How to Reduce Food Waste and Save the World
In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, most people aren't actively thinking about how to reduce food waste. Sure, we recognize that some food goes to waste rather than being eaten. We leave food on our plate when we’re out to dinner. Sometimes we forget about the leftovers in the back of the fridge. We throw away bruised and overripe bananas, or we toss cheese and milk after the “use by” date has passed.
But, too few of us realize how truly massive the problem of food waste is, the impact it has on all of our lives, and how majorly we contribute to the problem in our own homes. Right now, if we saved just one-quarter of all the food that’s wasted across the world each year, it would be enough to feed all of the people on the planet who are hungry, malnourished, or starving. It’s an issue worth learning about—for all of us.
Just how much food is wasted in America and across the globe? And what can you do to help?
What is Food Waste?
The term “food waste” is often misunderstood as the odds-and-ends or inedible bits of food items that go into the garbage. But, food waste actually refers to wasted food: perfectly edible food that goes uneaten.
Each year, around ⅓ of the food produced on the planet for humans to eat gets lost or wasted in some way. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), that amounts to 1.3 billion tons, or 2.6 trillion (2,600,000,000,000) pounds of food! If you’re like me and struggling to imagine a trillion or even a billion of anything, think of it this way: all of our wasted food weighs as much as 20,000 large cruise ships. That’s insane!
All of that wasted food would be enough to feed 2 billion people, but just a fraction of it could feed the 800 million people who are going to bed hungry every night. Of all the food produced worldwide, we waste:
Food waste happens all over the world, but in different ways. In developing countries, the majority of food losses happen post-harvest and during processing, due to problems like inadequate storage and refrigeration. But, in industrialized countries—like those in North America, Europe, and industrialized Asia—almost half of all food losses happen in grocery stores, restaurants, and our own homes.
In Europe and North America, per capita waste by consumers is around 209-253 lbs. (95-115 kg) each year. That averages to over ½ lb. of food wasted per person, per day.
Wasted Food Wastes More Than Just Food
Not only are we wasting unfathomable amounts of edible food AND tossing a solution to world hunger in the trash, but we're also wasting valuable resources. Of course, wasted food means wasted money. Overall, food losses cost the planet $1 trillion USD. But food production also requires water, land, fuel, seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and so many other elements. There’s a HUGE environmental cost when it comes to producing food—yet ⅓ of it is for no purpose because ⅓ that food goes to waste.
- We use 1.4 billion hectares (3.5 billion acres) of land across the world to produce food that is ultimately wasted. That’s more land than the entire country of China, and almost 30% of the planet’s agricultural land.
- Food waste uses more water than any country in the world. To produce the food that ends up lost or wasted, we use the amount water that flows through the 2,300-mile Volga River in Russia every year—over 66 trillion gallons (250 km3).
- If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S.
By making active efforts to reduce food waste, we can feed more people, conserve arable land and water, and significantly reduce greenhouse emissions. Basically, by reducing food waste, we can help save the world.
By far, fruits, vegetables, roots, and tubers are our biggest source of wasted food. Almost half of the fresh produce on the planet goes to waste, the majority of which is edible! Some of this is due to overproduction, but a large portion of fresh produce is wasted simply because it doesn’t look picture-perfect.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, up to 20% of fruit and vegetable production in the U.S. is wasted just because it’s not up to the industry’s cosmetic standards! Fruits and veggies that are too big, too small, misshapen, discolored, bruised, blemished, packaged incorrectly, or appear ‘less-than-perfect’ in any way are wasted—despite being perfectly edible.
There’s plenty of ‘ugly’ produce that doesn’t even make it to stores, like bananas that are too short or too long, asparagus stalks that are too thin or too curved, and (ironically) crookneck squashes that are just too crooked. This useable food is left in the fields to rot, or taken directly from farm to landfill—just because of how it looks. (Fun fact: food waste is the #1 contributor to U.S. landfills by weight.)
Even when imperfect produce does make it to the grocery store, most of it still ends up in the trash. If produce is the ‘wrong’ shape or has minor blemishes, many stores today won’t put it out on their shelves. Granted, this is mainly because so many shoppers today won’t buy ugly fruits and veggies.
