.
    I hope articles such as this can raise the profile of the issue.

    1. Hello Wayne,

      Thanks for reading and for your insights. I’m going to check out your book to learn more!

      I agree with this statement of yours > “What amazes me is that the issue doesn’t make the list of many otherwise astute groups” and also hope that people start to become knowledgeable about the widespread consequences food waste has.

  4. Gainesville Florida has had a market based solution for many years. They charge more for larger volume to give an incentive for free recycling. The EPA recommends this as a way to increase recycling by 40% merely by charging a fair price for trash collection. “Pay as You Throw” is know as PAYT.

  5. Thank you for the article in which you highlight the world-wide problem of greenhouse gases produced from food decomposing in landfills. You might like to know of an example of a meaningful contribution by a local program that could be replicated throughout our urban areas. The all-volunteer White Pony Express (WPE) in Pleasant Hill, California, saves almost 2,000,000 pounds of high-quality food from going to the landfill annually, and distributes that food throughout our county seven days a week, to the homeless and those in poverty. See: http://www.whiteponyexpress.org. Not only is this respectful and humane, it is a wonderful service to our environment.

    WPE was founded a little more than three years ago, and its growth and popularity has been spectacular. In its Food Rescue program, volunteers take trucks seven days a week to supermarkets, restaurants, and farmers markets where they pick up surplus food—high quality, fresh and nourishing food, such as meat, dairy, eggs, produce, deli, and baked goods, that would otherwise have been thrown out. After sorting the food, WPE volunteers deliver it to over 60 nonprofit groups in its community that feed the hungry. All of this is done free of charge.

    If WPE’s type of program were replicated in other communities throughout the world, it would result in a substantial reduction of gases harmful to our environment and would significantly help alleviate the problem of hunger throughout our communities.

    Carol Weyland Conner, PhD, spiritual director of Sufism Reoriented, founded WPE in September 2013, when she was troubled that in a county of such abundance, scores of thousands were going hungry, while at the same time food retailers were throwing out huge quantities of healthy, fresh food. Dr. Conner founded White Pony Express and then asked it to also create a “Free General Store,” on the same principle. FGS distributes surplus new and like-new clothing, toys and books to enable those who have more than they need (including major manufacturers and designers) to easily give to those with less, so that all can share in the happiness and abundance of life.

    The possibilities are limitless. Think of what food rescue programs could potentially do in making our planet a healthier place to live, while also making it a kinder place in which to thrive.

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