Mountains of Food Waste

While one in seven people across the globe are undernourished and there are increasing food shortages and skyrocketing food prices across the globe, the U.S. and other developed nations discard “staggering” amounts of food every day, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year—approximately 1.3 billion tons—gets lost or wasted, according to the FAO report Global Food Losses and Food Waste, which was released this past May. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Americans are responsible for a sizable portion of that waste—more than 34 million tons of food was tossed in the U.S. in 2009, which amounted 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 recycled into compost—the remaining 97% is sent to landfills where it rots and produces harmful methane gas. Last year, the United Kingdom threw out 8.3 million tons of food—that’s enough leftovers to fill 4,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to anti-waste organization Wrap. And some 5.3 million tons of this food was still edible.

A large amount of energy (and water) is being used to grow, transport and store food that is only going to be thrown out. But because food in developed countries is so cheap, readily available and easily accessible people have become increasingly indifferent to food waste. “There’s just such a tremendous disconnect, with people not understanding the highly dangerous situation we are in,” said Marianne Bänziger, deputy chief of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

And overstocked grocery stores bear a large responsibility, too, since these stores are forced to discard food with cosmetic blemishes or surpassed sell-by dates. Rotisserie chickens and baked goods that are made in-house on a daily basis at many grocery stores are usually kept out for only one day; what doesn’t sell is thrown away that night. One in every 10 dozen eggs, or 5 billion eggs annually, is thrown out. This is because if one egg in a dozen cracks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cannot guarantee that carton’s freshness if an egg from another carton is substituted. Adding to the problem are restaurants that serve large portions and then discard the leftovers many customers are unable to eat or unwilling to take home.

John Wadginski, who worked at a California grocery store deli during college, recalls throwing out “easily 50 pounds of food a night.” Wadginski asked his supervisors if he could volunteer to take the food to a local shelter. State and federal laws have been in place for more than a decade to protect businesses and individuals from criminal and civil liability should recipients become ill from food donations made in good faith. But grocery stories have still remained cautious. “They told me ‘no’ because if anything happened, they would be liable,” Wadginski said. While many grocery stores do participate in hunger-relief programs, many times the donations are limited to non-perishable food items.

This past month, however, there have been a scattering of stories about a new kind of grocery store scheduled to open in Austin, Texas, this fall that could help combat our growing waste problem. 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 their own containers from home, filling them up with and purchasing only the amounts of food that they need.

A similar store, Unpackaged, already exists in London. On their website, they encourage 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!”

But as the world population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and the vast majority of grocery stores and restaurants remain far from package-free or zero-waste, the FAO and other environmental organizations continue to promote methods to both prevent and recycle commercial and at-home food waste as a way to increase food production efficiency and ensure future food security. They write: “In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority.”