We’ve started to treat the produce section like it’s a beauty pageant, expecting pristine fruits and veggies. But, ugly produce items are edible and just as delicious as their ‘picture-perfect’ counterparts! Most minor blemishes and bruises on produce are harmless—a natural byproduct of foods growing outdoors on farms, being in the sun, falling from trees, or being transported to grocery stores.
And, remember that nature isn’t a factory churning out cookie-cutter fruits and veggies on a conveyor belt. They’re bound to be all sorts of different shapes, sizes, and colors. There’s been a recent push to relax the rigid cosmetic standards on produce in the hopes of reducing unnecessary food waste, but we can help, too.
Embrace ugly fruits and veggies rather than shying away from them!
- When buying produce, focus less on looks and more on choosing items that are fresh and ripe.
- Find out if grocery stores in your area offer imperfect produce. Some even sell it at a discounted price!
- You can also use imperfect produce delivery services, which also offer discounts.
"Use By" Dates Are NOT Expiration Dates
Another major source of food waste comes from consumers (that’s us) throwing food away before it’s actually spoiled. If a food item has a date printed on it, most of us will throw that item away after its date has passed. But, did you know that the dates stamped on food products are actually not expiration dates?!
According to the USDA, the dates printed on foods in the U.S. are suggestions for QUALITY, not for food safety risk. In other words, those dates give us an idea of when food is at its peak quality, but not when it expires and is no longer safe to eat. There are 3 main labels you’re likely to see printed on a food item:
- BEST IF USED BY/BEFORE: when an item will be at its best flavor and quality
- SELL BY: tells the store how long to display an item
- USE BY: the last date recommended for use of an item while it’s at peak quality, but not a safety date (meaning you can still safely eat a food item even after its “use by” date—infant formula is the only exception to this)
Most people don’t know the true meaning of these dates (I know I didn’t), so we end up wasting useable food! The “best if used by” date doesn’t mean “throw away after.” Many foods can still be safely consumed after their “best if used by date” if they’re not showing signs of spoilage! The only real way to know that food has spoiled and is no longer useable is to use our senses:
- Food that’s spoiled generally gives off a distinct, unpleasant odor, that’s noticeably different than the smell of the fresh food.
- When food has gone bad, it tends to change texture. It may become mushy, slimy, or crusty.
- You may notice spoilage based on color changes, like white mold growing on your berries or a patch of blue mold in a tub of yogurt.
- BUT, contrary to popular belief color change in meat or poultry isn’t always an indicator of spoilage. It’s normal for fresh meat and poultry to change color over time in storage. Meat or poultry may be spoiled if you notice a faded or darker color AND other signs of spoilage, like a foul odor and a sticky, tacky, or slimy texture.
When it comes to produce without expiration dates, how long it will last depends on how fresh it was when you bought it. If you buy local and in-season produce, it’s almost always fresher because it hasn’t been shipped a long way to the grocery store! Again, use your eyes and nose to figure out if something has gone bad. Even if a produce item is past its prime, that doesn’t mean we can’t use it.
Be Mindful of Wasting Food
The first step to fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem. Free your mind and the rest will follow, as the saying goes. In the U.S., the majority of food waste happens in our own homes—more than groceries and restaurants combined! In most industrialized countries, food wasted at home is a huge contributor to the problem.
Your awareness of it will help you think about and handle food differently in everyday life. Because, once you can see how food waste affects everyone in some way, you’ll naturally start finding ways to reduce food waste. Even if you somehow put the global problems of hunger and dwindling environmental resources out of your mind, there’s no denying that food waste affects you individually, too.
Any food wasted means money has also been wasted—whether it’s large-scale waste across the globe or the small-scale waste of unused or spoiled food going into your garbage can. You paid for that food, and are (essentially) tossing your cash in the trash. Whether you’re a lover and protector of the planet or you’re a hardcore budget-shopper, it behooves us all to think about food waste.
Once we’re conscious of it, we can start asking ourselves: What can we do to help?
We know that less-than-perfect produce is more likely to go to waste, so we can make active efforts to put that produce in our grocery carts. We can make efforts to actually eat our leftovers and take home unfinished meals from restaurants. Instead of mindlessly tossing our food scraps while cooking, we can pause to consider how we might repurpose those ingredients in another way. By writing down and tracking any food that we do throw away, we can become aware of our food waste patterns and learn how to be less wasteful.
