WASTE LAND

Each year, millions of tons of food wind up in American landfills where it spews potent methane gas into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate change crisis. Food waste is a global problem to which we all contribute, but there are simple, manageable steps busy families can take to be a part of the solution.

By Paris Giles • Photos by Lauren Jeziorski

FIRST PRINTED IN MARCH/APRIL ISSUE

It’s a ritual that’s familiar to most American households: As fresh groceries come in, it’s out with the old. That bunch of soggy spinach, the forgotten takeout leftovers, the palm full of ground meat that was too meager to turn into a dish — it’s all chucked into the trash.

Aside from the wasted money and the icky feeling that comes with the knowledge that millions of Americans face food insecurity, food waste has measurable negative impacts on the environment and climate change.

Food is the most common category of material dumped in American landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sure, food scraps decompose quickly compared to inorganic materials like plastics, but when food breaks down in a landfill, it releases into the atmosphere methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere, which warms the planet.

And that’s saying nothing of the resources used to get discarded food to landfills and the space it takes up once it gets there.

However, the problem of food as it relates to climate change starts long before that apple core or moldy bread gets tossed. Think deforestation. Trees, which pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, are chopped down to give way to cropland or space for industrial livestock production. Those are what the industry calls upstream climate effects, notes Susan Miller–Davis, associate director of the Food Recovery initiative at Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a nonprofit network focused on innovation.

“What people in the industry call ‘downstream effects’ is when any organic material, whether it’s yard trimmings or anything, but especially food, ends up in landfills where it decomposes anaerobically,” or without oxygen, Miller–Davis says.

Picture the tightly–packed, piled–high environment of a municipal landfill. The methane produced by that particular decomposition process “doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon, but it is super potent,” Miller–Davis explains.

30%

MEAT, POULTRY AND FISH REPRESENT THE MAJORITY OF FOOD WASTED IN VALUE, AT ABOUT 30%. SOURCE: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

39%

THE FOOD WASTED IN AMERICAN HOMES MAKES UP ABOUT 39% OF ALL FOOD WASTE. SOURCE: FEEDING AMERICA

63.1 MILLION TONS

IN 2018, AN ESTIMATED 63.1 MILLION TONS OF FOOD WASTE WAS GENERATED IN THE UNITED STATES. SOURCE: U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY

24%

Food represents 24% of landfilled municipal solid waste. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

35%

In 2019, 35% of the food produced for human consumption went unsold or uneaten in the U.S. Source: ReFed

$1,500

The average four–person household throws away $1,500 worth of groceries each year. Source: U.S.
Department of Agriculture

$285 billion

In 2019, the U.S. spent $285 billion on food that was ultimately wasted. Source: ReFed

Creating a New Food Culture

Loss happens throughout the food system from production to distribution to retail to consumption. It’s a global problem that can feel overwhelming and out of your family’s control, but there are pretty easy steps that all families can take at the market, at home and dining out to be a part of the solution.

When food shopping…

Buy frozen veggies.

Fresh produce may taste and look better, but studies suggest that, in general, most frozen and canned fruits and vegetables retain many of their vitamins and nutrients. But watch out for added sugar or salt. And unlike their fresh counterparts, which last mere days, frozen or canned veggies can be shelf (or freezer) stable for years — and are often cheaper.

Avoid bulk shopping.

It may be more convenient to plan one big shopping trip to load up on everything your family could possibly need for the foreseeable future. It’s also true that bulk shopping tends to be cheaper, but you could be paying for it on the backend if you’re throwing out food that you didn’t get to in time.

Miller–Davis says it helps to shop in smaller batches and with a clear plan of what you’ll use when. If going grocery shopping every few days feels impossible, consider taking advantage of delivery services like Instacart or Shipt and have groceries from your favorite store dropped right to your door whenever you’re ready for them.

Shop at farmers markets.

For the freshest food that’ll last longer at home, shop locally when you can. If you can get that meat or produce home before it’s been shipped across the country (or the world), then you’ll buy your family that much more time to enjoy it before it spoils.

Don’t be a perfectionist.

Here’s the ugly truth: When given the choice, consumers will almost always reach for the prettiest produce. Our brains tell us that’s the best one, but that’s not always true. How many times have you gotten a pristine piece of fruit home only to cut it open and discover that it was all looks and no substance? Just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean that it’s not delicious — or at least perfectly fine to eat.

Support initiatives like Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market that rescues less–than–perfect or surplus foods and delivers them to you for cheaper. Or consider taking a chance on that spotty cucumber that no one else wants.

   Local Mom Solution

“Very passionate and into this. Compost! Makes such a big difference especially with little kids.”

