Understanding the Impacts of Food Waste

Hilary’s Exclusive Interview with Tessa from the NYU Office of Sustainability

What is food waste?

The easy answer is all of the parts and pieces of food that don’t get eaten – which could mean the chopped ends of onions from preparing dinner, banana peels from an on-the-go snack, or unwanted sandwich crusts from an over-packed lunch.

How does food waste impact our lives here in America and also in the greater world?

So before getting into food waste in particular, we have to take a step back and look at the bigger world of waste and waste management. In America, 65.7% of all waste goes to landfills (instead of being recycled or composted) – this adds up to about 167 million tons per year, or the weight of 450 Empire State Buildings.

Landfills are bad news for a few reasons. First and foremost is the issue of pollution: we all know that greenhouse gases like CO2 build up in the atmosphere at cause global warming. Well, methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times worse for the planet than CO2, and just so happens to be given off at high levels by open landfills – not to mention, polluted runoff from landfills has the potential to contaminate water sources and other elements of the environment. Though there are technologies out there that are able to capture these pollutants and even reuse them in some way, these solutions are often expensive to install, and regulations may not succeed in enforcing their use. What’s more, many landfills are located in areas that are home to already disenfranchised populations, both locally and globally, thus exacerbating the injustices faced by those communities.

So the basic idea is that landfills are bad for people and planet. What’s worse is that a large portion of what ends up in landfills doesn’t actually have to be there in the first place. The EPA estimates that up to 75% of all waste in the US is able to be recycled, rather than sent to landfill. About a third of that waste is food waste.

How do we waste so much food?

You might be thinking, “how do my potato peels possibly account for such a huge proportion of America’s waste stream?!” Good question! The answer is that food waste is actually generated at all stages of the food process, from production all the way to consumption.

The definition I gave you at first limits the idea of food waste to consumer food waste, but the truth is that huge amounts of food are wasted before they arrive on your plate. During the production, handling, storage, packaging, and distribution periods, food is lost, ruined, and weeded out, all in efforts to feed the consumers. In the end, all of these processes create about 69% of food waste – the rest is from the consumers themselves.

What can be done to reduce food waste?

So 31% of all food waste happens at the consumer level – which means you and I have an important role to play in reducing that number! There are lots of ways that consumers can be proactive about minimizing food waste.

◦ Start at the beginning: shop smart! With a little bit of research, you can come to know quite a bit about government regulations, sourcing standards and processing methods of different producers, and how you can invest wisely when it comes to food.
◦ Have a plan! Figure out before going shopping how you’re going to use each and every food item you buy. Avoid impulse buying, don’t be afraid of imperfect goods, and only buy in bulk when the food’s going to last. Right now, households throw out about 25% of their food, which in the long run ends up being pretty expensive.
◦ Use it wisely! Freeze food to make it last longer, save (and eat!) your leftovers, and know that “Sell by” and “Use by” labels aren’t the be-all end-all – in many cases food can be consumed well past those dates.
◦ Eat in! Preparing and serving meals at home can reduce food waste in comparison to eating out. If you work it into your plan, eating at home – or bringing meals with you – can be just as rewarding as visiting a restaurant or cafe.
◦ Don’t trash it! As mentioned earlier, 24% of our waste is compostable. Composting reduces the amount of material going to landfill, and provides a rich, healthy material that can be used for farming, gardening and landscaping.

Are there any restaurants that mindfully operate in order to limit food waste impacts?

Despite the fourth bullet point above, there are in fact some ways that eating out can be a responsible choice. Increasingly more restaurants and other food service businesses are beginning to compost, and a few are working to put their food waste to even better use by donating it to people in need. Organizations such as City Harvest and Food Recovery Network are popping up left and right to help facilitate the connection between businesses and hungry mouths. More restaurants are also jumping on the sustainably-sourced bandwagon, including choosing to purchase from local or otherwise waste-friendly locations. Some preliminary digging will leave you with a list of locations that won’t leave you with a pile of food waste behind you.

What don’t most people know about food waste?

For me, I’d say the most surprising tidbits are the percentages towards the beginning, of how much food waste there really is.

What are some suggestions for the average person who is hoping to become more conscious about this topic? 

Keep reading about it! Learning is the first step towards doing. After that, look into how you can volunteer with local food recovery organizations, waste-responsible businesses, environmental education programs, and other groups that will be able to bring you in to the world of food waste and its solutions!