Food Waste: Don’t Spoil the Bunch

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

One of the things as a society that seems incredibly wasteful to me is the amount of food we discard. I’m not the only one that feels this way; there are countless experts that will be able to go on and on about how severe our food waste issue is. This is glaringly obvious when you see that we waste 40% of all our food in the US. This food waste makes up the second largest portion of all our waste at 21.59% of all waste or over 63 million tons. That’s equivalent to disposing of 345 empire state buildings every year or almost one per day.

I’m sure you were told at some point how important it is to finish your plate because there are people starving in X, Y, or Z country. This seems especially silly when you look at the amount of food we waste before it even reaches our plate. An estimated 43% of food waste does still happen once it gets to the consumer. However, as I’ve talked about before, it’s important to go “upstream” with these issues by starting at the source and working your way back in order to understand the whole picture.

One of the first places we begin to lose food is exactly where it starts, on the farm. A lot of the food grown on farms doesn’t ever leave the farm. When pickers go through fields a lot of food has to be left behind because of the journey the food has to take to our dinner plates. The risk of the spoilage during transportation means that food that is ready to eat the day it is picked has to be left behind to spoil. Some of the food is also left behind because it has some amount of blemishes that will lead to it not selling at stores. On a positive note, much of this food is left in fields to degrade so the nutrients aren’t taken from one location to spoil elsewhere.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

The next stop on the food waste journey is at the super market. Once food arrives at the store, many of the items are labeled with best by and sell by dates that quickly approach. Stores are forced to toss or donate this food, but a large majority is simply thrown away. Other items are considered to have poor appearance by customers and those items are left on shelves until stores have no choice but to get rid of them.

After that the waste continues at food service locations such as cafeterias and restaurants. Due to excessive portion sizes meals often are unable to be finished. Sometimes those leftovers are brought home, but often they are left behind to be tossed in the trash.

The last place we accumulate food waste is in our homes. This happens for a wide array of reasons. One of the main culprits is simply forgetting about food in our fridge or pantry. Bringing it full circle, we often bite off more than we can chew when it comes to the food that we make. Portion control is essential here.

Photo by Jesse K. on Unsplash

You might be wondering what you can do to make an impact to reduce food waste and I am here to tell you there is plenty that you can do! For starters, don’t be afraid of blemished food. Most of that food is still just as tasty and will be overlooked by other patrons. Another great option is to support companies like Imperfect Foods, Misfits Market, or hungry harvest. Just make sure that you will actually eat the food you receive from those services otherwise the benefit is negated. You can also support local farmers markets to get the freshest food while also stopping food from spoiling on the farms.

Another great way you can help this food waste is through greater organization. When it comes to planning out our meals, when we are more thoughtful about our food we can plan appropriately so we don’t over buy and let food waste. Additionally addressing the clutter of our food in our fridge can make a huge difference. When things start to pile up, that’s a sign you need to go through and organize what you have so it doesn’t go bad.

This is something I have experienced first hand. My wife was incredibly frustrated when we were forced to downsize in fridge size so she took it upon herself to reorganize and even purchase additional shelving to make it easier to see everything in the fridge. This has stopped us from forgetting about items in the back and has helped us utilize everything in our fridge.

The last idea to reduce food waste at home is to practice cooking more often. We have developed into a purchasing society so much that many of us are pretty lousy cooks. However, if we are comfortable in the kitchen, we will be better equipped to utilize our leftovers in more effective ways. How many times do you get an ingredient for one dish but don’t know what else to do with it? For me personally, this happens often with fresh herbs. Getting creative in the kitchen can ensure that we end up using all of what we buy rather than just some of it.

No matter how hard we try, we will be left with some amount of food waste (even if its just the scraps from cooking). One of the most important things we can do is compost that food. As I discussed in my previous post, food placed in landfills produces methane, which is significantly more harmful than CO2. The alternative is composting that food, which releases less harmful emissions like CO2 and also leaves us with nutrient rich soil. So stop tossing your food scraps in the trash and start composting! If you are still looking for things you can do to reduce your food waste, check out SaveTheFood. It’s a campaign dedicated to addressing all aspects of food waste. Let me know if you have any other tricks in the comments!

Breaking Down Compostable packaging

Over the last several years, there seems to be significant increase in compostable plastic packaging. Although it might seem like a no-brainer to make our packaging compostable whenever possible, this increase in popularity wasn’t a smooth road to the prevalence we are starting to see today. In fact, one of the first widely known compostable plastic packages went on to also be one of the most loathed packages.

Perhaps you remember the noisy chip bag scandal from a few years back? In 2009 Pepsi-co launched a bio-based sun chip bag made from PLA (polylactic acid). The best part about this bag was that it was also compostable and would biodegrade just about anywhere. This was Pepsi’s effort to address both littering and offer a more environmentally friendly alternative.

