We Americans waste a shameful amount of food, and we know it. We order more than we can (or should) eat in restaurants, we are incredibly picky about our produce and meats, we buy on impulse and then change our minds… the list goes on and on.
However, when we are confronted with estimates and statistics on food waste and its effects, many of us are shocked. Let’s see if you also find these numbers surprising.
- Rising Rates – The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates that we waste around 40% of all the food we produce. According to a 2009 report published in PLOS ONE, this constitutes an approximately 50% rise in food waste since 1974.
- Indirect Costs – The same report suggests that this wasted food amounts to annual costs of almost 25% of the total freshwater consumption (used to grow crops that are eventually thrown away) and approximately 300 million barrels of oil (used to transport unconsumed food).
- Individual Costs – Using data from 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that the U.S. wastes 273 pounds of food annually per person, translating into approximately $390 spent by each American on food that is never consumed.
- Total Food Waste – The USDA confirms that the situation has not improved over time. In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food was wasted, comprising a total dollar value of approximately $162 billion. The estimates rose to $180 billion in 2012.
Keep in mind that the USDA numbers cover the last steps in the farm-to-table path, starting with supermarkets and restaurants and finishing with the end consumer. Estimates of the waste in the entire food system approach $250 billion, according to American Wasteland author Jonathan Bloom.
- Lost Energy – In terms of wasted “energy”, if you will, the USDA estimates we are throwing away 141 trillion calories worth of food annually, or almost 1,250 calories per person per day. That is around 50-75% of the daily caloric recommendations for most people.
Even worse, a calorie defined in the food sense is actually a kilocalorie, or 1,000 calories in a true energy sense. By that definition, we are throwing away 141 quadrillion calories worth of food.
- Emissions – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that our uneaten food waste takes up 14% of landfill space and produces almost one-quarter of the methane emissions.
Are you surprised? Some organizations and businesses are, and they realize the win-win situation of reducing waste and creating savings in the process. They are joining the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, an effort started last year by the USDA and EPA to focus on reducing food waste in the supply chain steps prior to the consumer.
The Food Waste Challenge focuses on three broad areas of waste improvement.
- Efficiency – Improved efficiency in everything within the food supply chain, from ordering systems to cooking methods.
- Logistics – Connecting food banks, shelters, and similar organizations with potential food donors to address both hunger and food waste problems.
- Recycling – Retaining some value out of food that is not consumed through animal feeding or composting/fertilizer production.
As an individual, you can do your part by planning your meals in advance, only buying what you need, scaling recipes to reduce leftovers, and eating leftovers instead of pitching them.
Following this philosophy has multiple benefits for you. You will throw away less food and save on groceries and trash bills. You may also enjoy better health through planning and managing your overall food consumption. With all of these advantages, why on earth would you refuse?