1.6 Billion Tons of Food Is Thrown Away Every Year

With the holiday season and its abundance of delicious food upon us, it’s a good time to think about how much food the average person wastes every year. Did you know that up to one-third of all food produced in the world is lost or thrown away every year? Yes, you heard that right–one-third! Specifically, 1.6 billion tons of food ends up in landfills globally, at a cost of about $760 billion annually, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO). Americans alone pitch about 63 million tons of food every year. While the reasons behind the waste are complex, there are small steps you can take to help reduce that waste stream. 

83% of unused food in restaurants ends up in the garbage

First, it’s important to understand the reasons behind the waste and its economic costs.  It happens mainly at the production facilities, where food is sold and served and in homes. Supermarkets pitch  43 billion pounds of food every year, according to the most recent study. Another recent study found that 84.3% of unused food in American restaurants ends up being disposed of while 14.3% is recycled, and only 1.4% is donated. A lot of produce never leaves the farm because it grows into what’s considered an “imperfect shape” for consumers. In the United States, fisherman throw out about 20 percent of their catches, totaling about 2 billion pounds of fresh fish each year. 

ReFED is a nonprofit dedicated to coming up with practical, economic solutions to the problem. It identifies 27 of the best opportunities through the Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste, an economic analysis of how to make it easier for individuals and businesses to meet a national 50% reduction goal by 2030. It focuses on:

  •  Prevention (stopping waste in the first place)
  •  Recovery (redistributing food to people reuse food)
  •  Recycling  Repurposing waste as energy, agricultural, and other products

A consumer education campaign is a critical part of this plan. Households throw away food for a number of reasons including poor planning, an inability to consume food in a timely manner and a lack of awareness. Overcoming consumer apathy or indifference is considered the most significant hurdle. Surveys show that while consumes understand the importance of food waste reduction, they don’t recognize their role in solving the problem. 

Here’s the good news; you can make a difference. Here are a six things you can try today: 

  • Plan a week’s worth of meals:
    Start this weekend and research recipes you can make for at least 4 days. Allot certain days for leftovers and eating out or ordering in. If you only buy the produce you need for certain recipes, you’re less likely to buy food that will end up being wasted. 

    Make leftover-based meals part of your plan! Soup is an easy and healthy way to use up vegetables.

  • Plot an eating out strategy: When eating out, either order a smaller portion or follow the Blue Zones rule by eating till you’re 80 percent full. Then make sure to have a take-home box so you can enjoy this meal the next day. If you know a restaurant serves gigantic portions and you can’t take leftovers, ask if you can split an order or order a half portion. 
  • Freeze fruit and veggies:  Is your produce drawer turning into a petri dish? Peel bananas that are turning brown and freeze, along with any other fruit that’s about to spoil. You can use these all winter long for smoothies. Chopped peppers and onions to freeze for stir-frys and soups.  

    Don’t let this be your garbage after returning from vacation. A little advance planning can make sure all that produce goes to good use.

  • Vacation Food Spoilage: Who hasn’t returned home from a trip to face a smelly refrigerator and stale pantry food? Start thinking about your trip a week ahead of time to use up perishables. For instance, if you have a dozen eggs, it’s a good time to think about a quiche or omelet for dinner. And the day you leave for vacation, try to freeze anything that’s on the verge of spoiling. For instance, dairy such as butter and cheese can be frozen. So can soups without cream in them. 
  • Cube it: With built-in ice makers in freezers, you’d think the ice cube tray would become obsolete, but its use lives on. It’s a perfect portion-controlled way of saving food. For instance, once you use that 1 tablespoon of tomato paste in a recipe, take the remaining paste from the can and freeze it. Save the cubes in a plastic freezer bag, ready to toss into a soup or chili. Same goes for chipotle chilis in adobo sauce, extra lemon juice,  minced herbs and pesto.

    Don’t throw out those lemons half eaten! Get all the fiber and nutrition from lemons and oranges by pureeing them in a food processor. You can even wash a lemon and freeze it whole, using a grater to add to dishes.

  • Embrace Ugly: Companies like Imperfect Foods will deliver a box of organic or non-organic “imperfect produce” to your house (along with other groceries and “imperfect food”) on a weekly basis. (Check to see if the service is available in your area). These imperfect foods are often just misshapen fruits and veggies that are just as delicious  as any other produce but just might have a slightly different shape. The company’s mission is to reduce waste and so far through its 200,000 customers, it says it’s saved 86 million pounds of imperfect food from being thrown out.

There are thousands of ways things you can do to cut your food waste; check out this handy Smart LifeBites’ guide. And when you go to serve yourself a plate of food at your next holiday meal or party, remember the work that took to produce that food. Reducing waste starts with you! 


–Patty Yeager 


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