Why Does Food Ever Become Waste?

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

Amidst the busyness of everyday life, we often overlook the moments when we throw things away. The decision to dispose is a seemingly trivial moment, but at the same time it is a universal experience: we all use things, and at some point, those things become trash. Even food – essential to our health and survival – can go from useful to unwanted to us in a matter of minutes. Similar to how we all have experienced holding on to a wrapper or an empty plastic bottle for too long, waiting eagerly to dispose of it, we have cracked an egg or peeled a banana to find that we have no use for what’s left once we consume the contents therein. Surely, this banana peel must be thrown away.

Those moments can say a lot about our habits and how we consume, too. At some point, many of us have taken more than we care to ever use – whether it be free stuff at a convention, or an extra-large serving at the dining hall. Whether it’s that we genuinely believe we will make use of or eat all of what we take, we are biased towards taking. If you can have something at no extra cost, then why not?

But what’s left on our plates after a meal has to go somewhere. Many of us grew up accustomed to scraping off our plates into the garbage or to see our restaurant leftovers quickly whisked away by our servers. Either way, what’s left on our plate quickly goes out of sight and thus out of mind. Food becomes waste in an instant, oft-times without being given a second thought.

As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food waste refers to the “discarding or alternative (non-food) use of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption along the entire food supply chain, from primary production to end household consumer level.” And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste accounts for up to 20% of the 260 million tons of garbage that households and businesses send to landfill each year. Food that could have otherwise found its way into our bodies instead ends up in a trash heap. This is part of a larger trend in wealthier countries (including the United States), with consumers being largely responsible for wasted food in landfills. Around 40% of wasted food in North America and Oceania comes from consumers.

Our scrapings are accompanied by billions of pounds of food, never touched or eaten, that are needlessly thrown away too. The production side accounts for a vast amount of food waste: according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. This means that, annually, a quarter of U.S. freshwater and about 300 million barrels of oil that go into making our food go to waste. And considering that approximately 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure – meaning they don’t always have readily available and affordable food to put on the table – it’s apparent that we produce too much food that doesn’t make its way onto everyone’s plate. The issue of food waste is then compounded by our own habits – not consuming all of the food we buy and throwing it away with the rest of our trash.

This lends itself to this question: why do we throw away so much food, even though it is such a critical component of our lives – including our survival, our health, and our cultures? On the consumer side, according to the F.A.O., we tend to buy too much food, not finish it, and not spend as large a portion of our income on the food we buy. Furthermore, studies show that consumers are not entirely aware of how much food they throw away, thinking that they throw away less than they actually do. A large component of this problem also has to do with many consumers not having the facilities or the access to organic waste processing and composting systems to divert their food waste from landfill. Not having a separate bin or means of disposal for our food may have something to do with not treating it like trash in the first place, too.

On the production side, there are practices in place whereby manufacturers and food producers set expiration dates based on the quality of food, not the safety of its consumption. There are certainly foods where the dates may apply more strictly (e.g., meats, eggs, certain greens), but we can’t always determine the accuracy of, and thus cannot always rely on, the labeled dates by which we are instructed to purchase and use certain foods. And thus, from both a regulatory and liability standpoint, grocers and food banks may decide to toss items out of fear that they won’t be purchased after certain dates, or to avoid liability in the case that a product purchased after its designated ‘sell-by’ or ‘use-by’ date may cause food-borne illness. On the whole, there is a broadly inconsistent manner by which items are labeled for suggested purchase and consumption dates, which can both prompt food distributors to not provide those foods even if they are safe to eat, and prompt consumers to toss food that may still otherwise be fine.

And there are larger systemic problems that prevent good and nutritious food from finding its way to people who need it. The broader ‘food justice’ movement brings to light how many communities of lower socioeconomic status cannot access or afford healthy food, especially because they are not in close proximity to a common grocery store (hence the term ‘food desert’). The movement, part of a network of social justice movements, recognizes that some of the same systemic injustices that impoverish and oppress certain communities also manifest in their limited access to healthy and affordable food. And while it may be hard to quantify how much this strictly contributes to the problem of food waste, there clearly is a problem where food that is produced isn’t finding its way to all consumers – a signal of waste and inefficacy in our food system.

Wasting food is not just harmful to us as humans, but it is harmful to our environment and contributes to global climate change. According to the FAO, food waste around the world contributes about 3.3 billion tons of carbon equivalent annually, and wastes water on the scale of Lake Tahoe nearly twice over.

And so clearly, the scope of this problem is pretty vast – food waste occurs at all segments of the food supply chain. There are a lot of things that can be done on the production end to limit the amount food waste on the whole. We can cut losses systemically by passing laws that change how we assess food quality and safety to improve access to nutritious food for disadvantaged communities and to remedy consumption-side behavior of throwing away food that may otherwise be fine. For us as consumers, we need to better educate ourselves and our youth about the true significance of food so that we may prevent ourselves from ever treating it like trash. This means better understanding the resource and labor intensity of our foods too, so that we can also demand more environmentally friendly and socially just food.

Inevitably, some food or organic material can’t be consumed or used. In these cases, we need to compost the food, or use it to generate energy and feed our livestock. We can save carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients from being needlessly lost by recycling them into our food and agriculture systems. Many of us understand how we can reduce waste by recycling paper, plastics, glass, and other metals – but we can do the same thing with our food and organic material and spend less money and energy doing it. The compost bins you see around campus and at different establishments mean a lot more than just keeping food out of landfills – they give organic waste a shot to be used for food again.

Considering how critical food is for our survival and how much social and environmental damage we inflict by wasting food, and how a few relatively simple steps on our end can reduce food waste, it’s a wonder how food ever becomes waste at all. Much like other environmental issues, food waste is something we can easily prevent from being a problem. We can consume less food by purchasing only as much as we need. We can throw less of it away. We can compost what we end up not eating. And we can advocate for better food policy and regulation. It starts by educating ourselves and by holding ourselves to higher standards when it comes to how we make, distribute, and consume food.