Every day, America wastes enough food to fill California’s 90,000-seat Rose Bowl Stadium, according to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) (and What We Can Do About It) (Da Capo). This past May, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year, some 1.3 billion tons, gets lost or wasted. People in America and other wealthy nations topped the food-wasting list because they “can afford to waste food,” the FAO report noted.
U.S. homes and businesses threw out more than 34 million tons of food in 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, which amounts to more than 14% of the nation’s total municipal solid waste stream. Paper is the only material category where Americans generate more waste, but while 60% of paper is recycled every year, only 3% of food scraps are turned to compost. The remaining 97% is sent to landfills where it rots and produces harmful, potent, heat-trapping methane gas. According to the EPA, composting would eliminate landfill methane emissions as well as “regenerate poor soils, suppress plant diseases and pests, reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers, and promote higher yields of agricultural crops,” but only a handful of cities like Seattle, Washington, San Francisco, California, and Boulder, Colorado, offer residential curbside composting pick-ups.
Composting remains rare in developed nations in part because food is cheap, readily available and easily accessible. Most don’t think twice before tossing out vegetables that have rotted in the fridge or stop to consider the environmental toll of fertilizers, chemicals, oil and water used to grow, transport and store that food.
“There’s just such a tremendous disconnect, with people not understanding the highly dangerous situation we are in,” says Marianne Bänziger, deputy chief of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
And all those overstocked grocery stores, full to bursting with milk, bags of salad mix, fruit, vegetables and other items with cosmetic blemishes or surpassed sell-by dates are discarded en masse when they haven’t—or can’t be—sold. Then there are the rotisserie chickens and baked goods that are made in-house on a daily basis; those items are usually kept out for only one day. What doesn’t sell is thrown away that night.
And five billion eggs are thrown out each year because if one egg in a dozen cracks the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot guarantee that carton’s freshness. So out the carton goes. A former Safeway employee, John Wadginski, said in an article on the site Hunger in California that he’s haunted by memories of the food he was required to waste as a former deli employee at Safeway Inc. Wadginski said he threw out untouched 10-pound hams, ribs and other “daily specials” that totaled some 50 pounds of food a night.
Prepared foods served at supermarket salad bars and buffets cannot be donated, despite their abundance, and many grocers, though legally protected from being held liable for any donations made in good faith, are wary of donating anything but non-perishable food items to hunger-relief programs. But some have made efforts. Wal-Mart, for instance, has partnered with hunger-relief charity Feeding America, and as of the end of 2010 had donated more than 127 million pounds of food (about 100 million meals) to needy families.
And a new grocery store model scheduled to open in Austin, Texas, this fall could prove it’s possible to eliminate much of the waste seen in conventional supermarkets. The store, called In.gredients, plans to become “the first package-free and zero waste grocery store in the United States.” Focused on the concept of “pre-cycling,” the store will encourage shoppers to bring and fill their own containers from home, purchasing only the amounts of food they need. A similar store, Unpackaged, already exists in London. That store’s website encourages customers to “Reduce by only buying what you need, reuse by bringing your containers for a refill, recycle what you can’t reuse and if you can’t reuse or recycle it, then don’t buy it!”
Below, Bloom shares his thoughts on our growing food waste crisis and those zero-waste concept stores.
E Magazine: What’s behind the mountains of waste at mainstream grocery stores?
Jonathan Bloom: It’s the prepared food, produce, and, to a lesser extent, dairy and the butcher. [And] the amount of baked goods that are available for donation or gets thrown out is astounding. I’ve visited food recovery organizations and food banks that just get inundated with donated breads and baked goods and it’s so much that they often can’t find a use for all of it. I’ve seen food banks sending bread to hog farms and even having to throw it out. Supermarkets are leery to donate perishables like produce and fresh proteins. Those kinds of foods that people need are not donated at anywhere near the same frequency.
E: Do you see the situation getting worse now that supermarkets offer a large amount of pre-cooked meals and prepared food buffets?
J.B.: From that standpoint, it’s definitely getting worse. The buffets are the largest culprits. If it’s an open buffet like you see at Whole Foods, they can’t donate that food at the end of the night for health and food safety concerns. The prepared foods that are behind the glass counter can be donated but unfortunately [stores] often don’t because of liability fears. As we get busier and busier, more are buying these prepared foods and convenience items at supermarkets in much greater numbers so stores are upping their supply. And the more options you have, the more that inevitably will not be sold and they’ll have to throw out at the end of the night.
E: Why do you think we have such an overabundance of food stocked and made in our grocery stores? It doesn’t seem like a cost-effective approach.
J.B.: Well, it stems from a post-war attitude that advised farmers to produce as much as they can. Add in the crop scientists and agricultural engineers whose job it is to “up” yields and we just have this escalation of production. We’re producing about twice the amount of calories that we need per person per year without any real plan of how to put them to use or how to distribute that excess in a wise way. A tremendous amount gets wasted. It’s definitely time to re-think how we grow food and how much we produce because it has these impacts both in terms of the amount of food that’s wasted and the taxing of the soil [as we] create this abundance that we don’t need.
E: What can supermarket customers do to stop food waste?
J.B.: I think public pressure from people going to their supermarkets and asking them what they do with their leftover bread and what happens to the milk once it reaches the sell-by date will have an impact. If we can communicate that desire to make food waste become part of the sustainability conversation, then I think stores will act quite rapidly.
E: Do you think new zero-waste supermarkets like In.gredients could take off?
J.B.: Asking people to bring their own bags isn’t terribly inconvenient, we can handle that. In.gredients asks people to take it a couple steps further, but I don’t think it’s too much. I don’t think you’ll ever get a mass conversion if you’re asking people to go too far outside of their comfort zone.
LINDSEY BLOMBERG is a contributing writer at E.