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.
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.