Food waste in America: 12 ways to help reduce it

Food waste
Food waste / Nick Saltmarsh via Flickr

The world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food every year, but estimates of food waste can vary wildly. According to Feeding America, Americans waste about 59.5 billion tons of it every year, worth $408 billion. Meanwhile, one in six Americans suffer food insecurity, including a lot of school-age children. What can we do about food waste in America?

Before we can deal with that question, though, we need to be clear on the definition of food waste. It is different from a related problem of food loss. Food loss includes

  • food damaged in harvesting
  • food that spoils in transit or in storage
  • excess food that farmers can’t sell, which they usually plow under

Food waste, on the other hand, occurs after food is on the market.

  • Wholesalers discard ugly produce they figure customers won’t buy
  • Grocery stores can’t sell everything before it spoils. This problem occurs not only with fresh meat, produce, and dairy, but also canned goods that have stayed on the shelf past the sell-by date.
  • Food recalls require trashing lots of perfectly good food in order to be sure to destroy the tainted food.
  • People buy more fresh food than they can use before it spoils. Or forget about leftovers in the refrigerator until they spoil.
  • People burn food or otherwise ruin it in cooking.
  • People don’t eat everything and leave waste on their plates. This happens both at home and at restaurants.
  • Restaurants, school cafeterias, and other food service institutions waste a tremendous amount of food besides plate waste.

Some food waste statistics

Agriculture uses about 80% of all the water consumed in the US. If about 30% of food in the US is wasted, it follows that about 30% of the water used in agriculture is wasted. 

Food waste accounts for almost a quarter of America’s municipal solid waste. The greenhouse gas emissions of food waste in America amounts to the equivalent of 37 million cars. 

Bread and other grain products are the most wasted food types in the US. 38% of it, more than 240 million slices of bread, gets thrown out every year. We also waste almost 20% of our milk. Potatoes round out the three most wasted foods, with 5.8 million tons discarded, but we also lose almost half of the other vegetables and fruits we produce. 

It takes orchards about 125 liters of water just to grow a single apple. Throwing out one rotten apple amounts to pouring that much water down the drain,

In addition, if 30% of food is wasted, it means that 30% of the land used to grow food actually produces food waste.

We are especially wasteful at holidays, about 25% more wasteful than at other times of the year. Consider just one part of holiday fare at just one holiday: about 35% of edible turkey meat at Thanksgiving goes in the garbage. 

Food waste comprises the single largest category of our waste stream. It accounts for almost a quarter of landfilled waste and only a slightly less percentage of incinerated waste.

The environmental impact of food waste

Suppose we could eliminate food waste in America. We would need to devote about 30% less land to agriculture. Farmers would use about 30% less fertilizer and other chemicals. Doing so would reduce the environmental impact of storm runoff. In other words, our water pollution problems would become less serious with the reduction in agricultural pollution. And 30% less pesticide use would reduce the killing of beneficial insects such as honeybees.

Consider also the energy that wasted food wastes. If we could eliminate food waste, we would reduce the energy expended on

  • operating farm equipment on the land no longer farmed
  • transporting food––from farms to warehouses to stores to consumers’ homes
  • packaging, warehousing, refrigerating, and freezing food
  • preparing and cooking food

Once we waste food, the food waste has its own environmental consequences.

  • Garbage cans and dumpsters attract rodents and other vermin, which carry a variety of diseases.
  • It requires energy to collect garbage and operate landfills and incinerators.
  • Most of the methane emitted from landfills and about a quarter of emissions from waste-to-energy incinerators comes from food waste.
  • We are running out of space in our landfills, and it is becoming harder and harder to agree on acceptable places for building new ones. 

12 ways consumers can help reduce food waste in America

The amount of commercial and industrial food waste is staggering. Yet consumers account for almost half of food waste in America. We have to do our part before we can point fingers at anyone else.

1. Figure out how much food you waste at home.

I have seen statistics that about three quarters of Americans think they waste less than the average person. Doesn’t that mean that about a quarter of us waste more than the average person and don’t recognize it? 

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. So take some time to measure your food waste.

After every meal, set a container on a scale and scrape all plate waste and whatever is left in cookware into it. Weigh it before putting it in the garbage and keep a tally of the weight. Also, weigh whatever spoiled food you find in your refrigerator. 

At the end of the day, make a record of the total weight of discarded food. Keep it up for a week or so until you have a good idea what food and how much you toss in the garbage. This figure, by the way, will include non-edible parts of food such as bones, peelings, or egg shells, but if you have to throw it out, weigh it.

In the process, you will notice the patterns of your own food waste, which are probably a little different from your neighbors’.

By the way, your used cooking oil requires special handling.

2. Plan meals ahead and make a shopping list

Having a plan cuts down on impulse buying. If the zucchini looks attractive but you don’t plan to fix anything that needs zucchini, you know that you can leave it alone. Or you can figure out how to change your plans so you’ll actually eat it. You can’t waste what you don’t buy.

3, When you shop, buy no more perishable food than you will eat before it goes bad.

If a store sale offers buy one three-pound bag of apples and get another one free, it might be a good deal, but not if most of the second bag will rot before you can eat it. 

Some foods, especially bread and meats, freeze well. You just need to know how much freezer space you have left––and what food is already there––in order to know how best to take advantage of sales. 

4. Be willing to buy “ugly” produce

A lot of food gets thrown out because it has a weird shape or the color isn’t ideal. It’s perfectly wholesome to eat.

Usually, distributors will not buy ugly produce from farmers. Farmers will feed it to animals or plow it under (where it at least makes good organic fertilizer). At that stage, it counts as food loss, not food waste, but it’s unnecessary.

