Food Waste: Part 2 – Consumption and Solutions

Here’s the second, concluding part of my notes on food waste.

During Consumption

When thinking about food waste, it’s easy to just peg it to the value of the food. This past year was the first time I really had to buy my own groceries. Multiple times, I messed up and didn’t store food properly, or bought too much of it and didn’t eat it fast enough before it got moldy. So when I was throwing away half a bag of green-splotched bagels, my thought was, crap, that’s like two bucks just gone. However when I realize that the faucet has been running all day, I think, crap, that’s a waste of water and energy for water treatment, because I’ve internalized that as the framework to understand water usage. Food waste isn’t a problem because of the dollar value, it’s a bunch of energy expended for no reason at all. So, to throw another analogy at you, it’s not like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing that sword when you die, and having to buy it again. It’s like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing it when you die, and then having all of the assets and coding for that sword deleted from the game, so that the developer has to redesign it and release a patch so you can buy the sword again. I don’t participate in the production of food, so it didn’t hit home to me all the labor that I was throwing in the trash with those bagels—I only knew the value of it as a consumer.

It shouldn’t be surprising that in developed countries, about 30-40% of food waste occurs at the consumption level, which is everything from household meals to restaurants. In restaurants, there are the same problems as at supermarkets re: over-stocking and expiration dates. In households, most cases of food waste can be broken down into a few categories, as outlined in a study of 14 lower-middle income Brazillian families: “(1) excessive purchasing, (2) over-preparation, (3) caring for a pet, (4) avoidance of leftovers and (5) inappropriate food conservation. Several subcategories were also found, including impulse buying, lack of planning and preference for large packages.” So let’s break these down.

“Excessive purchasing” is exactly what it sounds like—buying more food than is need, and more food than can be consumed before it goes bad. Ironically, this over-purchasing is often the result of buying in bulk in an effort to save money, or taking advantage of sales or BOGO bargains even when the family already has enough of the product at home. So the savings may be negated by the amount of food wasted. Excessive purchasing is also linked to unplanned shopping excursions—going to the store without a list, as “Only two of the 14 families studied prepare shopping lists.” In a 2012 study on national shopping trends in the US, the Hartman Group found that 69% of women make a list before shopping at a grocery store, and only 52% of men do the same.

“Over-preparation” means cooking more than you need for a meal. This can have a lot to do with societal pressures to appear as though you have plenty of food (read: are not poor) or to fulfill the role of “a ‘good’ provider” (Porpino et al. 620). The word “provider” could be subbed out for “mother” or “wife” or “husband” or “host,” to be applied to a variety of circumstances. In the case of the study, this mostly manifested as being a good wife/mother or matriarch, and making sure the kids have more than enough to eat. “Mothers recurrently stated that it is better to make more – rather than not enough – food.” (625)

“Caring for a pet” is an odd one, and it’s more of a means to justify food waste than it is a cause of it. In families with dogs, or chickens, leftovers are often fed to them to justify the family not eating the food, and to avoid just throwing food away (“Despite being a widespread practice, there is a strong sense that throwing food away is inappropriate behavior.” [624]). However, these families also bought regular food for these pets or livestock, so they weren’t saving food at all, just making the animals fat I guess. I don’t know how broadly applicable this one is, though it’s interesting to consider overfeeding as a form of food waste, which would essentially imply that overeating, by humans, is food waste …

“Avoidance of leftovers” is straightforward. Some families expressed distaste for eating old food, or for reheating it, preferring to just throw it out instead. At first this kind of boggled my mind, and I figured there was some cultural or economic thing that I just wasn’t getting, because, what? Sure they’re not as good as a fresh-cooked meal, but leftovers are fantastic in that you don’t have to do any work to make them. But apparently this is not an issue peculiar to the Brazillian lower-middle class, because a US survey sponsored by the American Chemistry Council reported that “76 percent of households say they throw away leftovers at least once a month, while 53 percent throw them away every week.” Every week!? Really!? Give ‘em to me, shit!

Finally, “inappropriate food conservation” is me not storing my bagels properly. It’s not a matter of food sitting around for ages because you bought too much of it, it’s a matter of food sitting around for not too long and going bad, when this could be easily avoided by storing it differently.


Finally, for some positive stuff. There are many ways that waste can be avoided, or utilized so as to make it not actually waste.

One historically prevalent use of food waste is slop for livestock. In the US, many municipalities would collect the waste, steam it to disinfect it, then distribute it to farmers to feed pigs. This practice is less common now due to stricter regulation on feeding livestock, though it still occurs. In South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China, use of food waste for pigs is promoted by the government, and in some cases required.

