If there’s one thing that connects us to the Earth more than anything else, it’s our food. When we purchase too much food or fail to eat our leftovers, the rotten fruits, vegetables, and meals emit methane, a greenhouse gas more harmful than carbon.
Food waste alone is responsible for roughly 8% of global emissions. Project Drawdown lists reducing food waste as the third most impactful shift everyone can make to curb the climate crisis today.
Here’s the embarrassing part.
Strangely, we tend to shirk the responsibility on this issue. While 80% of food waste derives from homes and consumer-facing businesses, three quarters of Americans believe they waste less food than average. So, our self-perception doesn’t match the reality.
Yet, allowing food to go to waste means that all of the resources used to produce that food--the land and soil, the labor of harvest, the global transport and its carbon emissions, and the electricity or gas used to cook, process, store and package that food--have also gone to waste. Every form of food waste, from overproduction to overconsumption, contributes to climate change.
The food waste problem is hefty. A third of the food produced in the US gets tossed and a fifth of the material in landfills comes from food. If we slice those numbers in half by 2050, we’ll reduce the equivalent of about 70 gigatons of CO2 emissions. So, if climate change haunts you in your sleep, you can ease your mind by fighting fighting food waste.
Why and how we waste food
Our refrigerators have an enormous capacity and we tend to fill them up. The look of a full pantry gives us comfort in knowing that our families and friends won’t get hungry. Or, if we live alone, we might not need the kinds of portions sold at the supermarket and our food goes to waste early. In short, we keep too much back stock in storage.
- Fruit and produce rots before we get the chance to use it.
We lead busy lives, yet we want to stay healthy so we buy lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Yet, with our active lifestyles, the dreaded wilt and stench of rotten salad sneaks up on us. We should pay special attention to perishable foods because 45% of all fruits and vegetables go to waste.
- We confuse the “sell-by,” “use-by” and “best-by” labels.
To be fair, labels aren’t standardized, so if we see any date on our product, it can easily be mistaken for the date of expiration.
“Best-by” means the product’s ideal quality extends to the assigned date.
“Use-by” also means the product quality of the food remains high until the written date.
“Sell-by” means that a product should be removed from retailers shelves, but that the product remains safe to eat for roughly a third of its overall shelf-life.
The important thing to note here is that none of these labels convey health or safety information. They only indicate an educated guess about the quality of foods. This is why many foods can safely be consumed after their expiration dates. Researching the typical shelf lives of different food types helps us determine a proper time to toss.
- We avoid ugly fruits and vegetables.
Don’t discriminate! Those warped or elongated vegetal orbs still provide loads of nutrition.
- We don’t store our food properly.
Learning about food storage for different food types might make you feel a little bit like Martha Stewart. However, it will save you from the guilt of leaving rice at the back of the fridge until it molds. Build your knowledge base on suggested time frames for storing common foods in your fridge and freezer. Then plan your meals according to these time frames.
- We toss rather than give away leftovers
This is especially true for restaurants and grocery stores. Redistributing the foods produced and prepared to eat before they rot is a hugely important step to take because it reduces the environmental impact of food, and helps to feed hungry mouths.
What’s being done to stop food waste?
Many cities and districts are ramping up around the world to transform food waste into biofuel. Anaerobic digesters prevent methane from seeping into the atmosphere as they grind and transform food waste into a viable form of fuel. California has taken the lead in fighting food waste using this method. The city of San Francisco has also created a novel system of citywide compost collection.
What can you do to stop personal food waste?
- Expose your habits with a food waste diary
- Plan and ration your weekly meals
- Keep long-lasting dry foods in stock
- Compost at home
- Use the ends and tips of vegetables in vegetable stock
- Make vegetable stock and soups from older produce
- Bake or preserve older fruits
- Share food with friends and neighbors
- Educate yourself on the standard shelf lives of different foods
- Store food in useable portions in your refrigerator or freezer
- Eat or freeze leftovers within two days
- Eat frozen leftovers within a week
- Downsize your dishware, tupperware, refrigerator and cupboard space to avoid excess food storage
- Share your food storage and preservation tips and tricks with friends as if it’s the Depression Era
Remember we’re all in this climate crisis together. Help each other out and build a food community to make sure that everyone is fed and no food goes to waste.