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02 January 2010

Supersized catastrophe: the environmental blight of food waste

This New York Times graphic shows the equivalent food wasted by an American family of four in one month, according to data from the USDA and Census Bureau.
“Americans spend a smaller share of their disposable income on food than citizens of any other country and choose from an average of 50,000 different food products on a typical outing to the supermarket. In 1994, the food supply provided an estimated 3,800 calories per person per day, enough to supply every American with more than one and a half times their average daily energy needs.” Source: Estimating and Addressing America’s Food Waste, a report by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service

In the United States, the United Kingdom and other wealthy nations, today’s estimate is that 25 to 30 percent of food that’s bought ends up in the trash, uneaten.

In the U.S., specifically, this amounts to about 32 million tons per year according to the EPA. 97 percent of this waste decomposes in landfills or is incinerated. While decomposing, it produces methane gas, which is over twenty times more effective than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Food waste is very much a Greenophobic problem requiring a rapid solution in three places: production, consumption and disposal.

The problem exists at a household level as well as anywhere that food is produced, marketed or consumed. It is perpetuated by restaurant and institutional economics along with generally low food prices.

Combined, these forces mean that we’re literally in the business of wasting food and it’s killing our planet and our wallets in many different ways.

This problem should register near the top of the list of environmental concerns for Earth-wise consumers because of the scale of the problem and the myriad solutions. Food waste is a massive drain on our natural environment and valuable resources, it has a huge economic cost, it is completely solvable at the household level, and it’s not a problem of luxury – that is, greening our eating can happen without sacrificing quality of life.

Millions of people, acting on determinations of value and price of food, create massive amounts of waste. Therefore, millions of people, armed with simple information on where the problem comes from and how to prevent it, can make a massive difference.

Our motivation for solving the food waste problem is derived from economic, health and pure environmental factors.

First, financially speaking, it is possible to save $500 - $2,500 per year by greening your eating. We are simply wasting a quarter or more of the available food supply. Since there are many ways to store, preserve and manage the freshness of our food supply, we have no excuse other than gluttony.
Then, there’s the health factor.

The global obesity epidemic in wealthy countries has some important things in common with the overall food waste dilemma. Principally, overconsumption is the general problem behind our food waste and obesity. We’re eating more and wasting more simultaneously because of the way we make food purchasing decisions and the way food is available to us in our lives. Unfortunately, the amount of wasted food is tallied in addition to the huge amounts we’re successfully putting in our mouths, not in lieu of it.

The health benefits of wasting less food are indirect but measurable because of the relationship between how many calories we need to live a healthy life and the grossly inflated amount we are putting in our shopping carts annually, or wasting behind-the-scenes. Cut down on overall excessive consumption and obesity will be driven down as well.

The environmental impact of food waste is off the charts. According to EPA 2008 numbers, food scraps account for 13 percent of solid municipal waste. Even though food can be composted and returned to the earth productively, to grow more food, it gets thrown out with the rest of our garbage, requiring more and more energy to process each time it is handled.

The more inputs that go into a product, the more assumptions, math, and science are required to tally its true environmental impact. Food is one of the least transparent types of environmental waste simply because of the difficulty of measuring the true impact of food production. Energy is consumed and carbon and methane are emitted at several different points along the lifecycle of food products, making food waste a triple threat on the environment.

Unlike transportation or power generation, food waste racks up not only huge fossil fuel usage but also wasteful consumption of precious freshwater, related petroleum products (fertilizers, pesticides), and all of the effects that are revealed in the actual consumption and disposal of food. Food waste alone is estimated to consume 25 percent of available freshwater in the U.S. according to a November 2009 article in The Economist on this subject.
Transportation, refrigeration, consumption and disposal all produce vast amounts of CO2 and methane either directly, such as when food is digested by people or animals, or indirectly when wasted food rots in landfills. Because of the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas far more effective at trapping heat than CO2, the efficacy of the food waste problem on climate change may be vastly underestimated.

Whether you are rich or poor, it makes no sense to waste food but it is easy to do and comes with few consequences. Today, food prices as a percentage of household income are relatively low, which means there’s not much of an economic incentive to think twice about expiration dates, portion sizes and other factors in the food waste dilemma.

For people with on-the-go, high-intensity lifestyles, the dollars and cents of the problem are just the beginning and may not be the worst of it. At every point in the manufacture, transport, consumption and disposal of food, oil is consumed, CO2 is emitted and solid waste is created on a massive scale.

Reversing these effects and the accompanying embarrassment that the U.S. and other wealthy nations are perpetuating begins with rethinking food purchasing decisions.

Big box retailers aren’t doing us any favors.

Buying in bulk only makes sense if there’s true cost savings. If the unit price (price per pound for example) is half that of which you’d pay elsewhere but you can only comfortably eat half the food before it goes bad, you’re saving zero dollars at the end of the day. Before buying perishables according to unit price, consider if they’ll end up on your menu or in your garbage can.

The same goes for canned foods in giant containers. They say “restaurant size” for a reason. The expiration date clock starts when you open that giant can of food and expose the contents to the air. Bulk food products are promising because they usually use less packaging than smaller serving sizes. But remember to transfer any portion you can’t use in-time to reusable storage containers. Packing your freezer full of stuff will make it run more efficiently, too.

Restaurants also exemplify the food waste problem in action.

