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Waste not, want not

Reducing consumer food waste can save billions

Created date

June 24th, 2015
compost pile
compost pile

Anyone who grew up in tough times understands the lost art of frugality. Plates are cleaned. Leftovers are reheated and consumed. Less desirable cuts of meat are made into broth or used in homemade sausage. During the Great Depression, for example, home cooks used whatever they had on hand to prepare family meals.  

Although times are far better today, a movement that embraces the same no-waste mindset Depression-era families lived by is becoming increasingly popular. What was once a means of survival has become a trend.

Hip new restaurants tout “nose-to-tail” menus, championing a food philosophy that eschews wasting any part of an animal. Upscale foodies gobble up au gratins of broccoli stems and kale rib pickles. Loblaws, Canada’s largest grocery retailer, has launched a campaign to sell ugly or misshapen produce for a discount.  

The industry responds

Trendiness aside, there is much more to this issue than many people realize. Every year, consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (222 million vs. 230 million tons). In the U.S., 30% to 40% of the food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.

The impact of all that wasted food is substantial. First, there is the environment. Food waste generates 3.3 billion metric tons of methane gas each year. That figure does not include all the energy, fertilizer, fuel, and water consumed to grow and produce the food we eat.

“It’s clear we can and must do better when it comes to reducing food waste,” says Michael Hewett, director of environmental and sustainability programs at Publix Super Markets, Inc. “It’s important to find more ways to keep food and food waste out of landfills, identify the challenges that prevent us from doing so, and develop responsible policies to assist in these efforts.” 

Reducing consumer food waste

The food industry has made a concerted effort to reduce food waste and it has seen some success. However, “consumers also have a role to play,” says Dr. Richard Swannell, director of sustainable food systems at The Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP), an anti-waste group in Great Britain. “Food waste is a global issue and tackling it is a priority.” 

Reducing consumer food waste could save between $120 billion and $300 billion a year by 2030, according to a report by WRAP and the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Achieving this would require a 20% to 50% reduction in consumer food waste. “This report emphasizes the benefits that can be obtained for businesses, consumers, and the environment. The difficulty is often in knowing where to start and how to make the biggest economic and environmental savings,” says Swannell.

Helen Mountford, global program director for The New Climate Economy, a global economics initiative focusing on climate change, says, “Reducing food waste is good for the economy and good for the climate. Less food waste means greater efficiency, more productivity, and direct savings for consumers. It also means more food available to feed the estimated 805 million that go to bed hungry each day. Reducing food waste is also a great way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. These findings should serve as a wakeup call to policy makers around the world.”

How to reduce food waste in your home 

First, compost food scraps instead of throwing them away.

And don’t be so quick to throw things out. People often discard perfectly good food because the “best if used by” date has past. Many foods are edible long after that date. As a general rule, if it looks, smells, and tastes good, it probably is.

Buy less food. While it’s tempting to stock up on things that are on sale, only purchase what you and your family can realistically consume.

Freeze, preserve, or can surplus foods—especially seasonal produce.

Be creative! Instead of throwing something away, try and repurpose it or use it in a recipe. There are plenty of online blogs that show you how.  

Donate foods you won’t eat to homeless shelters and food pantries.   

“The sad truth is that while food is going to waste, 37 million Americans struggle to put enough food on the table to feed their families,” says Karen Hanner, director of manufacturing product sourcing at Feeding America, a food bank network. “The safe, edible food that is diverted from the waste stream to food banks…makes a positive social impact on communities across the country by providing sustenance to those in need.”