Mostly, food waste is sent to landfills, where it rots and creates more greenhouse gases than were already expended making it, in the form of methane. However, these gases can also be harnessed in anaerobic digestion plants, common in developing countries due to their cost-effectiveness, and UN funds for clean energy development.

And there’s always compost, which can be useful for consumers and producers alike.

But the biggest, bestest solution to food waste is, as I have written in my initial notes, “just not FUCKING MAKING IT.” Ways to NOT FUCKING MAKE IT include: planning shopping trips, not throwing out leftovers, properly storing food, not throwing out things that have passed their best-before date (or even their expiration date) if they’re still safe to eat, and not putting more on your kid’s plate than they could possibly want to eat—that is, if you’re a consumer. For governments, solutions include: educating the public on food waste—pause.

Growing up, going to school, wastefulness was hammered into my head regarding a few resources: energy, water, and trash (and to a lesser extent fuel. The fact that the wastefulness of certain modes of transportation was not dealt with to a greater extent also aggravates me, but whatever, this ain’t the time.) So I’ve very well internalized how bad it is to leave the sink running, to blast the AC when it’s not necessary, and to litter or not recycle. Remarkably, we never talked about food waste. Food is the fuel of humanity, it is the fundamental resource that keeps us going, and the fact that we did not discuss this is kind of god damn mind-boggling. Of course, we talked about health and healthy diets, but why the hell did we not talk about the importance of saving leftovers, of properly storing things, of composting? (Of course, we also didn’t talk about how eating beef is the stupidest shit of all time of ever, and the reasons we didn’t are abundantly clear, so … anyway.)

Other solutions for the government include: standardized, clearly defined (which means more public education) food-labelling rules, so that people know the difference between best-before and sell-by and all this nonsense; requirements for grocery stores to stock food regardless of cosmetic standards (the UK has done this to some extent); and, of course, governments can always fund charities that combat food waste, or use tax incentives for companies that cut down on their waste.

One solution can be found in both a charitable organization and a private company. The organization, Farm to Family, works with farmers all across California to distributes unharvested food, which would otherwise go to waste, to the California Association of Food Banks. The company, Imperfect Produce, which I hinted at earlier in the retail section, is a service (also based in California) which sources “ugly produce” from farms, fruits and vegetables which retailers wouldn’t accept. People who sign up for Imperfect Produce (currently only available in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or Orange County) receive regular deliveries of wonky produce “for 30-50% less than grocery store prices.” While these are not national, forget global, solutions, the principles at work within them are sound, and could easily be broadened in scope.

The practice that both of these groups engage in is “gleaning”—collecting leftover crops from fields that have already been harvested. More broadly, the concept is known as “food rescue,” which can be applied to restaurants and grocery stores as well, and there are all kinds of food rescue and gleaning organizations throughout the world.

This is just a bit of research, not a call to action. Though honestly, dietary habits are the fucking easiest, most within-your-control thing to change if you want to help the environment, so if I were to call you to action, I’d say, do all the solutions I mentioned when I was talking about consumers. And I would also say, if Porpino et al. can classify over-feeding pets as food waste, then why not classify feeding millions of tons of food to animals each year, and then eating the animal, instead of just eating the food (or using the resources that went into the food to make more-human suitable food, you get what I’m saying) right from the jump—why not classify that as food waste? So that’s another really great solution. Not that I’m calling you to action or anything, but if I were, I’d point out that beef is the most food-wasteful, so you could start there, by not eating it.

Sources (for both part 1 and 2)

The EPA for its food waste definition
This article
in PLOS ONE and this report by the USDA for estimates on percentage of food wasted in US
This FAO report for estimate of global food waste, and breakdown of food waste at consumption level vs. everything else
This USDA article for info on food loss in harvesting
This UC Davis study for commentary on qualitative, nutritional, and caloric losses
Waste by Tristram Stuart for everything about sell-by dates
This article in the Guardian for commentary on how supermarket demands cause overproduction
This NRDC report for lots of great background info, as well as anecdotes on amount of waste caused by cosmetic demands
The Porpino study for info on how food waste occurs at the consumption level (seriously worth a read)
This FMI report which includes the the data on shopping lists from Hartman Group survey. You can also just find the Hartman Group survey itself online for free, but it seems pretty illegal
This article from the American Chemistry Council for the survey on leftovers
This Elsevier paper for info on food waste being fed to pigs
This EPA report for info on food waste in landfills and methane emissions
This article for info on anaerobic digestion plants
And wikipedia, for making so many of these resources known to me, and for a solid overview of the issue

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