You've probably already heard the stats: 35 million tons of food goes to the landfill every year in the United States. It's a staggering amount when you figure that food comprised more than 20 percent of our entire yearly waste stream in 2013. Put another way: On average, every family in the nation loses $1,600 to $2,000 each year to food that is purchased but not eaten. That loss is more than what it costs to feed a family of four for an entire month.
For the business sector, that economic impact is even more staggering, says Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator to the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.
"The business sector throws away about $161 billion of food," Stanislaus told TriplePundit. That may be in the form of blemished produce, stale packaged goods or products that aren't deemed sellable in the retail market due to expired sell-by dates. Or it may occur in the restaurant sector, where discarded food occurs every day due to overproduction, incorrect preparation, or simple decisions by consumers who order too much and chose to leave the food at the table. According to a 2005 study by University of Arizona researchers, almost 10 percent of the food purchased by fast-food restaurants isn't consumed.
These losses pose a huge economic burden on our communities, but they also present significant social challenges. “We have roughly 1 in 6 Americans who go hungry for part of the year,” Stanislaus said.
But while we often think of food loss in the context of what gets wasted in garbage dumps and sewage systems, the implications are even more pressing when we consider the latest research on climate change, which is being propelled in part by methane emissions from the earth.
Roughly 18 percent of the gasses generated in the U.S. come from public and private landfills. Decaying food, Stanislaus noted, "is probably the single largest source of materials in the landfills that create methane." And that naturally occurring gas is "one of the strongest greenhouse gases there are, a significant impact from an environmental consequence."
This triad of challenges -- the social, economic and environmental impacts of food waste -- has made stemming the food drain an urgent issue for global communities. Because the impacts we experience here in the U.S. are, in many cases, far worse in countries where accessing enough food and financial resources can be an almost insurmountable problem.
In May, the G20 categorized food waste as "a global problem of enormous economic, environmental and societal significance" that is adding to other challenges of a burgeoning, technologically-developing world. Food waste has negative consequences for "food security, nutrition, use of natural resources and the environment," G20 members concluded.
Farming and production issues, said the G20, are undermined even further by food security problems and the growing risks of climate change. While food availability has increased by 40 percent since 1945, "input-intensive farming [to keep up with commercial food demands] has also contributed to soil degradation, water pollution and loss of biodiversity." This cyclical problem puts further strain on the ecology, while doing little to ensure that poorer communities have adequate food.
"There is also an issue of inadequate distribution and access, which is the main cause of hunger today," the G20 ministers summarized.
And that inadequacy of distribution and access ties back to the EPA's efforts to stem food waste here in the U.S. The EPA's Food Recovery Challenge not only encourages businesses to reduce food waste, but it also gives them the tools to track food use and redirect consumables that might otherwise end up in the bin.
"[We] work with about 800 businesses and organizations [that] commit to ordering and tracking their food purchasing, their food managing processes," Stanislaus explained. The process has been an eye-opener for many companies that have come up with new ways to stem many of those losses. It's also been a benefit to local food banks, which often depend on donations to exist.
"Businesses have been able to divert about 606,000 tons of food from entering our landfills and about 88,000 tons of that was diverted to food banks to feed the hungry," Stanislaus told us.
The key to stemming the world's food drain is, at least in part, education: Teaching consumers as well as businesses how to purchase food smartly, track their usage, and redirect those sources that can't be sold or put on the table for whatever reason, Stanislaus said.
Indirectly, better food management not only ensures less wasted food, but also better farming practices that are tailored to sustainable needs rather than commercial, preferential demand and production.
Last month, the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new food-reduction goal: to cut the country's food waste 50 percent by 2030. With 80 percent of the nation's fresh-water use and 10 percent of its energy dedicated to growing and sustaining food sources (crops as well as livestock), the goal addresses many challenges that the United States is due to face in coming years, including the factors that feed climate change. And, as with many issues these days, education seems to be at the heart of how we create and maintain a sustainable and well-nourished nation.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.