This monthly column is written by Kendra Bruno, aka Compost Girl, who is the waste prevention specialist for the city of Napa. To submit questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prior to joining the city of Napa as the Waste Prevention Specialist, I worked at a small private liberal arts college in the Central Valley in the field of sustainability. One of my big projects was “Green Move Out.”
I knew students discarded a large amount of items (clothes, electronics, etc), but I never truly realized how much food, especially non-perishable food, is discarded annually when students are rushing to pack up their rooms. Hundreds of pounds of non-perishable food was recovered and donated that would have otherwise been in the landfill bin. And got that me thinking – if this is just at a small school, how much is being wasted nationwide?
Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes to waste annually. With every part of our food distribution wasting this precious resource: on the farm (or fishing boat), processing it, retail and restaurants, and finally in our homes. This was crazy to me, considering that 1 in 6 Americans do not know where their next meal will be coming from.
At home, we waste 25 percent of that 40 percent. For a household of four, that equals on average $1,500 of “thrown away” food waste annually. Imagine what you could do with that money.
So what do I mean when I say food is wasted? Food waste is defined as “food loss that occurs when edible items goes unconsumed” for a variety of reasons: coloration or appearance (aka ugly), to leftovers at restaurants, to food scraps from meal prepping, and lastly, letting it go bad before using it.
It is going to get a little worse before it gets better: virtual water and methane gas.
Everything we eat has what is known as a water footprint or virtual water. A water footprint includes all the water it takes to produce the product from start to finish. Can you guess how many gallons of virtual water for an egg? Fifty-five gallons.
Additionally, when food goes to the landfill, it rots without oxygen, producing methane gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane has 25 times greater impact on climate change than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Methane’s lifetime is shorter than carbon dioxide, but it is more efficient in trapping radiation, making it more potent. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills,” with landfills being the single largest man-made source of methane gas here in the U.S..
So what can you do? (the better!)
Remember the food recovery hierarchy:
1. Buy only what you need (prevent waste and save money).
2. Eat what you buy (plan ahead, make shopping lists, reduce your eco-footprint).
3. Donate any leftover food (see below!).
4. Compost it (and not send it to a landfill – reducing your impact and giving it another life).
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Act (Public Law 104-210) protects you from liability when donating food. Check out NapaRecycling.com for local food donation programs and more information about the act.
Also, understand the food expiration and date labeling. An analysis recently came out by the NRDC and Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic detailing the pitfalls of our food date labeling, including that the labels “don’t actually indicate when food will spoil or provide any meaningful measure of food safety.”
Additionally, they discovered that “date labels are very poorly regulated, ill-defined, and inconsistently applied.”
Studies show that up to 90 percent of U.S. Americans do not clearly understand date labels and end up throwing food away prematurely. Have a carton of eggs in the fridge? Does it say “sell by (date)”? That date is for the store staff – it has a built-in quality, so if it is sold by that date, it still has shelf life for some time.
There is work going on to change the labeling system to just two labels: “best if used by” and “use by” instead of the litany of current options so consumers know between freshness and safety. This work is being done by a variety of groups, including the NRDC, Harvard, and two of the most influential groups in the food industry (The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute).