Why is it that in a nation where almost 40 million people suffer from food insecurity, food waste remains extremely prevalent? Why is it that in a country that values capitalism and money above all, citizens are complacent when $165 billion gets wasted on food each year? Logically, none of this should make sense, but all of these aspects of society are a lot more interconnected than one might think.
Like most environmental issues, the consequences of food waste come in various forms, and most people don’t notice them until it is far too late. One result of food waste is the economic repercussions it has on families. In comparison with the rest of the world, food in the United States is often much more abundant and available at lower costs. With this elevated supply in food, many Americans tend to be more unappreciative, leading to greater impulsivity and irresponsibility when it comes to purchasing food. On average, households with a family of four waste around $1,600 in produce every year.
To put that into perspective, RTS writes:
“Multiply that [$1,600] by the typical 18 years that a child lives at home and you could easily pay for a year’s worth of tuition at any number of America’s private colleges or universities.”
Regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, that is a great deal of money which can be used in more effective manners. This financial and social issue transcends far beyond food waste, and people must learn to be more considerate to the planet when making everyday purchases.
In addition to the privileged positions many Americans have, most Americans are unaware of the meaning behind expiration labels. In fact, 90% of Americans toss out perfectly good food due to them misinterpreting expiration labels. To put it simply, “Best if used by” describes when food might taste a little differently than expected, but rest assured, it is still completely safe to consume. On the other hand, “Use by” refers to foods which are highly perishable, leading to safety concerns over time. Clearly, if every 9 out of 10 Americans are throwing away perfectly consumable food due to confusion over food labels, reforms – at the governmental level – should be enacted to make labels more comprehensible for the consumer.
Moving into a more nationwide and environmental perspective, America is destroying the planet with its astronomical amount of food waste. Around 40% of the U.S. food supply goes to waste each year. That means almost half of our total food supply never actually gets eaten. This is 80 billion pounds of food, equivalent to 1000 Empire State Buildings. According to The Center for Biological Diversity, this averages to around 1,200 calories per person every single day. Even more alarming, the amount of food waste produced in the U.S. has tripled in the previous 50 years, growing at a faster rate than our population. What many people don’t understand when they look at food waste is the fact that there is a whole complex process behind food production. Food must be grown, harvested, transported, packaged, and presented; an immense amount of energy goes into each of these processes. Food waste has major implications in agriculture, water systems, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, landfills, and even health issues.
First off, food waste poses a serious threat to wildlife and biodiversity. The Center of Biological Diversity explains how in the United States alone, 80 million acres of farmland are used to produce food that is never eaten. That is the equivalent of 35 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. When clearing out this land, major industries wipe out the pre-existing habitats, pushing many species to the brink of extinction. Not only are we wasting valuable stretches of land, we are also wasting tons of water.
“About 21 percent of the water that’s used to grow our food is wasted because of the magnitude of food Americans toss each year.”According to Ceres, a nonprofit organization working to transform the economy in order to build a sustainable future.
In addition to the effects food waste already has on biodiversity and natural resources, climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions will only intensify these adverse situations.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, food waste is one of the top perpetrators. Organic matter – foods and plants – makes up the largest portion of municipal solid waste (MSW) in landfills. MSW is essentially the trash one throws away on a daily basis, and it is the number one contributor of landfill waste disposal. Once in landfills, the organic material gets compacted down and covered. Under these anaerobic conditions, the food is unable to properly decompose and ends up releasing tons of methane, a greenhouse gas which is 80% more potent than carbon dioxide. According to The Center of Biological Diversity, “If food waste were a country, it would be the third top emitter of greenhouse gas emissions after China and the United States, accounting for 3 billion tons of carbon emissions.” If we don’t take concrete action to change our dietary patterns and wasteful mindsets, emissions due to food waste are estimated to increase by 400% in the next 50 years, exacerbating the problems our climate and our society are already facing.
Another major consequence of food waste is its enormous contribution to the buildup of landfills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food makes up around 20% of all waste in municipal landfills, rendering it the single largest contributor of trash in landfills. For many people, landfills are a perfect example of “out of sight, out of mind.” Trash gets tossed into the garbage can, gets picked up by the garbage truck, and is soon forgotten about in approximately half of a second. This ignorance stems from privilege. However, many people are not lucky enough to simply ignore the problems landfills have on the population. Landfills predominantly affect Black and Latino neighborhoods as well as impoverished areas because landfills and toxic waste treatment facilities are often built around these communities. According to a 2007 study, out of the 9 million people who live within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of the U.S.’s hazardous waste facilities, over half of them are people of color. This has been a long-instilled pattern in America, contributing to generations of systemic racism, food insecurity, and poverty.
Landfills are not only extremely detrimental to the communities affected long term, they also cause daily challenges that can significantly harm one’s health.
