You might not think it’s a big deal to throw those food scraps from your plate into the garbage, but in fact, global food waste is a far greater problem than most of us realize. A 2013 report from the United Nations Environment Program and the World Resources Institute estimates that a shocking 30 percent to 40 percent of America’s total food supply goes to waste; that means that the equivalent of more than 20 pounds of food per person per month gets thrown away.
But while these numbers may be disheartening, there’s a lot that consumers and businesses can do to change the situation and help prevent food from being wasted. A great place to start is by exploring the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, a guide to the most effective actions for diverting wasted food. The hierarchy is broken down into a number of different tiers, each one focusing on a particular management strategy for wasted food. In order of highest to lowest priority, these tiers include:
The best way to handle wasted food is not to create it in the first place. It sounds simple enough, and in fact, it is: by adopting just a few good habits and following a few basic steps, individual consumers and businesses alike can dramatically cut down on their food waste.
Individuals and households can try making careful grocery lists, buying fewer groceries more frequently (so that not as much food is forgotten about at the back of the refrigerator), and making creative use of leftovers. Businesses, particularly restaurants or other catering enterprises, can compare purchasing inventory with customers’ ordering habits (to ensure that ingredients purchased for a particular menu offering aren’t going to waste because customers don’t like the dish), provide staff with training in proper production and handling practices to prevent preparation waste, and offer appropriate serving sizes and avoid garnishes that are unlikely to be eaten. In addition, both households and businesses can make sure they are storing food properly to minimize waste as a result of spoilage.
Feed hungry people
The second tier of the Food Recovery Hierarchy addresses the problematic contrast between the amount of food waste in the US and the number of American households that are “food insecure” (i.e., lack regular access to enough food for everyone in the household). According to the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture, more than 38 million tons of food waste were thrown away in the US in 2014, but in that same year, roughly 13 percent of households in the country were considered to be food insecure.
If food waste cannot be reduced at the source, the next best thing is to use healthy, unspoiled food that would otherwise go to waste to feed families in need. Many nonprofit organizations, including food banks, are in operation in local communities, helping connect food donations from supermarkets, manufacturers, restaurants, hotels, and community members with people that need them. Corporate food donors should be aware that the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects donors who have acted in good faith from liability in the event that their food donation causes illness or damage.
Farmers have been using food scraps to feed livestock and animals for centuries. Today, this practice forms the third tier of the Food Recovery Hierarchy. With proper care and safe handling, anyone can donate food scraps for animal feed (depending, of course, on state regulations); these donations can help farmers and companies save money on feed and help municipalities save money on the costs of transporting food waste to the landfill. Some zoos and manufacturers of animal or pet food will also accept donations. Consumers and businesses interested in finding out more should contact their local solid waste management provider, county agricultural extension office, or public health agency.
We’re used to thinking of food providing power to the people and animals that eat it, but it can also power other things, like cars or generators. The fourth tier of the Food Recovery Hierarchy deals with certain types of food waste and their potential use in a number of different industrial applications. For example, fats, oil, and grease can be converted by local manufacturers into biodiesel, an alternative fuel produced from renewable resources that is biodegradable and can help reduce greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution. Fats, oil, and grease can also undergo the process of anaerobic digestion at waste management facilities, where they are converted into biogas later used for energy generation. Finally, liquid fats and solid meat products serve as raw materials in the rendering industry, which uses them to produce a number of products including soap, cosmetics, and animal food.
Food waste that cannot be used for any other purpose can at least be kept out of the landfill through composting, the fifth tier of the Food Recovery Hierarchy. Composting at home helps consumers turn food scraps and other organic matter into a rich source of nutrients for gardens and soil. If home composting is not an option, many municipalities offer organic waste pickup or designate facilities where it can be dropped off.