These days, climate change has a lot of us thinking about the way we treat the environment. But our minds often drift to the obviously offensive images: factory pipes pumping clouds of toxic grey smoke into the otherwise pristine sky. But pollution runs deep, from producers all the way down to consumers, and it can be a result of something as subtle as your last meal. In fact, recent research found that the majority of food waste — a detriment to the environment as well as wasted calories that could feed millions of people — happens at home.
How Does Food Waste Pollute?
There are two categories when it comes to food waste’s effects on the environment: upstream and downstream. Upstream effects are a result of the production of greenhouse gases through the supply chain of production, storage, manufacturing, and distribution of food. The downstream effects are witnessed after food has been thrown away, either by the consumer or retailer (and often the farmers and distributors themselves). Wasted food is sent to landfills to decompose anaerobically, or without the presence of oxygen. This is when methane is formed.
Food waste is the single biggest occupant in U.S. landfills. When it is discarded and broken down, it produces carbon dioxide. But even more alarming is that it emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25-times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Each kilogram of food waste produces 3.8 kilograms of greenhouse gases.
Meanwhile, food waste pollutes the land. Many countries around the world are running out of landfill space. How do they remedy this? They destroy more land to accommodate it. The underground water and runoff is then infected with the food waste. The overuse of fertilizers creates excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, which poison drinking water and aquatic ecosystems.
11 Facts About Food Waste You Can’t Ignore
- In the U.S., agriculture itself emits 9% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, American farmers are throwing away as much as 50% – half! – of all produce because it doesn’t live up to consumers’ aesthetic standards. Imagine how much food waste and agriculture sector green house gas emissions we could cut by learning to love ugly fruits and vegetables!
- About 60 million tons of produce – $160 billion – are wasted by retailers and consumers each year. This constitutes one third of all foodstuffs.
- An American family of four wastes $1,600 worth of food each year.
- The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted. That amounts to nearly $3 trillion.
- If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases with a carbon footprint of 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2.
- Food waste is economically driven. Fresh produce makes up 15% of supermarket profits. Reducing food produce waste by 50% would cause supermarkets to go from a 1.5% profit margin to a 0.7% one. And losing 50% of consumer waste would result in a loss of $250 billion in economic activity.
- According to the UN, reducing food waste by just 25% would be enough to all the currently malnourished people.
- About 1.4 billion hectares, or nearly 30% of available agricultural land, is used to grow or farm food that ends up wasted.
- Consumer waste per capita is between 95 and 115 kilograms each year in Europe and North America. Consumer waste per capita in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia is only between six and 11 kilograms per year.
- In the US, 25% of all the freshwater consumed annually is associated with discarded food.
- Despite America wasting 50% of total produce, nearly 42 million Americans live in food-insecure households. That means millions of children don’t know where their next meal will come from.
How to Solve the Food Waste Problem
It’s a much longer and more difficult road to start transforming the agriculture sector by targeting farms and distributors. As consumers looking for the prettiest fruits and vegetables, we contribute to their dilemma. How do we expect to transform farming and distribution practices if we continue to refuse to purchase an apple with a minor blemish, even if its quality and taste is completely unaffected by the blemish? Let’s embrace ugly fruits and vegetables and demand them from our local grocery stores. Meanwhile, let’s also download a shelf life cheat sheet and learn about the true lifespan of our favorite foods. Then, let’s purchase food and plan our weekly meals accordingly, understanding how long food stays fresh before spoiling as well as proper storage methods.
Re-use your leftovers as a rule and whenever your fruits or vegetables are rounding their last leg, turn them into a juice, a casserole, soup, fruit pie, or fruit bread. In the meantime, seek out local “ugly” produce companies that make the best of otherwise tossed fruits and vegetables. Companies like Imperfect Produce, Perfectly Imperfect, and Fresh Direct are leading the charge.