For example, landfills carry plenty of highly toxic chemicals – some of these being mercury, arsenic, cadmium, PVC, and lead – which frequently leak into the surrounding soil and groundwater systems, sometimes leading to disease, genetic mutation, and even death. In addition to runoff and leakage, air pollution is also a major problem when it comes to landfills. Gases that are commonly produced by landfills are ammonia, sulfides, methane, and carbon dioxide. These gases commonly infiltrate nearby buildings by way of soil vapor intrusion or through windows, doors, and ventilation systems. Long term exposure to landfill pollutants have been shown to lead to various diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, lymphocytosis, neutropenia, anemia, and leukopenia. Air pollution exposure has also been linked to plenty of developmental issues such as early birth, low birth weight, and cognitive delays in children. To reiterate, these health effects predominantly impact poor people and people of color, worsening the already acute racial divisions and poverty in America.
Since many people aren’t directly impacted by landfills, they tend to not care or consider the detrimental impact it has on other communities. However, this issue is only going to get worse as the global population increases and the human demand for goods intensifies. According to Global Citizen, the U.S. is on track to run out of space in landfills within the next 16 years. If we don’t want to live in a world drowning in filth, we need to self reflect and take the proper steps to slow down this trend before it is simply too late.
What can we do as individuals to combat the issue of food waste? As of now, the easiest thing for us to do is to be more mindful of our impact on the world when we are making our day-to-day purchases. By being educated on this issue, we can all make efforts to limit our overconsumption at the grocery store and at restaurants. Create shopping lists, and stick to them. Save and eat your leftovers. Keep track of what you tend to throw away. All these little daily changes can add up to make a huge impact. It is in our human nature to indulge in more than what we truly need, but if we can be more aware of the situation at hand, we will be able to put our own interests aside in order to protect the greater good.
In addition, an actionable thing we can all do is to start composting. Composting is a natural process by which any organic material breaks down in the presence of bacteria and fungus in the soil. It can be done in the comfort of your own home and/or at a composting facility.
“Americans landfilled or incinerated over 50 million tons of compostable waste in 2015. That is enough to fill a line of fully-loaded 18-wheelers, stretching from New York City to Los Angeles ten times… Composting could reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. by at least 30 percent”.According to Environment America
Some areas that have adopted strong composting and recycling programs have been extremely successful at reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills. In San Francisco, the amount of trash going to landfills has decreased by 80 percent through the implementation of these programs. Less waste in landfills also means a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a natural replacement for synthetic fertilizers, and a way to slow down landfills from becoming over-capacitated.
Lastly, food insecurity is a major problem in the U.S. that is, quite frankly, not being addressed enough. Before throwing away excess food, try donating it to a local food bank or farm. According to Feeding America, a nonprofit charity organization made up of a network of over 200 food banks, “Each year, 72 billion pounds of food goes to waste while 37 million Americans struggle with hunger”. Unfortunately, this number is predicted to jump to over 54 million Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of having perfectly consumable food decompose in a landfill, we can give these foods to those in need.
In conclusion, food waste is one of the main perpetrators of climate change, contributing to the landfill crisis, public health concerns, the extinction of various species, greenhouse gas emissions, and unnecessary financial burdens. The issue of food waste is highly interconnected with the fundamental issues of racism and poverty, and it is exacerbated through privilege of all forms. Through practicing mindfulness, educating ourselves and those around us, starting compost bins in our own communities, and donating to food banks, we will be creating a better and cleaner environment for all of us to live in. It isn’t the responsibility of one corporate leader or even one president; we all have a role to play, and we all can make an effort to do better – to turn a land of waste into a land of new opportunities.
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Diversity, Center for Biological. “Food Waste Is Trashing the Planet.” Take Extinction Off Your Plate, http://www.takeextinctionoffyourplate.com/waste/index.html. Accessed 17 July 2020.
“Fight Climate Change by Preventing Food Waste.” World Wildlife Fund, https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/fight-climate-change-by-preventing-food-waste. Accessed 17 July 2020.
Fighting Food Waste in America with Food Rescue | Feeding America. https://www.feedingamerica.org/our-work/our-approach/reduce-food-waste. Accessed 17 July 2020.
“Food Waste in America in 2020: Statistics & Facts | RTS.” Recycle Track Systems, https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/. Accessed 17 July 2020.
Hunger in America | Feeding America. https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america. Accessed 17 July 2020.
“The Problem with Landfill. Toxins, Leachate and Greenhouse Gases.” Environment Victoria, https://environmentvictoria.org.au/resource/problem-landfill/. Accessed 17 July 2020.
“Toxic Wastes and Race and Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_toxic-waste-20. Accessed 17 July 2020.
Trash to Treasure: The Incredible Benefits of Composting | The Pursuit | University of Michigan School of Public Health | Environmental Health | Innovation | Nutrition | Pollution. https://sph.umich.edu/pursuit/2019posts/benefits-of-composting.html. Accessed 17 July 2020.
Sophie Guo is a high school senior and writer living in Bedford, New York. She is highly passionate about journalism, communications, and social activism. She currently serves as a Debate Agent for the Northeast State of Junior State of America (JSA), and she is a Board Member for various other youth organizations. Through Zenerations, she hopes to spread awareness on various societal issues and build a platform where everyone can feel loved and accepted.