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Indeed everyone has been there. We’ve all rummaged around our fridge to find those long-forgotten fruits (let’s say peaches) we bought days ago. Our intentions were pure. We really did mean to eat them. But now, they’ve been taken over by a colony of mold. Alas, we threw away the peaches, a snack that should have been but never was. With one final glance, we threw them in the bin for good (a hidden cost of food waste that we usually avoid).
When we dispose of food, we’re not simply throwing away food. We’re also throwing all the water used to grow it and all the energy and fuel used to transport it. When we throw away food, we’re creating more waste, for our landfills are already at their capacity. These landfills they’ll emit greenhouse gases as they slowly decompose.
When we often think of environmental problems, our mind conjures up images of industries or vehicle exhausts. We rarely think about our next meal as a threat to the environment. But in reality, the food industry poses one of the biggest environmental threats to our planet.
It is evident today that consumers and businesses need to take a long hard look at how we produce and consume products if we ever hope to address the climate crisis.
Almost every human action and activity has an environmental impact. Knowing this makes it difficult to decide exactly where to start reducing. Should we boycott single-use plastics? Shall we switch to electric vehicles? Should we limit our use of electronics?
Sure, all of these areas are crucial to explore. But there is a very simple way to start our journey toward a low-impact lifestyle: our approach to food. Households generate nearly 61% of all food waste, food services 26%, and retail environments 13%.
Food waste is a problem that we can directly and easily control. But first, we must understand the exact scope of the problem to address it and come up with solutions. This article will explore the hidden cost of food waste on society and how you and I can help stop it.
A typical working-class household wastes food worth around $3.50 every day. Some experts estimate the value to be closer to $5 per day. This means that, for an average family of four, $1,350 – $2,275 goes into our trash cans every year.
But the money is just one side of the story. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), unconsumed food accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions from US food waste alone equal the emissions from 37 million passenger vehicles. That makes quite a significant impact on the environment.
How do all the scraps and bits of food waste we toss into the garbage today add up to produce such a significant impact on the environment? To understand that, you have to look at the whole life cycle of your food. Where was it grown? How many resources did it take to produce and package it? And finally, you’d also need to take into account its journey to a landfill if wasted.
A few areas that food waste affects the most include the water footprint, the use or misuse of land, and the threat to biodiversity and other creatures we share the planet with. The impact of food waste can trickle into other issues too. These include greenhouse gas emissions and municipal solid waste. Uneaten food, along with plastics, makes up the largest share of municipal solid waste. As food decomposes, it releases methane, accelerating global warming and climate change and threatening our survival on the Earth.
Food waste occurs at every stage of the food cycle. Farmers generate food waste when they leave crops to rot in fields because it isn’t profitable to harvest them. The storing and handling stages produce food waste when their inappropriate processes cause food to spoil. Retailers generate food waste when they refuse to sell ‘ugly’ produce. And finally, consumers produce food waste when confusing labels suggest they must throw away food still safe to eat.
However, there are small ways you can contribute to reducing the hidden cost of food waste and its associated environmental impact. These include:
1. Regularly review the items in your fridge and pantry before you go grocery shopping. This will significantly reduce the likelihood of you purchasing a product you already have.
2. Store your fruits and vegetables properly. Remember that you can still use produce for cooking even when it is no longer at its optimal freshness.
3. Organize your fridge and pantry to bring items that will perish to the fore first.
4. Don’t leave perishable items out at room temperatures for a long time (more than two hours).
5. When you eat out, order only what you know you can eat. Try ordering smaller portions. If food gets left behind, ask for it to be packaged and take it home.
6. Research and properly understand what the label on food items means. For most products, a ‘use by’ label indicates that the item is no longer safe to eat once the specified date has passed. A ‘best before’ or ‘best by’ date simply means that the item’s quality will diminish after the specified date; the food is still safe for consumption.
7. Some food items are more resource-intensive than others. Animals-based food items use more resources than plant-based ones because farmers grow crops like soy to feed animals in the meat industry. Therefore, meat products have a higher ecological footprint because they use more land, water, and resources. Consider switching to a plant-based diet or restricting your consumption of meat.