It really hurts me to throw away food. Aside from the money that’s being wasted, I’m ashamed to be tossing out food when I know there are those who don’t have enough nutritious food to eat. I felt even worse after I read a recent report1 describing the impact of food waste on the environment. After calculating how much energy it takes to produce our food, and how much of that food we toss out, it was estimated that we could save the energy equivalent of about 350 billion barrels of oil if we didn’t waste any food.
Producing food costs a lot of energy: 10% or more of total US energy consumption goes towards food production. It takes the equivalent of about 1.4 billion barrels of oil to produce, package, prepare, preserve and distribute a year’s worth of food.
So, here are the numbers—and they’re staggering. We waste an astonishing 27% of the food that’s produced in this country. We dump out 32% of dairy products, 31% of eggs, 25% of vegetables and 23% of all the fruit that’s produced. Some of our most nutritious foods are literally going down the drain, and we’re wasting huge amounts of energy in the process.
On average, we each waste about 150 pounds of food a year. That’s the body weight of an average person. We buy too much and we prepare more than we need. And much of what we waste is safe and edible. Aside from the leftovers we don’t get around to, we also throw away a huge amount of unopened foods or foods that we’ve opened and only used part of—like the remains of a family–sized carton of yogurt, or the heels of a loaf of bread.
A lot of people throw out perfectly safe food, because they don’t understand the dating system on food labels. Here’s the short course: a sell-by date is just the date that a food has to be pulled from store shelves. But properly stored, foods can last a lot longer than that. Milk, for instance, can easily last another week past that date, and eggs could last another three. Even a really perishable food, like ground beef, is good for a couple of days after you buy it, assuming you store it properly. A use-by date is suggested for best flavor or quality, but foods are safe to eat after this date.
Food that’s obviously bad shouldn’t be eaten, of course. When foods are still safe to eat but starting to fade, think about how you can use them. When my apples start to get soft, I’ll make applesauce. If the bread is getting stale, I’ll dry it out and make my own bread crumbs. When the veggies are a little limp, I’ll put them into a soup. Sour milk makes fantastic pancakes.
So, add these to your list of New Year’s resolutions to help you reduce your food waste and help the environment. When you shop, buy only what you can consume before the food spoils. Yes, larger packages are usually a better value than smaller ones, but not if the food is perishable and you end up throwing half away. Then, cook only what you know you’ll eat, or have specific plans for your leftovers. Plan to use them for another meal, pack up for tomorrow’s lunch or put them in the freezer.
And don’t serve more than you can (or should) eat. One of the biggest sources of food waste comes from food left on the plate.
1Cuellar A and Webber M. Environmental Science and Technology 2010, 44 (16), pp 6464–6469