Exactly how much do Americans waste every year?
The NRDC says up to 40% of food produced in America doesn’t get eaten. $165 Billion worth of food every year, 20 lbs per person every month. The US Department of Agriculture: 730 Football Stadiums of wasted food a year. Ron Nixon of the New York Times cites a more recent study shows that about 32 million metric tons of food end up in municipal landfills, which is costing local government almost $1.5 billion a year. The shocking statistics go on and on.
Besides the more obvious factor of overzealous portion sizes and shopping, another significant aspect of food waste is the misconception when people think food is “bad” prematurely. According to a recent National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study, “91% of consumers reported that at least occasionally they discarded food past its ‘sell by’ date out of concern for people’s safety…” (2013). This can be traced to sell-by labels on many products available and the reality of those dates is vastly misunderstood.
Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard Law and Policy Clinic, says “[sell by dates] ha[ve] nothing to do with safety at all, just manufacturers’ best guess of when that food is going to be the freshest and the best quality” (2014). So the government does not regulate these labels, in fact a lot of states do not even require date labels at all. And if one thinks about this from the point of view of the manufacturer, wouldn’t they put these sell-by dates sooner rather than later so consumers come back faster and buy my product more? Manufacturers most likely use sell by dates to make you throw out food sooner for faster turnaround times – to get you to buy their products faster. This should be instilled in Americans across the country when throwing out food that they think might be unsafe.
Exactly how many families in the U.S. are in need?
Another consequence lies in the families in need that could use this wasted food, but they don’t always get it. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report in 2013 cites 49.1 million people that lived in food-insecure households. This problem is worsened due to yet another misconception that if one donates food and someone gets sick, the donor is liable and can get sued. “The University of Arkansas: A Legal Guide” says there is not a single case that involved food-donation liability. In fact, there is a bill that protects food donors in good faith called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.
Besides the more obvious economic and social costs, food waste also has significant effects on the environment. Nixon cites experts that say it is contributing to climate change, due to the consumption of resources like water, fertilizer, and land (2015). Additionally, when this waste is put into landfills, it decomposes, produces methane and in turn, the greenhouse effect. These experts say 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas is a result (2015) of food waste. A new UN report says if the amount of wasted food was its own country, China and the U.S. would be the only countries who would top it in greenhouse emissions (2015).
This problem encompasses socio-economic and environmental aspects, both of which are significant and they should be taken seriously.
The USDA lists some tips in order to cut down on food waste. Some examples are more obvious: smaller portion sizes, eating leftovers, shopping more wisely, and using the freezer often.
But there are some that are less obvious, such as understanding the reality of sell by dates, and donating food (because no one is liable), and to buy fruits that aren’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing.
Food waste is an ongoing and growing problem in the U.S. and across the globe due to overzealous buying and portion sizes, as well as misconceptions over sell-by labels, resulting in significant socio-economic and environmental consequences. We must create change. It must occur soon to turn things around for people and the environment.
Nixon, R. (2015 Feb. 25) Food Waste Is Becoming Serious Economic and Environmental Issue, Report Says. The New York Times, pp. A18.
Katie Valentine (2013 Sep. 11) Global Food Waste Emits More Greenhouse Gases Than Most Countries, According To The UN. Climate Progress, Web.
Oliver, J. (Director). (2015). Last Week Tonight with John Oliver [Motion picture]. USA: Avalon Television, Partially Important Productions, HBO.
Valentine, K., & Breiner, A. (2013, June 5). Americans Throw Out 40 Percent Of Their Food, Which Is Terrible For The Climate. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
Smarter Living: Eating Well. (2014, November 19). Retrieved October 14, 2015.
Environmental Impact – Food Waste in American Fast Food Restaurants. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2015.
Gray, N. (2015, October 13). Commission to focus on food waste initiatives as survey shows lack of public understanding. Retrieved October 19, 2015.