By: Madison Boissiere, Undergraduate Student in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The topic of food waste is usually brought up around holidays when there is an abundance of food bought and evidently wasted. But the fact is that Americans waste vast amounts of food every day. In fact, America is the leading country in food waste, amounting to 40 million tons of waste per year. This waste equals about 80 billion pounds of food, and costs over $161 billion. This food is sent to landfills, where it takes up the most space compared to any other component. On average, every person is responsible for 219 pounds of waste and $1600 per family. Before tackling the solution to food waste, we must first understand why food waste is so prevalent in America.
Why is Food Waste so Prevalent in America?
In a country where food insecurity is so common, how is food waste so rooted in every household? It comes down to expiration labels and food spoilage. Over 80% of people throw away food that is in perfect condition because they misunderstood the expiration label. When these labels are left up to interpretation, many would rather risk eating spoiled food than eating food after the “best by” date. As opposed to popular belief, “best by” dates are not an indication of food safety. Although the quality may not be optimal after this date, food can still be consumed safely when handled correctly and inspected for spoilage.
In general, food is also cheaper and more abundant in America than in other places around the world. Because of this, it is easy for Americans to buy more than they need or throw away food that is still in good condition. Leftovers and compost are not used either, which then adds to this vast increase in food waste.
Effects of Food Waste
Food waste is attributed to one of the world’s most detrimental issues: climate change. When food is thrown out, it’s not just the food that is wasted. Resources such as energy and water needed to get from the farm to your house are also destroyed, not to mention the money spent on harvesting and transporting this food. When it eventually makes it to the landfills, food spoils and produces methane, a greenhouse gas even more toxic than carbon dioxide. According to the World Wildlife Federation, food waste in the US makes up the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emitted from 37 million cars.
Economic loss is another significant effect of food waste, both on a large and small scale. In the U.S, $161 billion is lost annually, with each family losing about $1600. With food insecurity being so prominent, we must find ways to reduce our food waste and protect the earth that provides us this food.
How to Reduce Waste in Your Household
There are plenty of ways to reduce waste in your home. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
● Learn the meaning behind expiration labels
“Best if used by” refers to the quality of the item, not the safety. Use your judgment to determine if the food is good enough to eat. If no spoilage is not detected, it is probably good to eat.
“Sell by” is used for stores to indicate how long the product should be displayed for sale. It is not indicative of food safety.
“Use by” indicates the last date that the item is at optimal quality. This date does not refer to the food item’s safety, except when used on infant formula.
“Freeze by” indicates when food should be frozen for optimal quality. It is not a sign of safety.
Use your best judgment to determine if a food is spoiled. Things like odor, color, and texture are good indicators of spoilage.
● Learn how to compost to reduce greenhouse gases
Compost is an organic material made of food scraps and yard waste that can be combined with soil to help plants grow. Composting can help waste stay out of landfills where it produces methane and instead be used to grow plants and even fruits and vegetables.
● Freeze food that you can’t eat anytime soon
Freezing food is an excellent option for when you have a bulk of items that you can’t eat immediately. Milk, cheese, berries, eggs, bread, and pasta are just a few of the many good foods to keep in the freezer for later use.
● Donate to local food pantries
Many people are struggling to find where their next meal will come from, especially during these challenging times. Find a local food bank in your community and help those in need.
● Make shopping lists and buy food you know you will eat.
Many people go to grocery stores without a plan or a list. Without a plan, this will leave you with a variety of food but no recipes or meals to make, often leading to excessive food and money wasted. Find recipes and meals you enjoy beforehand, and stick to foods you know you will eat and use.
● Eat fruits and vegetables with blemishes.
Fruits and vegetables with a few blemishes are still perfectly okay to eat. Many times, these foods are also discounted, so save your money and help fight food waste at the same time.
By implementing some of these tips into your daily life, we can each do our part in combating food waste. For more information on food waste and how to get started on composting, visit www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home. Make sure to check out our webinar, “Food Waste vs Food Safety: A Balancing Act” for additional information.
1. “Composting At Home.” Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home.
2. “Fight Climate Change by Preventing Food Waste.” Fight Climate Change By Preventing Food Waste, World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/stories/fight-climate-change-by-preventing-food-waste#:~:text=But%20wasted%20food%20isn’t,more%20potent%20than%20carbon%20dioxide.
3. “Food Product Dating.” Food Safety Inspection Service, USDA, Dec. 2016, www.fsis.usda.gov/guidelines/2016-0014.
4. “Food Waste in America in 2021: Statistics & Facts: RTS.” Recycle Track Systems, 2021, www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/.
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