Around $218 billion worth of food ends up in the landfill every year, with household food waste accounting for the largest portion of that ever-increasing pile. Since most of that food is still suitable for human consumption when it reaches the dustbin and its impact on the environment is much serious than most of us believe, here are some insights into why we should stop tossing so much food away.
How Big of a Problem Is Food Waste?
The statistics are staggering. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 25% of the food sold in U.S. grocery stores end up in a family’s trash can. This means that the average American household loses around $150 per month and up to $1,800 to food waste. On a global scale, it is estimated that as much as 30% of all the food humanity produces ends up in a landfill.
What’s more, the food tossed by the end consumer is the most wasteful as it has already been hauled over long distances (leading to needless gas consumption and pollution), it has been stored long term in industrial freezers or on grocery stores’ shelves (which means wasted electricity and more needless pollution), and you’ve probably wasted additional gas and electricity to transport and store it in your home.
Currently, when it comes to throwing away perfectly edible food, the world’s most wasteful nation is the United States. Americans singlehandedly discard $161 billion worth of food, or 80 billion pounds of food, every single year. That means that the average American wastes around 219 pounds of food and between 30 and 40% of America’s food supply is turned into garbage.
It is estimated that if we would combine the world’s food waste into a single country, that country would be the world’s largest methane polluter, behind China and the U.S.A. So, food waste is quite a big problem on a global scale.
Why Are We Throwing Away So Much Food?
The three most common reasons people throw away good food are lack of awareness, affection, and safety concerns.
Lack of Awareness
Most people are not even aware of how much good food they are wasting or how great the impact on the environment food waste has. Also, most people mistakenly believe that throwing away food is not that bad since food, unlike plastic, breaks down in no time. However, rotting food gives off methane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that is 20 times more harmful to the environment in the long run than carbon dioxide (CO2).
People throw perfectly edible food away out of affection, as silly as it may sound. In other words, many people cook too much food for their loved ones because they love them, which leads to a huge pile of leftovers that eventually gets tossed out. Grandma’s propensity to cook insanely amounts of food when grandchildren are around is anecdotal, but she simply can’t help it.
Good food is also being thrown away because people are concerned that it may no longer be safe to eat. Respondents often cite worries about food poisoning when asked why they toss so much food. There is also that group that can only eat fresh food, so if the produce is more than two days old, it goes into the trash.
But most of these people’s underlying problem is their confusion about the expiration dates on their food:
- “Sell-by” means just that: the food should not stay on a grocery store shelf beyond that date. But that doesn’t mean that it is no longer safe for human consumption after the sell-by date unless it comes with clear signs of spoilage.
- “Use-by” means that you should use the food before this date if you don’t want its quality to deteriorate. This is the only label that matters if you want to make sure that the food is still edible.
- “Best if Used Before/By.” This label suggests the date after which the product is no longer at its peak freshness. Just like the “sell-by” date, it doesn’t tell you anything about the product’s safety.
What’s more, except for baby formula, expiration dates are purely optional on the food sold in the U.S., which means that those labels are each manufacturer’s or distributor’s own creations. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows that expiration labels mean nothing since the federal agency allows grocery stores to donate expired food to charities unless the products exhibit signs of spoilage.
Most grocery stores, however, throw away good food when it reaches its expiration date because of the many liability issues that may arise. If someone consuming the donated food gets severely sick and needs a lengthy stay in the hospital or expensive medical treatment, he or she could sue the grocery store in a personal injury case and win. So, most stores do not want to take any chances and just throw the food away.
Food waste is one of humanity’s growing problems and very few of us are even aware of it. Food waste does not only pollute the environment, but it leads to thousands of dollars literally thrown in the trash bin every year. With nearly seven in 10 Americans having less than $1,000 stashed away for a rainy day, tackling food waste on a personal level could lead to important savings. All it takes is the first step.