That feeling that settles in after an epic grocery store shop is akin to euphoria. Cupboards, shelves, and a refrigerator all fully stocked with food does one’s heart and mood a world of good. We are, after all, dependent upon food for survival—and it can be pretty tasty, too. But the next day, maybe you oversleep and decide to just buy breakfast instead of making it. Then you go for lunchtime burritos the day after. Then impromptu sushi with a friend pops up the day after that. A week of this, and the bagged iceberg lettuce in your fridge starts to putrefy, the deli meat dons a strangely sweet fragrance, and the bread turns the colors of a Dr. Seuss book. All of a sudden, you find yourself throwing out the very food that you felt so good about buying.
If you can relate to this, that’s because most Americans fall victim to throwing out food. The average citizen wastes $370 a year on food they end up pitching. But the problem of food waste runs far deeper than that, permeating every aspect of its production in the US and abroad. Every step of the way, food is discarded or lost, resulting in a third of all food produced (2.9 trillion pounds globally) going to a landfill or incinerator instead of people’s stomachs. Which is why, on this Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency is turning its attention to wasted food, in part to promote its initiative which aims to cut food waste in half by 2030, and in part to spread the word on how it is extraordinarily simple for individuals to have an immediate and tangible impact.
An environmental problem
According to the EPA, the US discards some 37 million tons of food each year—a third of all the food it produces—yet just five percent of that is composted. All the rest is piled into landfills or incinerated. More food fills in these trash pits than any other material, says the EPA, constituting 21 percent of all of the country’s municipal solid waste. Sure, this is a lot of garbage, but the numbers really become dizzying when you take into account how much is actually spent on creating all of it. Agriculture— including livestock—is responsible for 70 percent of the freshwater usage on this big blue dot we call Earth and puffs out about 30 to 35 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s an awful lot of effort for something we throw away.
Not only that. When all that food is heaped in piles, packed down, and covered up, it starts to rot and generate a discernible amount of heat. When this occurs, methane is exhaled into the atmosphere in vast quantities, which is unsettling because methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that makes carbon dioxide seem not terrible. National Geographic reports that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind China and the US.
Food in a landfill = methane
A public health problem
Aside from the evident damage tossing out food inflicts upon the only planet we call home, it is also a serious public health issue. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 805 million people suffer from starvation globally, and yet each year around the world, we somehow manage to toss out nearly 3 trillion pounds of food. That is enough to fully feed every one of those hungry individuals all year, two times over. The US pretty much follows suit in that regard, throwing out a third of all of the food it produces while 48 million of its citizens are food-insecure—worse yet, 12 million of those are children. “You cannot have a country that is the richest in the world and see those kind of numbers without recognizing that action is necessary,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told Popular Science. The global population is expected to jump to nine billion by 2050, making it all the more imperative that we tighten up on food waste.
Unfortunately, while millions go hungry, billions of pounds of food across developed countries sits uneaten on restaurant plates, in cupboards and in refrigerators.
And a solvable problem
As damaging as food waste is on our societies and our planet, it is comparatively one of the easiest environmental and health problems to solve (again, comparatively), which is why the EPA is addressing it so hard. They’ve partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture, private, and charitable organizations to reach their bold goal of cutting food waste 50 percent by 2030 in what is the first-ever campaign to reduce food waste in the nation.
The reason for this is simple: we have enough food to feed all of those that need it and many of the small actions individuals take in their homes can actually have tangible direct impacts on the issue at hand. While using an energy-saving light bulb is a good thing to do, to be sure, it is further removed from affecting the world than donating food to a pantry, which not only keeps food from going into a landfill, but puts it directly into the stomach of someone in need.
Shopping often and buying less, purchasing “ugly” produce and misshapen foods that would otherwise be cast out by grocers, regularly eating leftovers, and donating extra food to pantries are a few of the steps people can take to mitigate their contribution to the problem.
Often, people pitch so much food at home because of a few innocent misconceptions.
One is incorrectly identifying food to be bad, when it usually is not. Sell-by and expiration dates are often not accurate and confusing, so people mistakenly throw food out that’s perfectly fine. “That date does not mean it has to be tossed,” said Administrator McCarthy. What’s more, the average American family of four drains $1,600 each year on food that simply gets put in the trash.
“That’s a lot of money,” Administrator McCarthy said, “So even if you’re not inclined to get all active on climate, get all active on your own pocketbook and save some money.”
The other regards what people can and can’t donate to a food pantry. Many people don’t realize, for example, that you can donate fresh food to a pantry, provided it’s not rotten. If you picked up some squash at the store on Sunday, but realize you’re not going to eat it, you can donate it. So don’t be afraid to be magnanimous with your donations if you find yourself with fresh foods you’re not going to eat.
Environmental health is public health
It’s important to understand that not all of the food waste in this country and around the world comes from individuals and homes, although that does represent a significant portion of it. There are prodigious amounts of food—particularly among produce—that are lost, damaged, or rejected by grocers and supermarkets throughout the entire process of producing, harvesting, and selling.
For example, scores of fruits and vegetables are regularly disposed of because they are misshapen or “ugly.” Strict rules determine what a fruit or vegetable must look like if it is to be sold. If a carrot has two ends on it, for example, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a carrot anymore, but it would certainly never make it to the grocery store. As a result, many farmers and distributors have no other option but to throw the “ugly” foods out.
Food waste occurs at every step of the production process
This is a practice that has just recently been coming to light, however, so there are some who are taking action. Europe is now looking at creating grocery stores that only sell those types of fruit and vegetables.
And grocery stores consistently over stock products, in order to always have full shelves. But all the surplus gets pitched when it passes its “sell by” date, which we know is arbitrary to begin with. Restaurants also buy more ingredients than they need for a day’s work, only to heave all that wasn’t eaten out the door at the end of the day. Inevitably, such practices result in overflowing dumpsters behind these establishments—veritable holding cells full of perfectly good food that’s been sentenced to a life of no purpose rotting in a landfill.
But while these particular aspects of food waste are somewhat institutional and much tougher to remove, individuals making an effort together can make a serious impact and help turn the political and corporate gears to work the way they should.
What combating food waste reminds us is that ultimately, environmental issues are human health issues, and vice versa. You can’t have good food without clean air, clean water, and clean soils. Which is why McCarthy describes the EPA as such. “We’re a public health primary prevention agency,” she says.
So for this Earth Day, in between taking public transport, biking to work, playing outdoors, and all the other good things Earth Day encourages, donate some food to a pantry or eat leftovers. As McCarthy put it “We have an opportunity here to actually try to address the food insecurity challenges in this country as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We should be connecting those dots and working hard to see that happen.”
Learn more about the EPA’s Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal, as well as things you can do to help.