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You Won't Believe How Much Good Food Goes to Waste

Compost Food Waste

Story at-a-glance -

  • The average US family of four wastes more than 2 million calories, which equates to $1,500 worth of food, every year
  • Waste happens at all stages of the food chain, and often good food gets tossed out simply because it’s aesthetically imperfect
  • The EPA and USDA announced the first national food waste reduction goal, which calls for a 50 percent reduction by 2030

By Dr. Mercola

About 40 percent of food in the US is wasted. Waste happens at all steps of the food chain, from field to fork, but most of the waste is thought to occur on farms and in US households.1

You may contribute to food waste if you throw away your leftovers or let a bag of lettuce go bad before you use it up. On a larger scale, most farms end up trashing or composting what would otherwise be perfectly good produce simply due to cosmetic imperfections.

While it’s easier to understand food being wasted because it’s rotten or potentially contaminated, tossing out cucumbers because they’re too curvy or tomatoes because they’re too small is hard to stomach – especially as people go without food every day.

Entrepreneurs Tackle Food Waste One Startup Company at a Time

While in college, Ben Simon and his friends noticed his university cafeteria throwing away good food. One meeting with dining services later, they were in charge of donating the once-wasted food instead.

From there, Simon and his friends started Food Recovery Network, a non-profit organization that donates food that would be wasted from university cafeterias to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, afterschool programs for kids, and more.

After just four years, 150 colleges and universities were taking part in the program. Next, Simon, along with two co-founders, started “Imperfect,” a San Francisco Bay-based company that sells cosmetically imperfect produce at a reduced price (sometimes by up to 50 percent less).

For $12, members of Imperfect receive boxes of 10 to 15 pounds of imperfect produce that otherwise would have been wasted.2

Another success story involves Claire Cummings, the so-called “waste specialist” for Bon Appétit Management Company, which operates more than 650 cafes. Aside from donating excess food and setting up composting programs, Cummings is also involved in saving cosmetically imperfect produce. As Alternet reported:3

The program began with a pilot program in May 2014 and became official a few months later that September. Since then, they have expanded it to 16 states, with four more starting this October.

So far in 2015, they've saved 252,627 pounds of produce, or just over 126 tons. ‘Just to give you a snapshot — we're not just buying one kind of produce, we've rescued over 50 different varieties of produce,’ she [Cummings] explains.

For example, when a head of broccoli is broken down for bagging, little bits of broccoli fall off. Those used to go to waste, until Bon Appétit began using them in soups and salad bars. It turns out the little broccoli bits are just the perfect size for soups and salads, and using them instead of larger heads of broccoli saves the chefs some chopping.

The farmer used to toss out the twisted and gnarly shaped carrots from Washington. If he had left them in the field, they would have attracted a pest called the carrot rust fly, so he had to get rid of them. Now, he sells them to Bon Appétit, simultaneously keeping his carrots from going to waste and resolving his potential pest problem.”

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USDA and EPA Set First Food Waste Reduction Goals

The issue of food waste has finally attracted national attention in the US. In September 2015, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), together with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced the first national food waste reduction goal, which calls for a 50 percent reduction by 2030.

According to the USDA, the average US family of four wastes more than 2 million calories, which equates to $1,500 worth of food, every year. The USDA continued:4

Food loss and waste in the United States accounts for approximately 31 percent — or 133 billion pounds — of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers, and has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation, and climate change.

Food loss and waste is the single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste… Furthermore, experts have projected that reducing food losses by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, helping to sharply reduce incidences of food insecurity for millions.”

As for how they expect to achieve a 50 percent reduction in food waste, they plan to build on the ongoing US Food Waste Challenge (launched in 2013), which creates a platform of leaders and food-chain members to share best practices to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste. Other initiatives aim to tackle both food waste and food loss.

The celery that goes bad in your veggie crisper, the remainder of your sandwich at a restaurant, and the loaf of bread that goes moldy on your kitchen counter are all contributors to the massive epidemic of food waste.

