When we gather around the table with friends and family this holiday season, many of us will look down at platefuls of climate change. It won’t be our intention, of course, but one aftermath of our holiday cheer is food waste, which is increasingly cited as one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon pollution. Fortunately, awareness around the issue is growing, and new resources—from simple household apps to major industry and government initiatives—are emerging to help us tighten the belt on food waste.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that up to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is thrown in the garbage. The waste represents a tremendous amount of fossil fuel burned to grow, ship, and refrigerate food that no one will ever eat. Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack once equated the fuel wasted annually to 70 Deepwater Horizon oil spills. But wasting fuel is only part of the problem. Nearly all discarded food in the U.S. ends up in landfills, which account for approximately 14 percent of U.S. emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide. Food waste is also tied to excess deforestation, fertilization, and water use. It can even affect wildlife.
And it’s a humanitarian issue. Today, approximately 8 percent of U.S. households with children experience food insecurity. Globally, an estimated one-third of food is wasted, and nearly 1 billion people suffer from hunger. That could increase. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the human population will grow by an added 2.2 billion people, requiring a massive surge in global food production.
The environmental and humanitarian effects of food waste are enough to trigger some serious holiday blues. But they don’t have to. While at-home solutions to problems as large as climate change or world hunger may feel cliché or ineffective, they add up. According to United Nations research, nearly half of food waste in the U.S. and other developed nations occurs on the consumer end of our food system. In contrast, most food waste in developing nations occurs closer to food production systems.
The lesson in the U.S. is that significant reductions in food waste cannot happen without changing our habits at home. And because they also save money, efforts to cut food waste represent low-hanging fruit in the fight against both climate change and hunger. Here are some ways to cut down on food waste at home, recommended by experts and guaranteed to enrich the holidays.
Plan your meals
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed quick-reference online resources to help consumers learn how to limit food waste at home. One of the best strategies? Improved meal planning. The EPA and others agree that building shopping lists around planned meals, including consulting recipes beforehand to inform ingredient amounts, can swiftly and significantly cut waste and save money. Improved planning also includes keeping track of what is already in the fridge and which meals produce the most waste. An ever-expanding galaxy of smartphone apps designed to reduce food waste at home can help conduct quick home food audits or build efficient shopping lists with built-in ingredient amounts. Similar apps are increasingly used by restaurants and grocery stores in their own efforts to improve planning.
Improve food storage
Produce constitutes the largest share of U.S. food waste. To curb that, the FoodKeeper app—developed by the USDA, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute—provides a one-stop searchable database of proper storage methods and timetables. The database is searchable by food category, and the produce section includes average shelf life for specific items and advice on prolonging freshness. Dozens of other websites also offer tips against spoilage (including gems like this from the Food Revolution Network: Store tomatoes and certain other fruits separately from other produce because they emit gases that accelerate spoilage).
Many of us could also use our freezers more to prevent food waste. Experts at the EPA and USDA say that surplus or leftover foods that are often tossed could instead be frozen for later use. This even includes the leftover entrees, sides, and desserts we inevitably exile to the back of the fridge after holiday parties or nights eating out.
Then there’s canning. Many fruits, vegetables, and even meats can be purchased or harvested at their nutritional prime, then canned for use throughout the year. While home canning is common and safe, proper equipment and practices are necessary to avoid serious risks, including botulism. The Department of Agriculture and many other sources offer online canning guides and recipe ideas that can reduce food waste. Canning also helps trim our overall waste by eliminating the amount of packaging we buy.
Use the whole thing
Meat trimmings and bones; vegetable peels and stems; shrimp shells; and fish heads, fins, and bones are often thrown away. But there’s value in these leftover scraps. Often they can be used—perhaps stockpiled in the freezer, then boiled into delicious homemade broths and stocks to can or freeze.
Using more parts of the food we buy is a return to the healthier eating habits of our recent past, with the added benefit of saving money. Scraps, Wilts, and Weeds: Turning Food Waste Into Plenty, by Mads Refslund and Tama Matsuoka Wong, is full of recipes for vegetable scraps or produce that is past its peak. The film, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, narrated by the late Anthony Bourdain, provides other, sometimes wilder, ways to reimagine food waste.
Get to know expiration labels
Expiration labels are confusing. What’s the difference between “best by,” “sell by” or “best before” dates, anyway? A 2013 report by the Harvard Law School and Natural Resources Defense Council showed that confusion around expiration labels leads up to 90 percent of Americans to prematurely toss perfectly good food. Signaling a major change, Walmart and dozens of other leading food suppliers have agreed to reduce confusion by standardizing clearer labeling practices by 2020. The nonprofit ReFED, which engages prominent experts in solving food waste issues, has produced an industry toolkit to inform and accelerate the shift. In the interim, online resources provide consumer guidance on food labels, helping us avoid pitching good food.
Donate extra food
Experts at EPA and ReFED agree food waste prevention should be the first step in eliminating food waste in wealthier nations like the U.S. But discarding food is inevitable, especially in our fast-paced culture. Fortunately, increased awareness and a groundswell of new resources are preventing excess food from going to landfills, diverting it instead to people in need. Any of us can join the momentum by learning more about our local food pantries. A helpful tool for use at home or while traveling is Sustainable America’s Food Rescue Locator, a national directory of organizations delivering excess food to the hungry. New apps can also help find a home for leftovers from single meals, banquets, or even weddings. The growing options reflect increased commitment among restaurants, grocery stores, and other industry leaders to slash food waste and feed hungry people.
Compost, compost, compost
Nearly all remaining household food waste can be turned into rich organic soil. All it takes is some space, about 500 worms from a local farm and feed store, and any of a number of compost bin models, which can fit in or near the kitchen and sometimes even be found secondhand. And if you’re a gardener, an added bonus is the regular supply of compost tea that can supercharge plants indoors and out. Many websites and blogs guide beginner composters, and university extension programs even offer courses leading toward “master composter” certification.
Still, composting at home can be difficult in urban areas where not everyone has the space or where pests can be an issue. If setting up your own compost doesn’t appeal, consider donating food waste to a local community garden—many of which compost. And increasingly, municipalities offer or even require separation of food waste, providing municipal pickup that sends food waste to composting facilities. In San Francisco, composting has helped divert nearly 80 percent of waste from city landfills, making it a global leader in municipal waste reduction. Schools and other institutions are also embracing composting, often in conjunction with community garden programs that include youth education components.
The energy building around reducing food waste shows just the type of large-scale yet achievable change we urgently need today. For that reason, it is a featured recommendation in both the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change climate report and the proposed Green New Deal, advanced by New York’s U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. Like other big initiatives, one of the strengths of tackling food waste is its far-reaching scope, taking on carbon emissions, human hunger, and responsible land use, while also saving people money. And all of that is good reason for holiday cheer.
Tim Lydon has worked on public lands issues for many years and is a founding member of the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation. His writing has appeared in Hakai Magazine, The Revelator, The Hill, Terrain.org, and elsewhere.