Food waste. I just can’t seem to escape it. I notice it everywhere…at home…at work…in between home and work. Remember that famous, whispered line from The Sixth Sense?
Well, “I see food waste.”
Discarded food is one of society’s most pervasive problems, and was recently reported to be the leading cause of “green guilt.” To be fair, while consumers (including me) feel the guilt, a lot of that food gets wasted long before it makes it to our plates. But if we are up to the challenge of tackling food waste, there are social, environmental and financial benefits to be harvested.
A new issue paper released this week by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) adeptly frames the increasingly popular topic and summarizes the opportunities to reduce wasted food – and money – along its journey from farm to fork to landfill.
Among the NRDC paper’s key findings:
- Americans trash 40 percent of our food supply every year, valued at about $165 billion;
- The average American family of four ends up throwing away an equivalent of up to $2,275 annually in food;
- Food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills;
- Just a 15 percent reduction in losses in the U.S. food supply would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans annually.
“As a country, we're essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path – that’s money and precious resources down the drain,” says Dana Gunders, NRDC project scientist and the issue paper’s author. “With the price of food continuing to grow, and drought jeopardizing farmers nationwide, now is the time to embrace all the tremendous untapped opportunities to get more out of our food system.”
NRDC isn’t the only group making this observation. In a recent report identifying opportunities in the area of resource productivity, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company ranked food waste as number three out of 130 areas.
What will it take to capitalize on this opportunity and increase the efficiency of the US food system? According to NRDC, it will require a collective approach by decision-makers at every level in the supply chain.
Who are the decision-makers? The NRDC issue paper defines the key agents for change in this way:
- The U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study for food losses in our food system and establish national goals for food waste reduction. One key action will be to standardize and clarify the meaning of date labels on food so that consumers stop throwing out items due to misinterpretation. A waste reduction organization in the United Kingdom has estimated this type of clarification could prevent about 20 percent of wasted food in households.
- State and local governments should lead by setting targets and implementing food waste prevention campaigns in their jurisdictions as well as their own operations. One key opportunity for this is education alongside municipal composting programs.
- Businesses should start by understanding the extent and opportunity of their own waste streams and adopting best practices. For example, Stop and Shop was able to save an estimated $100 million annually after an analysis of freshness, shrink, and customer satisfaction in their perishables department.
- Americans can help reduce waste by learning when food goes bad, buying imperfect produce, and storing and cooking food with an eye to reducing waste.
NRDC explains that by investing in these strategies to reduce food waste, “we can reap the tremendous social benefits of alleviating hunger, the environmental benefits of efficient resource use and the financial benefits of significant cost savings”…what the group refers to as a “triple-bottom-line solution.” In short, a multipronged response to a multifaceted problem. But if everyone plays their part, I think we are up for the task. Then we can get to work on those other things that make us feel guilty.
As noted in my previous post, food waste is a nexus issue; it illustrates the interdependencies of food, water and energy systems. Given the water- and energy-intensive nature of growing, processing, packaging, warehousing, transporting and preparing food, it follows that wasted food means wasted energy, water and agricultural resources. Approximately 2.5 percent of the US energy budget is “thrown away” annually as food waste. This is equivalent to the energy contained in hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. In addition, 25 percent of all freshwater consumed annually in the US is associated with discarded food; when you add that waste up globally, it's as much water as in Lake Erie.