Ultimate Guide about Food Waste and its Impact on the Environment

Irene Aguirre 2021-03-16 8 min

What Is Food Waste?

We are always talking about waste, how to reduce it, how to recycle it, and how to stop it. And when we think about reducing waste, we think about plastic and other residues. But have you ever heard about Food Waste? If not, don’t worry it’s not that #trending. Lets go for it and learn about Food Waste and its impact on the environment.

Is it food loss or food waste? The difference is based on the stage of the food chain in which it occurs. According to the FCRN (Food Climate Research Network) Food Loss is the decrease in edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that specifically leads to edible food for human consumption, so this happens during production, post-harvest, and processing stages- i.e. before it even gets to the store. On the other hand, Food Waste occurs in the final stage of the food chain, when the food is already at the store or in our homes.

So this is the Way the Cookie Crumbles.

Food waste is basically food that is not eaten. From that old bag of cookies you have deep in your pantry to a whole crop of soybeans that didn’t arrive at its destiny on time. It occurs in every step of the food system, which means it can happen during production, processing, distribution, retail, and consumption (you are here).

three pears
Unsplash image

Most retail stores don’t sell “appealing” fruits and veggies. So if it ain’t pretty, it goes to the trash bin and never gets to the consumer’s hands. This may sound crazy, right? Just because an apple is bruised it can’t be sold. But this is not that uncommon, wasteful practices in the retail industry are viewed as a good business strategy. So most of the time when you check out the expiration date or the “sell by” date on a product it doesn’t mean it’s inedible, it just means it won’t satisfy the cosmetic expectation.

But let’s talk about you and me. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)in the US, an average person wastes 238 pounds of food per year. Hard to believe, I know!

This is the highest percentage of waste in the whole food system. This not only damages the planet, but it’s also affecting your own pocket! Every average American wastes $1,800 per year on the food they don’t end up eating. That’s a lot of money you could be saving up – or getting some well-deserved vacation.

Let’s Talk Numbers

From a global perspective, food waste can amount to up to one-third of all food produced. To break it down for you: that is, for every 100 kg of food that is produced, 30 kg is wasted.

Approximately 50% of food waste happens at the consumer level. That means this happens in our homes. In the US, every other person wastes 21% of the food they buy!

According to the NRDC ( Natural Resources Defense Council) here’s the ranking of largest wastes on consumer-level:

-Fresh fruits and veggies get first place with 19% and 22% each.

-Dairy gets second place with a total of 20%

-Meat and seafood get the last place with 21% and 31%.

Surplus food (food that is produced but never eaten) requires a big amount of resources. Basically, food goes through the entire process of growing, harvesting, transporting, cooling, cooking, or preparing just to be discarded. And we all know this is a big waste of energy. Plus it contributes to climate change.

The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted is 250km3 is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28 percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted. According to FAO, if food wastage were a country (talking about the Greenhouse emissions levels) it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world.

You may be thinking.. It’s just food, it’ll feed the ground!

But here’s the Deal:

Research shows that once food gets settled in landfills it decomposes without oxygen. This is a phenomenon scientists call anaerobic digestion. This creates methane gas. If you thought carbon dioxide was good at trapping heat, methane gas kicks its butt. It is 25 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2, resulting in warming up our planet.

To say it roughly, if not properly disposed of (composted), food waste is actually chipping in (very generously) to climate change.

But don’t get me wrong, composting is not the (only) solution. The key is in the three Rs system. Yup!!! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

These guidelines apply to any kind of waste so it works perfectly to approach the food waste problem. This is what the United States Environmental Protection Agency designed as the Food Recovery Hierarchy to help guide priorities to attack food waste:

food waste data

As you can see, a big part of the problem is in how much food the industry is actually producing more than we can eat. And we can’t change that for now. But we can actually make some changes at home that will contribute to helping fight climate change.

Let’s face it – it’s not easy to live Zero Waste, heck it’s nearly impossible when our lives revolve around chores, work, school and actually having some kind of social life. So Zero Waste may not be your priority and that’s ok! – But if you are up for a challenge, here is a 31 Day Challenge to Zero Waste you can follow.

That said, there are easy ways you can contribute against climate change so here are some (realistic) tips and tricks to reduce the food waste in your home:

Better Safe than Sorry so:

  • Plan ahead. Make a list of what you already have at home before re-stocking, and get only what you need. This way you’ll avoid buying too much food and impulse-buying at the supermarket.
  • Organization. Every two weeks organize your pantry and fridge so you know what you have. This will help you have a clearer vision of what needs to be used sooner rather than later.

Fun tip! You can set up an “Eat soon” shelf or drawer and try to make recipes with ONLY the things you find there. (That’ll feed your belly and your imagination)

  • Recycle. Explore new uses for leftover waste. Before dumping it in your garbage can (or compost bin) try turning them into something new. I love a good vegetable scraps and bones soup stock.
  • Location, location, location. Storing is very important. If you do it properly your food will remain fresh, and last longer so you won’t end up throwing some soggy lettuce and moldy lemons. Check out this Fridge Storage Guide.
  • One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Donate any extra fresh produce and vegetables to the local food banks. You can find your nearest foodbank here.

And last, but not at all, least:

  • COMPOST! When food decomposes properly with oxygen in a compost bin or on a forest floor, creates water vapor and a bit of carbon dioxide. It also leaves behind a multitude of rich nutrients to feed a healthy ecosystem in the soil. Here is our Ultimate Guide on Composting at Home for you to get started!

We can lessen our contribution to climate change by simply rethinking how we shop and cook. So, let’s make a change in our households. How we shop sets the tone. Buy only what you need and each month review your shopping list to make sure you are not getting things you already have.

Zero Food Waste Households, for Beginners.

What if I tell you that you can have a Zero Food Waste Household? No, I´m not crazy, you can actually do it by following these simple steps:

  • Step 1: Use what you have. Instead of going out of your way to getting the ingredients you need to make some recipe, just let your fridge (and pantry) dictate your menu. Rather than spending hours thinking about what to eat, open up the fridge and look at what you have to work on in the first place.
  • Step 2: Eat the food. We all have that black hole drawer where our food goes to die. Instead of throwing those wilting vegetables, eat them! They might not look pretty but that doesn’t mean they are not nutritious. You can turn those veggies into a nice broth for future cooking. So that one less item on your list for your next trip to the grocery store. You’ll be saving time, money, and tons of perfectly edible food.
  • Step 3: Forget recipes, just wing it. You don’t need to be a pro chef to cook a nice meal for yourself and your family. You also don’t need to follow a recipe step by step. If you master a few basic versatile dishes you can cook on a daily basis, you can swap the ingredients with what you have. This way you won’t waste food and will soon be very handy in the kitchen.
  • Step 4: Use your freezer. I know sometimes storage can be a problem, but a really good way to keep food (already prepared or not) is in the freezer. Made too much rice and beans? Freeze it and enjoy it later on.

Tackling Food Waste should not be hard, and it can be delicious! Don’t believe me? Try one of these amazing Zero Food Waste recipes.

To learn more about how to start cutting down on food waste in your own life, check out our article on Reducing Food Waste 101.

Irene Aguirre

Copywriter, nature lover and feminist activist

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