Innovative Approaches to Solving the Massive Food Waste Problem

Story at-a-glance -

  • Documentary exposes the massive problem of food waste and features a few Americans who are changing the game
  • Organic waste is the second highest component of landfills and the largest source of methane emission, which is 23 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2
  • Using a Bokashi bucket for your food scraps is a great way to easily and odorlessly turn your kitchen waste into superfood for your garden

By Dr. Mercola

Americans discard 34 million tons of food every year — that's like tossing a quarter of your groceries into the trash. Nearly half of all food grown in 2013 was thrown away, while 49 million Americans experienced "food insecurity" and hunger.1

The food waste problem is not limited to America's home kitchens but also occurs in restaurants, grocery stores, and on farms.

A 2013 report entitled "Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not"2 by the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) found that more than 2 billion tons of food are wasted annually.

It reports that up to 30 percent of perfectly good vegetables are not harvested simply because they aren't pretty. Thirty to 50 percent of the 4 billion tons of food produced around the world each year never reaches a human mouth.

Food Forward TV episode "Make Food, Not Waste" explores this massive problem of food waste and features a few innovative individuals and organizations who are transforming organic scraps into an ecological goldmine.

Food Waste Reaches Epic Proportions

According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC),3 Americans waste 20 pounds of food per person per month — and generate more than 7 pounds of total garbage every day.

Most communities spend more to deal with trash than on schoolbooks, fire protection, libraries, and parks.

When you add up wasted food from all sources (households, restaurants, markets, farms, and food that never makes it to market due to spoilage or contamination from mold or pests), the figure for year 2010 is 133 billion pounds of food — which amounts to 31 percent of the total food supply.4

To put this into perspective, this amount of food would fill the Empire State Building 91 times!

But there are also related costs that may be less obvious. Water and fuel are required to dispose of food waste, as well food scraps taking up precious landfill space. Organic waste is the second highest component of American landfills.

Landfill waste is the largest source of methane emission, which is 23 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2.5

21 Shocking US Food Waste Facts Infographic Preview

Cheap Food Seems to Encourage Wastefulness

According to United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), in developing nations, food waste/losses occur mainly at early stages in the food chain and can be traced back to "financial, managerial, and technical constraints in harvesting techniques, as well as storage and cooling facilities."

Therefore, changes are needed in the infrastructure of the entire global food system, beginning with how food is farmed, packaged, and distributed.

UNEP stresses the importance of raising awareness of the food waste problem among industries, retailers, and consumers, as well as finding new and innovative uses for food that's currently being discarded.

Americans have a "cheaper" food supply than most other countries, and cheap food does not motivate consumers to place much value on what they've purchased. For example, the average American wastes 10 times more food than the average consumer in Southeast Asia.

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One Example of Massive Waste: The Big Washington Apple Dump

Excess apples are dumped every year in Washington State, and rotting food can create a boatload of problems. Case in point: in early 2015, nearly $100 million worth of perfectly good apples were dumped onto fields in Central Washington.

Piles of millions of apples were left to rot in the hot sun, which created a massive infestation of fruit flies for local residents — not to mention the stench generated by mountains of rotting fruit.

This was the worst apple dump in Washington's history, in part due to overproduction, but also from shipping delays related to the labor dispute that temporarily shut down West Coast ports.6,7 This is a prime example of how our current food system creates massive waste at both ends and in the middle — from producer to distributor to consumer.

Fortunately, some trailbreakers are determined to do things differently.

People Feeding People Instead of Landfills

Part of the food waste problem is distribution — getting "surplus food" to those who need it. One growing nonprofit rescues and redistributes produce rejected at the US border.8 More than half of the produce grown in Mexico comes through the Nogales border crossing, but a significant amount gets rejected. Borderlands Food Bank redirects this produce to families in need across the nation.

Borderlands rescued nearly 40 million pounds of fresh produce in 2014. CEO Yolanda Soto says, "Letting this food go to waste while hundreds of thousands go hungry is just crazy." Farther west, award-winning chef Charles Phan of the Slanted Door9 views every scrap of food as a valuable resource. The self-proclaimed "Compost Nazi" is not only one of America's top chefs but also one of San Francisco's top recyclers.

Every single scrap of food from Chef Phan's restaurant gets wheeled down to a special compost room and run through a large compactor. Phan's composting food scraps — along with 600 tons of others — are trucked to the most modern compost facility in North America – Jepson Prairie Organics.

