Environmental Implications Of The Food We Throw Away.


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What are the environmental implications of all the food we throw away here in the United States?

Food waste is a huge issue in America, especially in light of the growing divide between the profligate rich and the hungry poor. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Loss Project, we throw away more than 25 percent – some 25.9 million tons – of all the food we produce for domestic sale and consumption. A 2004 University of Arizona study pegs the figure at closer to 50 percent, finding that Americans squander some $43 billion annually on wasted food. Lead researcher Timothy Jones reported that on average, U.S. households waste 14 percent of their food purchases. He estimates that a family of four tosses out $590 per year in meat, fruits, vegetables and grain products alone.

Once this food gets to the landfill, it then generates methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat within our atmosphere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S. – meaning that the sandwich you made and then didn’t eat yesterday is increasing your personal – and our collective – carbon footprint.

Furthermore, researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kid­ney Diseases (NIDDK) concluded in a 2009 study that each year a quarter of U.S. water consumption and over 300 million barrels of oil (four percent of U.S. oil consumption) go into producing and distributing food that ultimately ends up in landfills. They add that per-capita food waste has in­creased by half since 1974, and suggest that the U.S. obesity epidemic may be the result of a push effect of increased food availability and marketing to Americans unable to match their food intake with the increased supply of cheap food.

In spite of all this, environmentalists are optimistic that Americans can reduce their food waste. For one, restaurants and markets are increasingly finding outlets – including soup kitchens feeding the poor and farms looking for cheap animal feed – for food they would otherwise toss. Some communities now pick-up and centrally compost food waste from commercial and residential buildings and put the resulting nutrient-rich soil to use in municipal projects or for sale to the public. And a few enterprising cities now have waste-to-energy technologies that extract methane from landfills for use as fuel.

An extreme reaction to the food waste issue is “freeganism,” a movement of people who live on the food cast off by others. These “dumpster divers” share, in the words of movement founder Warren Oakes, “an anti-consumeristic ethic about eating” and not only avoid creating waste but live off that caused by others.

Going freegan might be a bit much for most of us, but we can all take action to minimize food waste. The University of Arizona’s Jones suggests more careful purchase planning, including devising complete menus and grocery lists, and knowing what foods are lurking in the fridge and pantry that should be used before they go bad. And don’t forget that many foods can be frozen and enjoyed later. Jones contends that if we as a nation were able to cut our food waste in half we’d extend the lifespan of landfills by decades and reduce soil depletion and the application of untold tons of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

CONTACTS: University of Arizona Food Waste Study; N IDDK, www.niddk.nih.gov; Freegans, www.freegan.info.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

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  1. Everybody who has even the tiniest patch of soil available can compost. If a little patch is available for use it’s just a matter of wanting to do so. We do it and we live in a town house in the city. Composting takes longer than dumping scraps into the trash. However, it isn’t only the socially responsible way to go but it is also good for your body and mind. It is amazing how much a little composting can achieve in little time, with – for me – little and well worthwhile effort. Another benefit is of course that we rarely have to put our trash bins back and forth from/to the curb 🙂

  2. Hi Carla,
    composting is easy if you have a patch of soil available: Just dig a hole in the soil, add your scraps and cover them with the soil you lifted out to make the hole. If you want to add new scraps soon, make a hole in an adjacent area and repeat, after a while you can go back to the 1st area. You may be surprised how the soil microflora and -fauna changed and how many earthworms have been born. This way, I have turned a construction ‘soil’ ‘landscape’ into real living soil 🙂

  3. yeah – this is so important!
    At our house we practice vermiculture and composting…even if we are in the city…there are bins you can make for these things, and worm bins are awesome for all vegetable type waste, including grains, noodles, newspaper, and even old jeans! plus the little worms then create the most fabulous potting soil ever.
    I’ve taught worm-farming…

  4. I will try composting again for the third time. The first two times were ultimate disasters despite the instructions and websites I read. I think I probably should just give my scraps away to someone who know what they are doing!

  5. There’s also a program in a lot of cities called “FoodNet” where a nonprofit picks up day-old bakery goods, produces, and hot foods to distribute at churches and community centers weekly. It works really well for anyone needing extra help with groceries.

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