The EPA says that 4 to 10 percent of institutional food purchases are wasted before reaching a restaurant guest.

Where huge portions are concerned, the value is usually only for the restaurant. Legendary portion sizes make economic sense for a restaurant but not for you.

There is undoubtedly a certain entertainment value to seeing a plate come out of the kitchen and plopped before you that could easily feed four gigantic people. The initial shock is followed by a sense that you’ve received a good value for your money, and later by buyers remorse when you get on the scale. While we’ll bet that a full pound of french fries looked like a great deal at first when they were piping hot and covered all the white space on the giant plate you were served, the end result from this type of consumption is never good.

With a fixed number of seats during mealtimes, doubling up on portion sizes creates perceived value for restaurant customers, and justifies higher menu prices. This allows restaurants to average higher tabs per table and keeps customers coming back for more, even while sending huge amounts of food back into the kitchen as scrap.

Put simply, a restaurant will net more money selling you a heaping portion of food for $9 that cost them $5 than they will make selling a normal human-sized portion of food for $6 that cost $3 to make. If they’ve got 100 seatings in a day, they’ll net $400 serving you the big portions and only $300 selling the normal portions.

Not only that, but restaurants serving human-sized portions where you leave satisfied but not busting at the seams run the risk of getting a bad review on value. Customers come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps your chair should have a built-in scale so the kitchen knows just how much to make and how much to charge you based on how big of an appetite you appear to have.

While the United States gets singled out for having some of the lowest food prices and highest levels of unabated waste, food waste is truly a global epidemic that needs the same attention as other environmental catastrophes such as the proliferation of automobiles in less developed countries.

Globally, the food waste problem is divided clearly between the haves and the have-nots. Wealthy countries where people can more readily afford the financial impact of the problem are the biggest contributors. Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a billion people worldwide are malnourished in 2009.

Waste has become a privilege in wealthy nations and the entire experience of food consumption is fueled by dreamlike expectations of flashy packaging and spectacular niche food products such as bottled water shipped from across the world.

At both a large-scale supply level and at the household level, the attitude built into pricing and consumption habits is that it’s better to waste food than to risk running out of food. Built-in to the prices of fresh foods we buy are hefty charges to account for “spoilage.” Individuals, restaurants, and supermarkets all overbuy food and tack the price of wasted food onto the cost of what’s successfully sold. It’s a sneaky game that gets consumers to foot the bill for food waste several times over.

Like the global love affair with automobiles that is reshaping the world’s carbon footprint in scary ways, the developing world also hungers for some of the food-related privileges that wealthy countries take for granted.

As the middle class grows in developing countries, people in hugely populous emerging superpower nations will be looking to today’s most developed nations for examples of what food behaviors are acceptable in luxury lifestyles.

Taking Action

A November 2009 article in The Economist puts daily food waste in terms of Calories – a measurement we can all understand as it pertains to our diets, weight, and what we put in our mouths with every bite. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimates that Americans waste 1,400 Calories per day. That is, we waste 70 percent of the food energy that we need to be healthy and active.

As a whole, the problem taxes our air, our energy resources, then our bodies and finally our sewer systems, disposal sites, and atmosphere.

It is a grotesque and embarrassing problem for the world’s richest countries to be marred by such recklessly wasteful stewardship of the world’s food resources.

A few easy ways to seriously green up your eating habits:

Only make supersized purchases of stuff that doesn’t go bad. Increase the frequency of food shopping trips and decrease the unit sizes of perishable foods that you buy. It’s common sense. Perishable foods have the shortest shelf life. You’ll benefit from less waste, fresher food, and the cost savings associated with not wasting will far outweigh any nominal discounts you’re getting on fresh foods sold by the ton at big box stores.

Rethink “value.” We’re all guilty of thinking that we’re getting a good deal at restaurants that serve inhumanly large portions comprised largely of cheap, unhealthy foods like heaping plates of fries, bottomless breadsticks, and free refills on soda. It’s only a good value if you’re truly planning on getting a few meals out of what you order at the restaurant. Too often, gigantic food portions brought home for seconds turn into a soggy, nasty mess that no one will eat. Stop being duped by restaurant economics and pick quality over quantity.

Think about the places you go to eat and what you like about them. You’ll realize that huge portions are a great subconscious selling point with very limited value for you at the end of the day. It’s usually cheap, highly caloric stuff that gets supersized at restaurants. Free refills of sugary soda. Heaping mounds of cheap fries. Endless breadsticks. You get the idea.

Make cutting out food waste like a new kind of “diet.” The study indicating we waste 1,400 Calories worth of food per day is frightening. However, it also suggests we can take an active approach to food waste prevention the same way we monitor the food that we put in our bodies. Estimate your cost per calorie wasted the same way you’d calculate a healthful diet. Look at what you throw out on a monthly basis and try to draw some conclusions about what it’s costing you, as a proportion of what you spent in the same period.

It's probably not productive to worry about applying the energy science of food waste the way you might calculate how much CO2 your annual car mileage is responsible for when trying to green up your life and save some money. Take our word for it that when food is concerned, the carbon, methane, freshwater and fossil fuel energy calculations are very complicated and very significant. You can realize the biggest impact by focusing on the lifestyle and cost benefits of greening your eating rather than counting every gram of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from wasted food.

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