Jepson processes hundreds of thousands of tons of food scraps from hotels, restaurants, markets, and coffee shops in the Bay Area. The compost plant is certified organic and operates virtually emissions-free. They sort, grind, and compost food scraps, then transport the final product to Bay Area farms and vineyards.10 Farmers report that Jepson compost is some of the richest they've ever used.

Don't Be Trashy — Bokashi!

As shown in the film, Bokashi is a Japanese method of fermenting (or pickling) food scraps using bran inoculated with beneficial bacteria and molasses.11 The Bokashi method is an excellent way to transform your kitchen waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Vandra Thorburn runs a Bokashi business, collecting Bokashi buckets weekly from about 50 customers in and around Brooklyn.

Thorburn is making it her personal mission to get Bokashi composting programs into cities around the country, arguing that this unobtrusive method produces soil that could fill community gardens or revitalize worn or contaminated urban soils. Bokashi composting has the added advantage of not attracting rodents because they dislike the smell of the alcohol produced by the fermenting organic matter.

But for humans, Bokashi is almost odorless because the bacteria prevent the food from rotting. You can view detailed instructions about how to set up your own Bokashi bucket on The Compost Gardener's website.12

A Dozen Ways to Reduce Your Food Waste

Other tools and strategies for reducing your food waste are outlined in the following table. To learn more about proper food storage and tips for keeping your food fresh, please also refer to our previous article.

1. Shop Wisely Plan meals, use shopping lists, and avoid impulse buys and "buy one, get one free" deals, unless you're certain you'll eat it.
2. Buy Local Locally produced foods are fresher and keep longer, as well as having a smaller ecological footprint.
3. Buy Funny-Looking Fruits and Veggies Buying the "ugly ducklings" of the produce section makes use of food that might otherwise go to waste.
4. Learn When Food Goes Bad Use-by and best-by dates are only manufacturer suggestions and may cause you to discard food when it is still safe and consumable.

Many foods are safe and consumable well after their use-by date. Become familiar with how to properly deal with moldy food items.
5. Use Your Freezer Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you won't have a chance to eat them before they go bad. Near-spoiling fruit can be frozen and later made into homemade sorbet.
6. Vacuum Pack One of my all-time favorite tricks, which works for most produce, is to create a "vacuum pack" to help protect food from oxygen and airborne microbes that will accelerate its decay.

Leave the produce in the bag it came in from the grocery store, place it against your chest, and use your arm to squeeze the excess air out of the bag. Then seal it with a twist tie. Or use an automatic vacuum sealer like the FoodSaver.
7. Start Juicing Juicing is an excellent way to use up aging produce while improving your health at the same time. Vegetable juicing also helps with weight management and is a great adjunct to home gardening. You can also compost the pulp.
8. Request Smaller Portions Restaurants will often provide half-portions upon request at reduced prices.
9. Eat Leftovers Only about half of Americans taking leftovers home from restaurants will actually consume them.
10. Compost Food Scraps Composting food scraps returns nutrients to the soil, as well as reducing organic waste in landfills. Try a Bokashi bucket! (See previous section.)
11. Grow Your Own Food Start your own vegetable garden! With square foot gardening13 and container gardening, even apartment dwellers can learn a simple technique for growing veggies on a small patio.
12. Donate Food Donate excess food and garden produce to food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, shelters — and to your friends and neighbors.

Be Part of the Solution

Food waste is a serious issue — not just in the U.S. but globally. There are several strategies you can implement to reduce your own food waste, but the greater problem must be addressed system-wide, with an overhaul of our inefficient, unhealthy, and unsustainable food system.

Startups such as Food Cowboy, CropMobster, and Feeding the 5000 are finding clever ways to reduce food waste, such as diverting edible food from dumpsters to food banks, and otherwise rerouting extra food to those in need.14,15 I encourage your support of these and similar organizations. Please also support ecologically sound waste management measures in your community, and take a leadership role with your company, school, and neighborhood.

As a culture, if we don't begin doing things differently, this problem will only worsen with continued population growth. Be innovative! If you have a great idea, share it. Your capacity to come up with smarter designs and creative ideas is limitless, and many heads are better than one. Innovations move us toward a more sustainable world.