How to Reduce Household Food Waste

By ecoRI News staff

Food is too important, and delicious, to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if it’s wasted. Getting food to table eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land and swallows 80 percent of fresh water consumed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten — more than 20 pounds of food per person per month, the equivalent of $165 billion annually, according to the NRDC.

Most of this uneaten food ends up buried and rotting in landfills, where organic matter accounts for 16 percent of U.S. methane emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Nutrition also is lost, as food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans annually.

American families throw out about 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. The cost estimate for the average family of four is $1,365 to $2,275 wasted annually.

Research is lacking in the United States — in the United Kingdom, about two-thirds of household waste is due to food spoilage, the other third is caused by people cooking or serving too much — but anecdotal evidence, according to the NRDC, suggests that drivers for U.S. household food waste include:

Lack of awareness and undervaluing of foods. Cheap food has created behaviors that don’t place high value on utilizing what is purchased. As a result, the issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves environmentally conscious.

Confusion over labels. Label dates on food are generally not regulated and don’t indicate food safety. Multiple dates, inconsistent usage and lack of education about these labels cause consumers to discard food prematurely.

Spoilage. Food spoils in homes because of improper or suboptimal storage, poor visibility in refrigerators, partially used ingredients and misjudged food needs.

Impulse and bulk purchases. Store promotions leading to bulk purchases or purchases of unusual products often result in consumers buying food outside their typical meal planning, which often gets discarded.

Poor planning. Lack of meal planning and shopping lists, inaccurate estimates of meal preparation and impromptu restaurant meals can lead to purchased food spoiling.

Over-preparation. Cooking portions have increased over time and large portions can lead to uneaten leftovers. In fact, the surface area of the average dinner plate expanded by 36 percent between 1960 and 2007. Simply switching to a smaller plate could mean eating fewer calories, bringing with it important health benefits as well as potential waste reduction.

Households can help reduce waste by learning when food goes bad, buying imperfect produce, and storing and cooking food with an eye to reducing waste.