In the developed world, food is plentiful and readily available. We’re fortunate to have access to grocery stores filled with aisles of every imaginable food product, numerous restaurants in cities and towns, and farmers’ markets with beautiful, fresh produce.
Despite this bounty, the average American wastes an estimated 414 pounds of food each year. That’s per person!
And in total, American consumers waste 57 million tonnes of food per year, which accounts for 56 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions put into the atmosphere. To put that in perspective, that’s 6.3 million garbage trucks filled with food that’s wasted every year.
Why is All This Food Wasted?
Although we may not intend to do it, there are several reasons that we waste food.
Not Planning Meals Well
All food goes bad eventually, but produce has a shorter lifespan than canned or frozen food. If you buy a lot of produce and don’t use it or store it properly before its lifespan ends, it goes bad and ends up getting tossed.
Equally, canned or frozen foods can get purchased for a new recipe or rainy day and then are forgotten in the back of your pantry or freezer. If the food is past its expiration date, we’ve been taught to dispose of it. However, the reality isn’t that simple, and we can actually use some items past their expiration date.
This is related to not planning meals well. Going food shopping without a list can lead to impulse buying and buying more food than you might be able to use before it goes bad. Panic-buying, like that which occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, can also lead to an overabundance of food that just sits around unused.
Eating Habits and Cultural Acceptance
Some people hate eating leftovers. Whether it’s the effort to reheat food, the taste of it, or the idea of eating the same meal twice within a couple days, some people waste leftovers for these reasons. And the prevalence of leftovers has certainly been exacerbated by increases in restaurant and pre-prepared food portion sizes that have occurred over the past several decades.
In that vein, it is simply culturally acceptable to waste food, particularly among people who are not food insecure. There’s very little stigma that exists today around food waste as there is, for example, around littering.
How You Can Reduce Food Waste at Home
Reducing food waste isn't hard. It's just a matter of taking a couple simple steps...
Do an inventory of your pantry and refrigerator before going grocery shopping: Before each grocery shopping trip, take stock of what’s already in your pantry and refrigerator and note the expiration date on each item or if it’s starting to look wilted, ripe, etc. Then build your recipes and grocery list for the week based off of what foods need to be used ASAP.
Only buy what you need: Lists are your friend and can deter you from overbuying your groceries if you stick to them.
Only prepare what you’ll eat: If you don’t eat leftovers and are cooking your meals, reduce recipes to the number of servings you and/or others will eat.
Educate Yourself: Become familiar with the various terms used to describe food shelf life and expiration and how to tell when foods have truly gone bad and shouldn’t be eaten. And learn how to store produce to maximize its lifespan and how to freeze it to extend your time to use it.
Composting: Recycling Spoiled Produce
To truly combat food waste, the overarching priority is to avoid throwing it away.
However, if you must dispose of produce, composting is a much more sustainable option than putting it down the garbage disposal or in the garbage itself.
Composting is the process of “recycling” organic materials. Used produce or produce at the end of its lifespan is combined with other organic materials, and they decompose to create natural fertilizer. In turn, this fertilizer can be used to add nutrients to soil to enhance new food growth and soil regeneration.
While produce can be composted, meat, dairy products, oils, and some other foods cannot be included in composting—nor can prepared food dishes containing these items.