Food Waste in America

By Liz Glass

eglass@lc.edu


Food waste is an extreme problem that sadly plagues the whole planet. However, America’s food waste is a unique case, and it seems like there is no end to it. In fact, in America we throw away around 40 million tons every year of food alone. Globally, the number is 1.4 billion tons of food every year. This means that America equates to about 35% of food waste in the entire world. This is 30-40% of the entire U.S. food supply – around 219 pounds of waste per person in America. Food is the largest portion of waste that fills up our landfills, and it makes up 22% of municipal solid waste, which is the total amount of garbage we use and throw away each day that comes from various places within our environment – whether that be at home, school, or another public place.
So, the question remains: why do we waste so much food? One factor could simply be people mistake the ‘sell by’, ‘best by’ or ‘expires on’ labels on every package of food we buy. In fact, more than 80% of Americans discard food because of misunderstanding the labels printed on them. Luckily, we can easily determine what these labels entail to prevent more food going to waste by simply taking a look at the Food Safety and Inspection Services website from the USDA.


Food Labelings and What They Mean
The ‘best by/before’ label means when the product will be of utmost flavor or quality. This is not an expiration date or “Hurry! This will go bad by” date.
The ‘sell by’ date is mainly for the company that sells the product, entailing the product must be sold to ensure inventory management. This does not mean if it doesn’t get sold, it is bad. It is purely for store inventory management.
The ‘use by’ date just means it is the last date to use said product while it is still at its peak in terms of its quality. This does apply to certain products that can have food safety concerns over time, such as poultry, or highly perishable items.
Lastly, a ‘freeze by’ date tells you when to freeze a product to ensure it will retain its peak quality. Still not an expiration or safety date.


Why Food Waste is So Bad
Now that we have these labels down, let’s get to the nitty gritty. Why is wasting food so bad? It disintegrates into the ground eventually, right? Or an animal will eat it, so it will be scavenged and consumed later on, so I don’t have to worry about it. Right…?
Sadly, no. Food waste makes up 11% of the world’s emissions in greenhouse gasses – which is pretty bad. Emissions include things such as methane, carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons. Food waste in the U.S. is said to be the equivalent to the greenhouse emissions of 37 million cars. It is almost unbelievable what a bit of food can do to the planet if not grown, used and consumed responsibly.


The Impact of Food Waste
Food that sits rotting contributes to natural release of nitrogen pollution. What does this do, exactly? Well, this causes dead zones and algae blooms. While algae blooms sound kind of nice, dead zones sound, well, quite ominous. And deadly. Truth be told, both are equally dangerous and scary to think about. An algae bloom caused by food waste happens when colonies of algae essentially ‘overgrow’ themselves and cause great harm to the environment around them – whether that be plants, animals or sea life. The extent of harm these blooms cause are as follows: they eat up oxygen in water if they so happen to be near a body of water, which – when they decay – clog the gills of fish and invertebrate, and smother corals. This is also prevalent being away from water, instead they will take from the air. They can also contaminate drinking water. Dead zones essentially do the same thing. They deplete oxygen levels needed to maintain life, primarily in bodies of water. They are caused by nutrient pollution from us – the humans. Other factors also indicate how the dead zone exactly forms, but let’s take one for the team and assume the majority of the responsibility in terms of creating a dead zone or algae bloom. Capiche?


Doing Our Part: How to Combat Food Waste
Now that we have the depressing facts of food waste out of the way, let’s see what we can do to combat this food crisis. Some simple things we can do for starters is simply buy less. Buy what you need, and leave it at that. Be mindful of what you plan to cook at home, and take only what you know you will need. Bulk buying can be okay, but some people buy too much, and it only ends up in wasting food as well as money. A fun project that you can start would be a garden of your own. The more you monitor how much you grow and harvest as well as the idea of how much you use each time you cook will become clear, thus preventing needless food waste. This choice also saves money. Something you can tie in with gardening is composting, or maybe if you haven’t gotten to the gardening stage yet, composting is a great way to start out in doing your part to being mindful of the environment around you. And, it makes for great fertilizer for a garden if you so choose to start one.


Pay attention and keep in mind the labeling of foodstuffs. Most stuff is safe to consume past the dates of these labels, save for some foods with a ‘use by’ label. You can donate food items to local food pantries or homeless shelters.


Fruits and vegetables with blemishes on them are still perfectly okay to eat. As Americans, we see less than perfect produce as ‘gross’ and not good enough to cook with. Some of us may even think this is a sign of expiration for the product. However, this is false. Imperfect produce is just like the perfect, blemish-free produce. Be not afraid of imperfection!


Around the world, many other countries are taking great strides to combat food waste. France requires restaurants to donate potentially wasted food that will plan to be thrown out but is still safe to eat. Sweden in some parts uses food waste to create eco-friendly fuel for public transits, like buses. Denmark allows you to use an app on your phone to find various food places that will be closing down and you can purchase perfectly good foodstuffs they didn’t get to sell at a fraction of the original price.


We as a community, as well as the rest of humanity, can do our part to combat food waste. It just takes some baby steps and a little bit of mindfulness in our everyday actions.

 

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