Roughly 52 million tons of food produced in the United States wind up in landfills annually, and another 10 million tons are discarded or left to rot on farms. As such, it costs the United States up to $218 billion to grow, transport, handle, and package food that is ultimately thrown away. While this waste carries with it economic and social costs, it also takes an enormous toll on the environment. As shown below, food waste consumes roughly 20 percent of America’s cropland, fertilizers, and agricultural water. In addition to wasting valuable agricultural resources, food waste makes up 21 percent of U.S. landfill volume. And herein lies the problem.
When discarded food accumulates and rots in landfills, it emits methane—a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Annually, food waste generates greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 37 million cars. As such, it is a major contributor to climate change. The good news is, it’s also preventable. By reducing food waste, we could avoid unnecessary agricultural and landfill greenhouse gas emissions and help curb climate change.
While systemic efforts are necessary to reduce food waste, you can do a great deal that could make a significant difference. In the United States alone, consumers waste nearly one pound of food per person per day. Higher quality diets, in particular, were associated with greater amounts of food waste. Specifically, fruits and vegetables accounted for 39 percent of daily per capita food waste, followed by dairy, meat, and then grains. While conventional wisdom pairs plant-based foods with fewer environmental impacts, production of fruits and vegetables wasted in high proportions carries environmental burdens as well. This is not to say that we should eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Rather, we must consume them while simultaneously wasting less of them.
From freezing food and shopping smarter to donating untouched food and composting food scraps, we can all take small steps to curb our emissions. Here are six tips to get you started:
- Plan your weekly meals. When shopping, buy only the ingredients necessary for those meals and include quantities on your list to avoid overbuying. Be sure to check your refrigerator and pantry to avoid buying ingredients you already have.
- Embrace ugly produce. Although they bear scars and blemishes, imperfect fruits and vegetables may actually be more nutritious and flavorful than unmarred produce because they produce richer flavors and healthful antioxidants when they are under stress from the environment. Next time you’re at the store, give that bruised apple a second look. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try an ugly produce delivery service, such as Misfits Market, Imperfect Produce, or Hungry Harvest.
- Properly store fruits and vegetables for maximum freshness. Wait to wash berries until you eat them to prevent mold. Freeze surplus fruits and vegetables. Instead of tossing overripe bananas in the trash, peel and slice them up to put into a freezer bag for future use in smoothies.
- Prepare perishable items soon after shopping. This can save time, effort, and money throughout the week. Freeze food that you know you won’t be able to consume before its “use by” date.
- Learn the difference between “sell-by,” “best before,” and “use-by” dates. “Sell-by” and “best before” dates pertain to a food’s quality. The former tells the store how long to display the product for sale, while the latter indicates when the product is at peak flavor or quality. “Use-by” dates refer to a food’s safety and are required for highly perishable foods.
- Compost your food scraps. Not only does composting enrich soil, reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, and improve plant health, it can also lower your carbon footprint. As an aerobic process, composting does not produce methane. In the presence of oxygen, methane-producing microbes are not active in the decomposition of organic waste. Therefore, composting is a way to reduce methane emissions from food sent to landfills. You can compost at home in two easy steps—just mix your yard scraps and food waste in a bin, then let microbes do the work! After two to five weeks, you can mix the compost into garden soil or use it on the surface as mulch. For more tips to get you started, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s composting page.
Lindsay Gaesser is a second-year AFE student at the Friedman School and has a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law. She is the co-editor of the Friedman Sprout and serves as the communications director for the Future of Food and Nutrition Conference. In her spare time, she enjoys cycling, exploring the outdoors, and sharing good food with good friends.