For this, I commend Pepsi for their efforts because not every brand owner is willing to invest in trying to make their products more environmentally friendly. However, a lot of people didn’t feel the same way as me. Consumers quickly became annoyed with the noise that these bags made. All chip bags crinkle a bit, but customers couldn’t handle noise coming from this bag. It was so bad that sun chips ended up being the butt end of jokes for months and even lost market share.

SunChips image by theimpulsivebuy via Flickr.

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from this whole fiasco. For starters, I think it shows how concerned with convenience we have all become. I mean, come on; we couldn’t be inconvenienced with a compostable chip bag because it was too noisy? Seems a bit silly. Despite most peoples tendency to self describe as environmentally conscience, they aren’t even willing to make minor sacrifices. Eventually Pepsi was able to redesign the material and bag to not be quite as noisy and the whole ordeal was quickly forgotten.

Pepsi’s Sun Chips bag was just one example of many compostable packaging products on the market today. Nonetheless, there are several challenges with consumers understanding of these products. For me, a lot of these issues start at the labels.

There are various labels that companies have started using. Most of them are tied back to the regulatory agency testing and approving the compost-ability of these products. While I am all for having an authority body determining what is compostable and what isn’t, having multiple authority agencies is contributing to the confusion. I think our government officials would be able to make a much larger impact if they would focus on setting a single labeling system that informs consumers rather than just broad plastic bans.

Current labels often just say they are “compostable”, but they don’t differentiate on if they are industrial or backyard compostable. There is a very big difference between the two.

As the name implies, backyard compostable products can be broken down in a simple back yard compost set-up or even a small local composting facility that operates just on a larger scale. Industrial composting facilities are bit more of an exact science. They not only operate on huge scales, but also tightly control the size of the inputs by grinding and control the heat, water, and air that the compost is exposed to. This allows industrial facilities to operate at higher temperatures and breakdown items that might not breakdown at home. Regardless of which type is used, the end result is valuable nutrient rich soil.

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

The differences between industrial and Backyard composting are exactly why it’s so important for consumers to understand the labels. Industrial compostable items won’t breakdown in the backyard and neither material will breakdown once in a landfill so it is critical that items end up at the right place in order to be effective.

Unfortunately, we all don’t have access to industrial compost facilities near us. There are ways to find local composting such as this site. And lucky for us, the number of facilities is increasing as people begin to see the value. Keep an eye out for these composting logos. I’d love to hear if you think the labels communicate effectively.

It’s Time to Clean Up Your Act With Compost

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There are many ways we can take a stance and make an impact when it comes to our waste. While I could go on and on all day about the value in recycling, it’s important to do things that we have a bit more direct control over. This is where I believe composting has some major value.

Don’t get me wrong, recycling is important, but there a lot of ways you can do everything right and your perfect recycling still ends up in a landfill. Simple mistakes from others like putting plastic bags in the recycling can result in your precious recyclables getting caught up in the bags. This is where compost shines.

Compost is the perfect opportunity to turn all your precious food scraps and food waste into brown gold. Here in the United States we are producing over 63 million tons of food waste annually according the most recent numbers from the EPA. That amounts to 21.6% of all our waste. Now that’s a lot of trash!

A large majority of our food waste is currently going to landfills. Once in landfills, the bulk of it doesn’t even breakdown. A lot of people fixate on the amount of time it will take things like plastic products to breakdown in the landfill, but the reality is near nothing breaks down because it creates an anaerobic (lacking oxygen) environment. In this environment, important bacteria that breakdown things like food can’t survive.

All of our food waste doesn’t need to be sent to the landfill though. One of the easiest things we all can do is compost. The idea is simple; we collect all our organic materials that can easily decompose into one place. This collection of materials degrades over time until you are left with fertile soil. Then this soil can be reused for gardening and agriculture. We are essentially saving the valuable resources still left in our spoiling foods and reusing them to grow more food in the future.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Now this is obviously an oversimplification, but it gives you a rough idea. A lot of people are turning to backyard composting as a great way to reduce their waste and create soil for their gardens. However, that’s not the only option for a lot of people today. Across the US composting facilities are popping up in a variety of formats. Right here in Reno we are able to use Down To Earth Composting to reduce our waste.

Composting isn’t kept to just food waste either. It also can include things like all your yard clippings or even paper and cardboard.  Considering that yard trimmings make up another 12% of our total waste and paper makes up another 23% waste annually, we are left with a lot of compostable material. In fact, between food waste, yard waste, and paper, we are able to compost close to 57% of our total waste! Can you imagine if we all were able to cut our waste production in half by composting ? That would be huge!

Don’t take my word for it and do some research of your own. See if you are able to find a composting facility near you. They will have much more information about what exactly you can keep out of landfills by composting.