If ugly produce gets to a wholesaler, it will probably be culled before it gets to the store. If it makes it to the produce shopping area in the store, don’t be afraid to buy it. It’s perfectly good food.

5. Don’t cook more than people will eat.

food rescued from a dumpster. food waste in America
Food rescued from a dumpster / Quispiam via Wikimedia Commons

Actually, it’s a good idea to cook enough for two meals. Eat half of it. Put the rest in the refrigerator to serve later in a few days. But that only works well if you know you and your family will eat the leftovers.

Therefore, if you’re not sure you’ll like something, or if you know that the food won’t taste good reheated, make as little as possible to minimize wasted food.

6. Serve small portions

It’s much better for someone who’s still hungry to go back for seconds than for someone to get full and leave food on the plate that must be thrown out.

By the way, parents used to try to get their children to clean their plates by telling them about all the starving children in Africa. Eventually, comedians began to make fun of them. Also, “experts” began to blame the “clean you plate” habit for obesity. They counseled people trying to lose weight to deliberately leave food on their plates. 

Shame on them for encouraging food waste! It’s much better to exercise self-discipline by putting less on your plate than by planning to waste food.

7. When you eat out, don’t order more than you can finish

Restaurant portions are too big much of the time. It’s one of the reasons for the epidemic of obesity in this country, but no one forces you to order appetizers, extra side dishes, or oversized desserts.

Of course, if you’re close to home, you can request a take-out container. The same rules apply as for leftovers at home. Some restaurant food is so greasy that the leftovers taste vile. Remember that entrée and don’t order it again or remember the restaurant and don’t go back!

If you’re on the road, however, you won’t have any way to eat the leftovers before they go bad. Plan on whatever it takes not to send food back to the kitchen where it will only go in the garbage. 

8. Keep track of what’s in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.

It’s dismaying to notice something you enjoyed a week or so ago in the back of the fridge that has spoiled. Every once in a while, then, look for anything that might be hiding and plan when to eat it before it goes bad. 

But that brings up a common confusion:

9. Understand the meaning of food date labels

Many foods in stores have date labels that consumers find confusing. About 20% of all food waste in America comes because people don’t understand the phrases before the dates. 

“Sell by” means that the store has to take it off the shelves before that date. It doesn’t mean that the food spoils on that date.

Even if the label instead says something like “best if used by,” it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with the food after that date. There is no good scientific way to determine a date at which a can or box of something becomes unfit to eat. I recently made tapioca pudding with tapioca way past the date on the box. It was as good as ever.

If you have “expired” food and it is not obviously spoiled, don’t make wasted food of it. Go ahead and use it.

10. Educate yourself and your acquaintances about food and food waste

Sustainability Scout has lots of good information about food sustainability and other green-living issues. Come back often and explore! Simple online search terms will bring you plenty more sites with reliable information. It’s an issue where the basic facts don’t change a lot over time, but new details and more recent statistics come out regularly. 

From measuring your food waste to understanding food date labels, the more you know and understand, the more eco-friendly choices you can make, and the easier it will be to make them.

Also, the more you know, the more you can help family and friends reduce their contributions to food waste in America.

11. Instead of putting food in the garbage, compost as much as possible 

Composting won’t necessarily reduce food waste, but it will reduce pressure on your local landfill. Or, unfortunately, the distant landfill your community’s garbage has to go to for lack of one close by.

Composting can be as elaborate as building multiple compost bins or buying fancy equipment to simply burying scraps and such somewhere in your yard. 

And did you know that you shouldn’t put some food scraps with your compost but that you can compost a lot besides food waste? Read up of what to compost and you will put a lot less wasted food out to the curb. 

If you live in an apartment or otherwise can’t compost at home, check if you can contribute to a local community composting program. 

12. Volunteer for food waste reduction programs

I’ll mention only one possibility. Your community probably offers others.

The Society of St. Andrew  is a nationwide agency for feeding people struggling with food insecurity. They need volunteers for, among other things, gleaning fields and participating in crop drops.

My church has hosted several potato drops. A dump truck deposits about 40,000 pounds of potatoes in the parking lot. Volunteers assemble to put potatoes in bags. A bag of potatoes about the size of a basketball weighs about 10 pounds. Dozens of local food pantries send vans or pickup trucks to collect what they need. After a few hours, all those potatoes are on their way for distribution to people who need them.

Even small children can participate in bagging produce at a crop drop. The occasion gives everyone a glimpse of the magnitude of both wasted food and food insecurity. It provides an education far beyond reading about the issues. At the end of the event, everyone is tired, moved, and happy to have helped. Callous ignorance and indifference give way to an understanding of our food problems. Everyone returns home with renewed determination to be part of the solution to the problem of food waste in America. 

Shop related products

Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home / Julia Watkins

Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food / Dana Gunders

American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) / Jonathan Bloom

Utopia Kitchen Stainless Steel 1.3 Gallon Compost Bin for Kitchen Countertop

SCD Probiotics All Seasons Indoor Composter, Easy Start Countertop Kitchen Compost Bin with Bokashi – Easily Compost Indoors, Low Odor, Beginner Friendly – K100 Tan, 5 gal

Stasher Platinum Silicone Food Grade Reusable Storage Bag, Clear (Bundle 4-Pack Small) | Reduce Single-Use Plastic | Cook, Store, Sous Vide,
or Freeze | Leakproof, Dishwasher-Safe, Eco-friendly, Non-Toxic

10 food waste statistics in America / Martina Igini, Earth.org. November 23, 2022
The facts on food waste: what the statistics tell us / Sahani Dikkumbura, Thrive. October 20, 2022 

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