Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new report outlines dozens of ways to turn around the crisis by 2030.
On a personal level, food waste is inconvenient and annoying—maybe you feel a fleeting tinge of regret after pitching soggy leftovers into the trash. But on a national scale in the U.S., it’s a crisis.
The statistics are even more dire than previously calculated, according to a new report released today by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data, a coalition of non-profits, foundations, and businesses. The authors figured that the sum total of wasted food is 63 million tons each year—some 52.4 millions tons hauled off to landfills, and more than 10 million tons left unharvested on farms. A previous estimate, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency, found this figure to be more to the tune of 35 million tons.
The new report outlines an ambitious plan to reduce the nation’s total food waste 20 percent by 2030. Interventions at all stages of the food cycle—from farms to homes and landfills—are the key to seeing meaningful, large-scale change, the authors argue. The actionable suggestions split the burden of responsibility among producers, restaurants, retailers, officials, and consumers. And consumers have a lot to correct—we’re culpable for 43 percent of the total share of wasted food.
The suggestions work to prevent wasted food from the get-go, then attend to repurposing or recycling the rest. Prior to sales, manufacturers could rethink the distinctions between “sell by,” “best by,” “use by,” and other date labels that are tricky for consumers to parse. Redesigned grab-and-go packaging containers could prevent wasted food by serving smaller portions. Careful inventory management could prevent stores from stocking food that tends to languish on the shelves. Up to 9 million tons of scraps could be recycled via centralized composting, the authors suggest, noting that “food scraps are actually a resource that can be harvested to create a closed-loop system that supports a vibrant agricultural sector, energy independence, and greener cities.”
Of course, wasted food is not a uniquely American problem; it was on the agenda at the COP21 talks in Paris last December. Nor is the U.S. the only country seeking solutions. In Canada, Toronto already has a robust city-wide composting program. Grocery stores in France and England are tackling the issue by peddling ugly-but-edible produce and selling goods past their somewhat-arbitrary sell-by dates. At a micro-brewery in Brussels, Belgium, discarded bread stands in for barley.
But in the U.S. alone, the authors suggest, diverting 13 million tons of food waste—largely by degrading it into compost—could ease the environmental toll. The report projects that offsetting demand would eliminate 18 million tons of greenhouse gases and conserve 1.6 trillion gallons of water—surely a heartening figure for the country’s many drought-stricken residents.
The catch, of course, is the cost. The authors calculated that these interventions would require an investment of $18 billion, including new infrastructure and education campaigns, among other expenses.
Despite the report’s granularity, Dana Gunders—a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which collaborated on the report—noted in a blog post that the suggestions don’t go quite far enough towards unpacking the attitudes that contribute to wastefulness.
The same wasteful behavior can elicit starkly different reactions depending on the context, Gunders explains. “If I walked down the street and threw half a sandwich onto the sidewalk, people would think I was totally crazy, but if I threw that same sandwich into the garbage can, people wouldn’t think much about it,” she tells CityLab. Even though both actions have the same consequence—discarded food—they’d likely be perceived quite differently. The key is zeroing in on the effect, troubling the idea that trashing food is fundamentally acceptable.
Attitudes can also shape the culture around food waste in professional contexts, she explains. Some restaurant kitchens, for instance, may opt only to use broccoli florets and abandon the stalks, or toss away bones and scraps instead of dedicating them to a savory stock. And at large-scale conferences, event planners might struggle to manage the expectation of hospitality against the risk of wasted food, often ending up with platters destined for the landfill. “What if the mentality was not: if you were hosting an event, you have to have the buffet completely full until the event is over?” Gunders asks. When it comes to combating the problem of food waste, dismantling assumptions might the be the first step in the right direction.