Restaurants and supermarkets are also contributors. Food loss is another issue, which typically takes place at production, post-harvest, and processing stages in the food supply chain. Initiatives to tackle these issues include:

  • Apps to help consumers understand how to safely store food and understand food date labels
  • Consumer education campaigns with food waste facts and reduction tips
  • Encouraging restaurants, grocery stores, food service companies, and others to set aggressive goals for reducing food loss and waste

One of New York’s Trendiest Restaurants Serves Up ‘Garbage’

When one of the trendiest restaurants in Manhattan, Blue Hill, starts serving up food that could otherwise be described as “garbage,” you know the issue of food waste is getting hot. For two weeks, the restaurant transformed into a pop-up restaurant called wastED and served dishes made from salvaged or “unusable” foods, including:5

  • “Dumpster dive” salad salvaged from a food processor
  • A “burger” made from leftover pulp from a cold-pressed juice shop
  • Meatloaf titled “dog food”
  • Field corn, or “cow corn,” which is typically used to feed livestock

The idea for wastED came from Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, while he researched on his book The Third Plate. As Salon reported:6

The history of diet and cuisine, he realized, is based on preventing waste: ‘You couldn’t afford waste when these recipes and expectations for meals were being developed; you didn’t have the luxury of waste,’ Barber explained.

It’s a principle, though, that’s been lost in our modern way of eating. ‘Waste, in so many ways, is the American experience,’ he said. ‘It’s the American diet.’”

Denmark Reduces Food Waste by 25 Percent in Five Years

The Danish government recently announced that they’re wasting 25 percent less food than they did five years ago. This means the average Dane throws out 104 pounds of food a year, on average, compared to 273 pounds annually for the average American.7

NPR attributed at least some of this reduction to Selina Juul, who they called the queen of Denmark’s anti-waste movement. Juul started an organization called Stop Wasting Food, which targets individual consumers and challenges them to waste less food.

Interestingly, as is often the case, as consumers became more willing and even proud to purchase day-old bread and imperfect tomatoes, producers and retailers started jumping on the “trend” as well. Denmark’s largest retailer, Dansk Supermarked, for instance, has always sold near-expired food at reduced prices, but they’ve now got dedicated areas for it.

They’ve also invested in technology to help track food “from farm to fork,” including an IT system that helped them determine bread as a commonly wasted item. By ordering less bread, and selling older bread at a reduced price, they’ve reduced bread waste by 60 percent.8

Half of Edible Seafood Is Wasted

To be clear, the issue of food waste isn’t only related to produce. Due to “inefficiencies and consumer refuse,” research published in the journal Global Environmental Change revealed that nearly half of edible seafood in the US is wasted.9 Out of a total edible seafood supply of 4.7 billion pounds per year:10

  • Consumers throw away 1.3 billion pounds
  • Fishers throw away 570 million pounds due to catching the wrong species
  • 330 million pounds are lost during distribution

This is especially disturbing since the future availability of seafood is threatened by overfishing and unsustainable seafood farming practices. As Greenpeace stated:11

“Our appetite for fish is exceeding the oceans’ ecological limits with devastating impacts – and there is now estimated to be four times more global fishing capacity than there are fish left to catch.”

Fish as a protein source has been growing in popularity as the health benefits of omega-3 fats EPA and DHA have been more widely publicized. And while I don’t recommend consuming most types of fish due to widespread pollution, there’s no doubt that it was once a valuable source of nutrition (and some types, such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies, still are). The magnitude of seafood waste is simply astonishing, regardless, and the researchers were able to quantify just how much potentially valuable nutrition is being lost:12

“Based on conservative estimates, this waste represents 208 billion grams of protein, 1.8 trillion mg [milligrams] of eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) acids (i.e., omega-3 fatty acids), and 1.1 trillion kilocalories. The seafood that is lost could fill 36 percent of the gap between current consumption and U.S. Department of Agriculture-recommended levels. As another way of understanding the magnitude of loss, this lost seafood could provide the total yearly target quantity of protein for 10.1 million men or 12.4 million women, EPA + DHA for 20.1 million adults, and calories for 1.5 million adults.”

Yale University: Americans Throw Away Double the Trash as Federal Agencies Estimated

If there were any questions about wasteful tendencies in the US, Yale University recently put them to rest with a new study that calculated just how much Americans throw away on a regular basis. While the EPA estimated the amount of solid waste added to US landfills in 2012 to be 122 million tons, the new study found it was closer to 262 million tons, or about five pounds of garbage per person per day. By 2013, that amount had risen to 294 million tons.13

It turns out the EPA was basing its estimate on Americans’ own reporting of trash use, along with data from industry associations, businesses, and others, which tends to be underestimated. The new study involved data straight from landfill operators. While Americans are throwing away more than was previously thought, they’re recycling less. EPA estimates suggest Americans recycled 35 percent of their waste in 2012, but the study revealed it was closer to 21 percent.14

Compost Programs Could Reduce Landfill Waste, Fight Carbon Erosion

If more US families and businesses composted their organic waste instead of tossing it in the trash, it could solve two major issues at once. For starters, it could divert waste from landfills. For instance, in California, the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency operates a regional compost program in which they accept yard trimmings and vegetative food discards that are placed in curbside containers by local residents.

