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RP Siegel headshot

Food Waste is a Bigger Problem Than You Think

By RP Siegel

Food waste is a horrendous problem in this country that no one seems to want to talk about. Yet food is the one product type that everyone consumes, and while a surprising number of people don’t have it, those that do are shockingly wasteful. As recently as 2012, close to 50 million people experienced food insecurity, not in Africa or Bangladesh, but right here in the USA. Worldwide, that number is over 1 billion people.

That makes the fact that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all food produced worldwide is never eaten all the more shocking. America is the worst offender by far. Here in the states, the portion of food production that goes to waste is closer to 40 percent.

A report by the National Consumer League, called Wasted: Solutions to the American Food Waste Problem, came out last week. It maps the magnitude of the problem and, as the title suggests, offers a number of practical suggestions.

Let’s start with a look at the problem. Most of the food waste in the developing world occurs in the supply chain. Either the farmers suffer crop failures due to weather, insects or disease, or they are unable to harvest the crops efficiently due to inadequate equipment. Inefficient transportation and lack of refrigerated trucks lead to more losses in transit. Consumers, despite the lack of refrigeration, waste less food since they have so little to begin with and they value it.

The situation is inverted in developed countries. Consumers waste more food. American consumers waste 10 times as much food as their counterparts in Southeast Asia.

Why do we waste so much? Well, one reason is because it’s become so cheap. Americans today spend only 6 percent of their total household expenditures on food. Back in 1982 that number was 12 percent. But, as the saying goes, perhaps you get what you pay for. According to Nadya Zhexembayeva, in her book "Overfished Ocean Strategy," the nutritional value of American food has been declining dramatically. A study of 43 vegetable crops over the period from 1950-1999 shows declines of 20 percent in Vitamin C, 15 percent in iron and 38 percent in riboflavin. American food waste has risen by 50 percent since the seventies at the same time that prices and nutrition have declined. Today’s American family of four throws away anywhere from $1,350 to $2,275 worth of food each year. Put that all together and we are looking at $165 billion, as a nation, being wasted.

The energy, water and land implications of this are enormous. In essence, this means that at a time of increasing resource scarcity, 20 percent of our land, 4 percent of our energy and 25 percent of our water is used to produce food that ends up being thrown out.

Unfortunately, the story does not end once that wasted food is grown. After the plates are scrapped and refrigerators cleaned out, the food in the trash bin must be hauled to the landfill, costing more energy, where it ultimately breaks down into methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. One study in the U.K. found that eliminating all food waste from landfills would be equivalent to taking 1 in 4 cars off the road. One has to wonder: If the true environmental cost of our food were priced in, would we be so willing to waste it?

Hunger in the streets will not simply be solved by reducing waste, but the report tells us that, if we could reduce our level of waste by 30 percent, that would be enough food to feed our 50 million hungry. If only we could get it to them.

So, much for the bad news, though it surely represents opportunities for those with a mind to address them. Let’s take a look at some of the solutions.

Addressing the food waste issue requires a multifaceted approach. First, retailers need to move away from the buy-one-get-one-free mentality. That might be a good way to move product, but much of it gets moved right into the landfill with a brief stopover in the home. That used to be considered acceptable as long as the company was generating profits. Those days will soon be gone. Attitudes can also change about food that is less attractive but still perfectly safe to eat. Perishable foods near expiration can be sold at marked down prices where, if used promptly, it can provide excellent value. More retailers can participate in programs to donate overstock foods to those who are hungry.

But the biggest opportunities are with consumers. Perhaps the biggest barrier is consumer attitudes. Because of the fall in food prices, food is not valued as it was in earlier times. People need better information about how to store foods properly and expiration dates must be clearly labeled. Labels should indicate the date at which food will become unusable.

Perhaps tomorrow’s refrigerators will scan the inventory as they are being stocked and issue reminders such as this one. “Expiring tomorrow: milk and cheese. Use it while it’s still good.”

Public education programs aimed at reducing food waste have been quite effective in Europe. The U.S. EPA has a food recovery hierarchy that spells out the most effective use of unusable food -- starting with donating it and ending with composting. Rochester, New York-based Epiphergy followed this hierarchy in its extensive food waste recovery program. Middle stages include producing animal feed, followed by energy.

Cities can help by providing composting services and also by charging for waste collection by the pound instead ofusing a flat rate. That would encourage people to think twice before throwing things away.

These are all small steps. But when people understand the larger picture that ties them all together, it changes their attitude and their behavior. Experiences in Europe have proven that out. We need to raise awareness here and set ambitious targets for food waste reduction and we need to do it soon.

Image credit: Taz Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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