Easy Ways to Reduce Food Waste
The most effective strategy for reducing food waste at home comes down to 3 main components: planning, proper storage, and repurposing. PLAN your meals and your grocery lists, so you only buy what you need and minimize the potential for food waste. STORE FOOD PROPERLY to ensure that it won’t spoil before you intend to use it. REPURPOSE foods that might otherwise go to waste—like leftovers, overripe fruit, less-crisp veggies, scraps from your food prep—and use them in new dishes.
- Take inventory. Look in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. What items do you have at home that you can use in your meals for the week? Most importantly, are there any perishable items (produce, meat, dairy, etc.) that need to be used before they spoil? Find ways to incorporate these ingredients into your plan for the week so they don’t go to waste.
- Map out your healthy meals for the week. (TIP: It helps to write it down!) Ask yourself: What foods do you eat regularly, or what do you want to eat during the upcoming week? Which meals will you prepare, and for how many people? Are there ingredients in your go-to meals and recipes that you can also use in other meals or recipes that week? Will you have leftovers? If so, how and when will you use them?
- Make a shopping list based on your plan, and include the quantities of each food that you’ll need. Being more specific about the amount of foods you’ll use will prevent needless spending and food waste.
- Clean out the fridge and freezer regularly. If items are on the verge of spoiling, bring them to the front of the fridge and consider how to make use of them. If items have spoiled, separate them from other fresh foods because they can make those foods spoil faster. Some of those less-fresh or spoiled items may be able to be used in other ways! Other spoiled items that can’t be salvaged or eaten, of course, need to be thrown away. When this does happen, write them down so you can better plan your grocery shopping moving forward!
- Plan at least one “leftovers day” each week. Maybe everything doesn’t get eaten, maybe we stray from our plan one day, or maybe we overestimated the amount of food we need. This is all okay! We’re human, and we probably won’t be exact in gauging the food that will get eaten. Make room in your week for eating those leftovers, use them in another meal/recipe, or have a plan for how to store your leftovers so the food isn’t wasted.
- Keep your fridge between 37°F and 40°F (2°C and 4°C), and your freezer between 0°F and 2° (-18°C and -17°C). Proper temperature is key to making food last, since bacteria and microorganisms thrive in warmer and wetter environments.
- For any produce that you store at room temperature on the countertop, remove the items from their packaging. The boxes or bags can lead to faster ripening or spoilage.
- Store apples, bananas, citrus, and tomatoes away from other produce. These items give off ethylene gas, which makes other produce ripen faster.
- Store veggies in your fridge’s crisper drawer, where there’s higher humidity to help them last longer. If you can adjust the humidity settings, store leafy greens at high humidity and non-leafy veggies like carrots and cucumbers at low humidity.
- Freeze cooked leftovers or fresh meat for longer storage. In general, items going into the freezer should be stored in an airtight bag or container with as much air removed as possible. Trapped air is what leads to freezer burn, which can degrade the quality and flavor of your frozen food! Be sure to wrap meats well before freezing. (It’s especially important to prevent wasting meats, because they require so much water to produce.) You can also freeze extra fruit and veggies, or put bread in the freezer until you’re ready to use it.
- For more in-depth guidance about storing produce, check out these produce storage guides from RealSimple and Make Dirt Not Waste!
- Get creative with leftovers, food scraps, and foods that are past their prime. Don’t be afraid to experiment in the kitchen and try something new! Overripe fruit can be used in jams, sauces, smoothies, pancakes, or baked goods. Veggies that are losing their crispness can still be cooked into a delicious omelet, stir-fry, casserole, or even used to make vegetable stock. Stale bread makes for great croutons or bread crumbs. Turn your leftover chili into a burrito, or use leftover meat in a sandwich or on a salad. Save scraps of veggies from your prep, chop them up, and cook them in a frittata. If an item hasn’t spoiled, we can almost always find another way to use it!
These are just some basic tips to help reduce food waste in our homes, but there are TONS of food waste tips, tricks, and hacks out there. Learn about them and try some for yourself! Food waste will still happen—but, the more that we learn about it and find ways to reduce our waste, the less and less food we’ll waste. As always, information is power! Inform yourself and do what you can to prevent food waste.