– Kimmie,  @kimmie.noel

“Pasta Monday, Taco Tuesday, same each week. No guessing on ingredients or portions.”

– Catie,  @canigrelli

“Save chopped up veggies for broth/stock.”

– Khallilah,
@khallilahrenee

“Mom smoothies – scoop everything leftover from toddler breakfast and blend.”

– Annie,
@anniejdavidson

When back at home…

Don’t be ruled by date labels.

Aside from baby formulas, sell by and use by dates on foods aren’t regulated by the government. They’re essentially made up by manufacturers and meant to indicate peak freshness and flavor — not whether the item is safe to eat. Avoid tossing out what may be perfectly fine food because the date stamped on the side has passed.

Instead, rely on your senses, suggests Jackie Suggitt, director of capital, innovation and engagement at ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food waste across the food system. Look at it, smell it, taste it. If it seems fine, then it probably is.

Get creative with odds and ends.

Miller–Davis has been known to use those cauliflower leaves for garnish or turn carrot tops into pesto. Wilted but not–too–far–gone greens make great additions to soups and stews, and you can absolutely throw that overripe fruit into your morning smoothie. Before you make another trip to the market, shop your fridge first and get creative.

Websites like BigOven, SuperCook and MyFridgeFood allow you to generate recipes based on the ingredients you already have on hand. If all else fails, prepare everything that needs to go, lay it out buffet style and call it a smorgasbord night. The kids are guaranteed to get a kick out of the randomness.

Prioritize older foods.

Just like grocery stores set the older stuff up front and center, consider doing the same with your fridge or pantry at home. Her kids are grown up but when they were home, Miller–Davis would stick a bin in the fridge labeled “eat soon” for all the things that were close to going bad. And she’d type up a simple template identifying everything that was inside the fridge and ask the family to cross out what they ate for a clear picture of what was left to avoid food getting missed and buried in the back only to be rediscovered during the next deep clean.

Invest in a countertop composter. Despite best efforts, not every scrap of food brought home can be consumed. New cities are adding government–run composting programs all the time, but if you’re not in an area that offers it yet, a kitchen composter could be a convenient alternative. Instead of it decaying in a landfill, an automatic composter can turn organic food waste and other compostable materials into nutrient–rich soil in days.

When In restaurants…

Hold the extras.

Grabbing lunch and really only in the mood for the sandwich and not the fries or chips that come with? Ask about a la carte options. Or if you’re a pickle hater and likely to toss out the spear that they toss in, ask them not to include it. And when dining out, if the bread basket doesn’t get touched for whatever gluten–free, keto–friendly reason, then consider asking your server not to bring it to the table.

Box up leftovers right away.

If you’re dining out with toddlers that tend to pick over their food leaving behind a bunch of bitten–into chicken nuggets and coughed on tater tots that no one is going to want to eat later, ask for a box at the beginning of the meal. Pack up what they’re not likely to eat before they can get their adorable little hands on it, and that way you’ve got leftovers that anyone in the family can dig into.

The Bigger Picture

The United Nations Environment Programme released a report in February 2022 that detailed how a warming climate is leading to more frequent and intense wildfires, and affecting the health and life cycles of plants and animals — and, of course, the lives of humans. Beyond the grocery store and the kitchen, we can be a part of the broader effort to lessen food waste and, in turn, its effect on the environment and the climate.

On a philosophical level, Suggitt says, “We don’t necessarily value food as we should.” Food is relatively cheap and, for most of us in the western world, pretty easy to come by, which makes it disposable.

A wasted crown of broccoli here, a spoiled chicken breast there, but it all adds up — in dollars and in methane.

Suggitt thinks COVID–19 and the near–empty shelves that Americans witnessed at the beginning of the pandemic have perhaps helped to shift our collective mindset and put a little more respect on food. More broadly, as people are seemingly becoming more conscious about what and how much they eat, local, fresher fare that lasts longer will hopefully become more appealing and that overindulgent, fill–your–plate mentally less passe.

In the meantime, consider donating to or getting involved in nonprofits like Suggitt’s ReFED or Project Drawdown (Miller–Davis recently spent time at Drawdown as a research fellow) that employ data–driven solutions to lessen food waste and slow climate change.

Food recovery organizations and programs, like Feeding America, are also popping up in cities and towns across the nation, rescuing food before it ends up in landfills and redirecting it to people for whom food is not so easily accessible.

As of Jan. 1, 2022, people and businesses throughout California are required to separate organic material (food scraps and yard waste) from other garbage. Nothing like that in your area? Help the kids write letters to their representatives.

Whatever your tastes, there’s a food waste solution for that.

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