Food waste is a huge problem in the U.S. About 40 percent of all food grown in this country is wasted. It is costly for the economy and the environment. Every year, the U.S. spends $218 billion — or 1.3 percent of GDP — growing, processing and transporting good that is not eaten but thrown away. That amounts to 52.4 million tons of food sent to landfill a year.
This shocking volume of food waste “has enormous consequences,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Food & Agriculture Program. She cited “all of the water and energy” used to grow the food that is wasted as an example of an environmental consequence. But it’s not just about money or even the environment: Two million Americans are food insecure, lacking a steady supply of food to their tables, she told TriplePundit, so wasting all of that food has clear social consequences as well.
But assessing food waste can be difficult, as it often happens up the supply chain. About 10.1 million of food tons are estimated to be either discarded or left unharvested on farms and in packing houses. That mountain of waste increases up to two times when you add in other food fit for people that is composted, converted into animal feed or discarded in other ways.
If all of the wasted food was grown in one place it would cover about 80 million acres, or over three-quarters of California. It would take up all the water used in California, Texas and Ohio combined and would harvest enough food to fill a 40-ton tractor every 20 seconds.
“This not only represents a major financial loss, but also saps precious natural resources: This food waste utilizes 18 percent of our cropland, 19 percent of fertilizer, and 21 percent of our freshwater supply,” Eva Goulbourne, associate director of programs and communications for ReFED, told TriplePundit. “It’s also responsible for 21 percent of landfill volume, and represents 5 percent of [greenhouse gases] emitted in the US – a major contributor to climate change.
“Food waste is an absurd and unnecessary reality of our food system highlighting major inefficiency, yet it is completely solvable in our lifetime.”
Getting food from the farm to our tables takes up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, according to a 2012 NRDC report. It also uses half of U.S. land and accounts for 80 percent of all freshwater consumption. Meanwhile, food thrown into landfills accounts for the biggest component of U.S. municipal solid waste, where it gives off methane emissions when sent to landfill. Methane is a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 23 times that of carbon dioxide.
In 2015, the U.S. government targeted a national 50 percent food waste reduction by 2030, its first national food waste goal. ReFED, a collaboration of over 30 business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders, formed the same year to support the initiative.
ReFED formed the Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste, the first national economy study and action plan driven by a multi-stakeholder group committed to tackling food waste at scale. With the Roadmap’s solutions in place, the U.S. would be on track to reduce food waste by 20 percent within a decade and to achieve the 50 percent goal by 2030.
Consumers can play a huge role in reducing food waste
Homes and consumer-facing businesses account for over 80 percent of all food waste in the U.S. And food wasted in homes represents about two-thirds of total lost economic value.
Food waste solutions that prevent waste in both homes and businesses have the greatest economic value per ton and net environmental benefit, according to the Roadmap. It goes on to identify three solutions as having the greatest economic value per ton: standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns and packaging adjustments.
“If you look at where food is wasted, more than 40 percent occurs at the consumer level,” Berkenkamp of NRDC said. “So, that means that us as individuals and families in our homes are a major contributing factor to the amount of food that gets wasted.”
And there are “simple, practical things consumers can do at home,” Berkenkamp said. One of those is to make a shopping list before going grocery shopping. “About 55 percent of grocery purchases in the United States are unplanned,” she explained. “Having a grocery list is a critical step. We need to be realistic about how much we are going to cook and eat.”
Apps can help people plan what they will buy at the grocery store. Android users can check out Shopping List, which allows people to list and organize what they plan to buy, plus share it with others. iPhone users can look to:
- AnyList is similar to Shopping List, but allows users to add items via Siri.
- The Groceries Shopping List is available as both an iPhone and Android app. It has the same features as the other apps, but allows a user to keep track of the key ingredients in their favorite recipes.
Goulbourne of ReFED cites a number of simple things consumers can do to reduce food waste: One of those is to buy ugly or imperfect produce. Up to 24 percent of produce is discarded before it reaches store shelves because the size, shape or color is imperfect looking, the NRDC found in its 2012 report.
And stop throwing out foods based on expired or near expired date labels, Goulbourne advised. When consumers see an expired date label on food, they often think it means the food is not fit to eat any longer, but the dates don’t necessarily refer to food safety. Goulbourne suggests using “your sight, smell and (if you’re brave) taste to determine if food has gone bad.” She pointed out that there is not a federal regulation to dictate the quality and safety labels of foods in the U.S., “so labeling is left up to manufacturers.”
Food waste is a problem all of us can work on reducing. And just by doing a few simple things we can all reduce our own food waste. By doing so, we make it possible to halve food waste by 2030.