They also accept yard trimmings from landscapers and tree trimmers, as well as certain agricultural byproducts from local farms, wineries, and food processors.

The organic material is then converted into premium quality organic compost and mulches, along with recycled lumber, firewood, and biofuel used to generate electricity. Since 1993, 1.6 million tons of yard and wood debris have been converted into these beneficial products. Sonoma Compost, which operates the Organic Recycling Program on behalf of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, estimates that nearly 1.5 million tons of yard and wood trimmings have been diverted from landfills since 1993 as a result of the program.15

Applying compost to farmland also traps carbon dioxide in the ground (for decades, centuries, or more) while also absorbing it from the air. The process, known as “carbon sequestration” or “carbon farming,” will help:

Regenerate the soil Limit agricultural water usage with no till and crop covers
Increase crop yields Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and additives, if not eliminate such need entirely in time
Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the need for herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers

In Marin County, California, the Marin Carbon Project is already underway to increase carbon sequestration on the land. One of their protocols alone, the Rangeland Compost Protocol, has the potential to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 28 million metric tons per year if compost can be applied to just 5 percent of California’s rangelands. That’s equivalent to removing nearly 6 million cars from the road.”16

California Supermarkets Will Soon Be Required to Compost Food Waste

In April 2016, a new California law will take effect that requires large grocery stores to compost or recycle their food waste. Many of them will likely begin channeling their waste to companies like California Safe Soil, which created a process to turn food waste into farm-ready liquid fertilizer in just three hours. How is this achieved? Civil Eats reported:17

First, the food is ground down into a liquid, then treated with enzymes to break down the protein, fat, and carbohydrates into the amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars. Then, it’s pasteurized (that is, heated at high temperatures) to kill any pathogens that might be present… There’s a separate stream for organic and conventional food, as California Safe Soil sells an all-organic version. Both are applied to the crops via drip irrigation.”

The product helps reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which runs off fields and contributes to dead zones in rivers and streams. California Safe Soil also states they’ve diverted 2.2 million pounds of food waste from landfills since 2012.18

Tips for Cutting Back on Food Waste in Your Own Kitchen

Although food waste must be tackled on national, state, and municipal levels, as well as at the farm, there’s plenty you can do to reduce your own contribution to this significant problem. For starters, be open to purchasing cosmetically imperfect produce if you come across it at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Many supermarkets claim they’d be more willing to purchase such produce from farmers if consumers showed they’d be willing to buy it.

In an interview with NPR, Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who wrote the book Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, also shared some useful tips you can put into practice to help reduce food waste today:19

The “float or sink test” for eggs: If you’re wondering if your eggs are still good, put them in a bowl of water. If they sink, they’re fresh; if they float, they’re not good to eat. Know what food expiration dates mean: Most dates on food packages are a manufacturer’s estimate of when it will be freshest, but many foods are safe to eat days, weeks, or months after.
Put wilted veggies in a bowl of ice water: This will crisp them up (try it with carrots, greens, broccoli, and more). If lettuce is a bit past its prime for use in a salad, try sautéing it like you would any other green. Freeze leftover ingredients: If you have half an onion or green pepper left after making a recipe, don’t toss it. Chop it up and store it in the freezer for later use.
Use up sour milk: Milk that turns sour doesn’t have to be thrown away. Instead, use it in your recipes as a substitute for buttermilk. Store food properly in the fridge: Store meats in the bottom bin, where it’s coldest, and leave less temperature-sensitive items, like butter, higher up.
Plan your meals: Plan ahead to know what you’re going to cook and eat for the week, then shop accordingly. Before checking out at the grocery store, be sure you’re not buying duplicates of items you have at home and be sure you’ll be able to consume all of the perishables in your cart. 

For even more tips, check out Gunders’ book, Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. In addition to sharing simple preservation methods (like freezing, pickling, and cellaring), it includes 20 “use-it-up” recipes and a directory listing of over 85 types of food, including how to best store them so they stay fresh longer.