Waste Not, Want Not — Reducing Food Waste in America

food waste

Food waste is a major component of solid waste in landfills. Decomposing food creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. (Photo credit: g215/Shutterstock)

In the United States, 40 percent of all food produced remains uneaten. Some of this food has spoiled, some of it was left in the fields to rot, and some of it never made it to market after being harvested. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Americans routinely throw away about 20 pounds of food per month, which equates to about $28-43 worth of food. In all, it is estimated that $165 billion are squandered each year when perfectly edible food goes uneaten. Why is there so much food waste? And what can you do about it?

Food waste in the United States isn’t limited to households. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about 7 percent of food produced gets stuck on the farm and never makes it to market. Reasons why this might occur include poor market prices, meaning it would be more expensive to harvest the produce than the farmer would earn by selling it; lack of workers to pick the produce; growing more than necessary to hedge against bad weather, insect infestations, or disease; and food safety scares.

After the harvest, some perfectly-edible produce doesn’t make it to market because it doesn’t meet specific standards for size, shape, or color. In one jaw-dropping example given by the NRDC, according to one large-scale cucumber farmer, less than half of the vegetables grown actually leave his farm, and 75 percent of the culled cucumbers (meaning, those that won’t make it to market) are perfectly edible, but don’t meet standards for size and/or color.

Once the fresh produce does leave the farm, some of it goes to waste during the processing and distribution phase. Some of this food is lost due to refrigeration or other storage problems. In some cases, stores reject shipments, but distributors have no where else to go with it other than a landfill. Because bins and shelves stocked full of produce are attractive to customers, grocery stores tend to stock more produce than they will be able to sell before it starts to spoil. This practice causes stores to throw away a large amount of unsold produce. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that grocery stores toss $15 billion worth of fruits and vegetables into the rubbish bin annually.

For produce and other products that do reach your refrigerator’s shelves, confusion over “sell-by” and “use-by” dates cause a lot of perfectly-edible food to be sent to the trash uneaten. ¬†According to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), expiration dates shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally.

“We often don’t tend to realize that we’re throwing away perfectly edible food, especially when we’re paying attention to those expiration dates and when we’re thinking of those as the gospel truth, we’re going to be throwing away a whole lot of good food,” Bloom said in an interview with Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday.

“There’s a lot of wiggle room built in to those expiration dates, and in fact, most of them actually speak to food quality, not necessarily food safety.”

There are three main types of dates that you will find printed on food product packaging. These include “sell-by,” “best if used by,” and “use-by” dates. A “sell-by” date tells the store how long they should display the product on their shelves. You should purchase a product before the “sell-by” date expires. A “best if used by” date tells the consumer at what date the manufacturer no longer guarantees the product’s flavor or quality. Food safety is not an issue with expired “best if used by dates.” A “use-by” date is the date the manufacturer recommends the product be used by for peak quality. A fourth type of number you may see printed on a package is called a “closed or coded date,” and this series of numbers is solely used by the manufacturer for tracking purposes.

Some items have a much longer shelf life than their dates suggest. For example, canned products are typically safe indefinitely, so long as they are stored correctly and not exposed to freezing or extremely high temperatures. Frozen items are also safe indefinitely. If you find that you have meat products that are reaching their “sell-by” dates in the refrigerator, popping them in the freezer will give them a longer life and also ensure food safety. Many egg cartons are printed with a “sell-by” date; these dates are required by some states but are not required by the federal government. You should purchase eggs by their “sell-by” date, but when kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator (in their carton), the eggs can be used up to five weeks after purchase.

Aside from the monetary value lost when food goes to waste, the amount of resources used to produce that food must also be considered. Food waste also results in water, land, energy, labor, and capital costs. According to the NRDC, food production depletes 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and accounts for 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Consider then how much of those resources are completely wasted when food is thrown out or goes unharvested. According to the USDA, food waste accounts for the majority of material that reaches landfills every year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated that in 2011 alone, 36 million tons of food waste was generated, and only 4 percent of that amount was diverted from landfills or incinerators for composting. Once placed in a landfill, decomposing food is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas. Keeping food waste out of landfills will not only prevent the misuse of precious resources, but it will also help to protect the environment. Research indicates that reducing food waste by just 15 percent would result in enough food to feed 25 million people. This value is particularly salient in a time when one in six Americans is considered “food insecure.”

Though all these statistics may be daunting, the good news is that there are steps that you can take to help prevent food waste. Following are a few tips that you can implement in your own life and encourage others to do the same.

7 Tips to Reduce Food Waste

  1. Be a smart shopper — plan a menu before shopping and don’t be beguiled by bulk discounts. Buy only what you will realistically use before it spoils.
  2. Don’t overlook funky-looking produce — small blemishes or odd shapes do not affect the taste of produce. Bruised fruit or slightly wilted greens work perfectly fine in smoothie or juice recipes.
  3. Understand food expiration dates — educate yourself and others in the differences among “sell-by,” “best-if-used-by,” and “use-by” dates.
  4. Know what’s in your fridge — before grocery shopping, take stock of what’s already in your refrigerator. Make use of websites such as My Fridge Food and Love Food Hate Waste, which allow you to select ingredients you have on hand to come up with meal ideas.
  5. Be freezer-friendly — foods that are frozen remain safe indefinitely. Freeze excess fresh produce and leftovers to use later.
  6. When eating at restaurants, ask for smaller portions when possible and take home leftovers.
  7. Compost your food scraps. Composting keeps food waste out of landfills.

More to Explore
Reducing Wasted Food Basics
Putting Surplus Food to Good Use
Your Scraps Add Up
Food Product Dating
Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill
12 Ways to Prevent Food Waste at Home
Food Recovery Challenge
The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact


While the EcoZine gears up for the new school year, we hope you enjoyed this post from the archives. This article was originally published in September 2013.

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