One of the most powerful ways we can address climate change is also an incredibly simple one. If we can all just waste a little less food, we can help make our food system more sustainable and resilient for the future.
We need all the resilience we can get. By the year 2050, the earth’s population will approach 10 billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed and we can’t just order up a bigger food system to do it. Increasing the amount of land, water and energy we use in order to produce more food would be an environmental disaster. That’s where food waste comes in.
The USDA estimates we waste between 30 and 40 percent of our total food supply. By reducing some of that, we’ll be able to help ease the burden on our food system. According to the World Resources Institute, if we can cut food loss and waste in half by the year 2050, we’ll reduce how much food we need by 1,315 trillion fewer kilocalories per year.
Reducing food waste is one of the biggest ways individuals can make a positive environmental impact, experts agree, but it’s not the only climate solution we need. Many of the actions we need will have to come from governments and industry. But for you and me, cutting our individual food waste is one of the most impactful changes you can make, and it comes with personal benefits, too. You’ll save money at the grocery store and save time that might otherwise be spent tossing and cleaning.
Start by keeping track
If you want to get serious about cutting those scraps, the first step is to figure out just how big of a problem food waste is in your home. Some experts suggest keeping a diary to see which foods you’re wasting on a regular basis. Once you know which ones tend to end up in the bin, you can start to make shifts, both in how much you buy and the way you cook in your kitchen.
Plan ahead with zero food waste recipes
Before you make a food purchase, stop to think about how much you and your family are likely to actually eat. This goes for the grocery store as well as when you order out. You’ll know this quite accurately if you’ve kept a food waste diary. Some people have great success with making meal plans for the week too. That way you can plug exactly what the recipe calls for into your shopping list.
If you do end up with extra produce or perishables, see if you can get creative with your cooking. When foods like fruits and vegetables start to turn, you don’t have to waste them. You can still use them up by turning them into quick breads, pancakes, or soups. Another strategy is to try and use up your more delicate fruits and greens earlier in the week before they spoil. I tend to sneak arugula and spinach into sandwiches, stews and pastas. If you’ve got an instant pot, consider making homemade veggie stock with your scraps.
If you need more cooking inspiration, check out zero waste chefs like Max LaManna, Priyanka Naik and Anne-Marie Bonneau, otherwise known as the Zero Waste Chef on Instagram. They’ve got tons of recipes and videos for how you can use up that extra produce, including the parts of food you might not have considered edible, like banana and squash peels.
Another tip: if you happen to have tons of nice leftovers from a party (we’re talking post-pandemic, people), give a local shelter a call and see if they’ll accept your donation. We were able to do this with extra platters from my older son’s bar mitzvah.
Forget what you thought were expiration dates
If you’ve been treating those freshness dates on your food as gospel, you may be wasting perfectly good food. That’s because predicting when a food is no longer good to eat isn’t an exact science, according to the FDA. You can mostly ignore them, other than for infant formula, for which dates are strictly regulated. Look the food over—has the color changed? How does it smell? Another way to ensure foods last longer is to store them properly. Download the USDA’s FoodKeeper app for storage advice for all sorts of different types of foods.
Some foods have even been bred to last longer, thanks to modern breeding techniques. You could try non-browning Arctic and low-browning Opal apples to reduce the amount of apples left untouched on your kid’s plate, for example. You can also eat more frozen fruits and vegetables: it’s picked and frozen at the height of freshness and less likely to prematurely spoil.
Remember the food waste hierarchy
While composting your extras is a good way to keep your waste out of landfill, keep in mind this handy hierarchy from the EPA when you’re making food waste decisions. The best use of food is to eat it or donate it to someone else who will eat it. But if you can’t eat or donate your food, compost it.
The absolute worst option is landfill, where food rots and contributes to methane emissions. According to the EPA, “municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 15.1 percent of these emissions in 2019.”
Despite the clever capitalism of the ugly produce movement, most food waste in our system does not come from misshapen or imperfect fruits and vegetables rejected by farmers. Many farmers are able to sell these odd-looking fruits and vegetables to secondary markets like salsa makers or baby food companies. Of course there’s always room for improvement but the bottom line for consumers is buying a box of ugly produce doesn’t mean you don’t need to reduce your food waste.
Reduce all food waste but especially meat and dairy
Beef, lamb and dairy are foods that require a lot of land, water and energy to produce. So when you do eat these foods, be mindful to avoid wasting them. Try and get as much as you can from those foods (use the bones for stock, for example) and waste as little as possible.
Food waste is an opportunity
Sometimes people feel frustrated at calls to change how we eat because there’s only so much any of us can do on our own. That’s true, to a certain extent. We can and should hold governments and corporations accountable. But cutting food waste is a huge opportunity, because it’s one of the simplest proven environmental solutions that we can all start implementing today. If we waste less food, we can help ease the food system burden to feed our growing global population and reduce our global climate impact.