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Food Waste Is A $200 Billion Problem. Here Are Ways To Fix It

Pat Aylward
NET News File Photo
The food that doesn't end up in our bellies usually winds up in our landfills. Tossed out food is the largest component of solid waste in our municipal waste management systems.

Every year Americans spend billions of dollars to grow, process and transport food that’s never eaten.

ReFED, a group of nonprofits and foundations, say they have a roadmap to keep that from happening. Their plan focuses on preventing food from ending up in the trash in the first place, and diverting it to a more beneficial use when it does get tossed out.

Other groups have taken to talking about food waste reduction, but few reports give the depth and breadth of the ReFED report, which quantifies the methods that could save the most money, reduce the most greenhouse gas emissions, and create the most jobs.

The group’s roadmap comes at an opportune time. In fall 2015 federal officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the nation’s first set of food waste goals, which includeda 50 percent nationwide reduction by 2030.

"We're wasting so much food as consumers. We're really a big part of the problem."

Consumers waste the vast majority of food in the U.S., meaning this problem is a behavioral one. And changing people’s ingrained behaviors is tough, says Dana Gunders, a food waste expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, part of RE-Fed.

“We’re wasting so much food as consumers,” Gunders says. “We’re really a big part of the problem. And it doesn’t take that much for each of us to take a little nibble at our food waste footprint.”

Enough doom and gloom, though. ReFED gives some common sense solutions. Those include easy, small things like encouraging at-home composting, smaller plates at buffets, getting rid of trays at all-you-can-eat restaurants. The reports also thinks big, laying out plans for tough, complicated fixes like standardized date labels on food packages.

What’s interesting about the report is that it pours cold water on some ideas meant to combat food waste. Feeding food waste to animals? On a large scale, it’s probably not the best use of resources, the report says. Centralized composting? Tough to make the numbers work. Commercialized greywater treatment of food? Super expensive and not clear what its environmental impact could be. Other research may prove some of these ideas are worthwhile, but this gives one side of the picture.

Food waste is a problem nearly any way you look at it. Harvest Public Media took a deep dive into the issues in 2014. In the U.S. we lose or throw away about 31 percent of our entire food supply, to the tune of 133 billion pounds every year. Wasted food equals wasted money and energy. Each American family leaves $1,500 worth of food uneaten annually, the USDA reports.

The food that doesn’t end up in our bellies usually winds up in our landfills. Tossed out food is the largest component of solid waste in our municipal waste management systems. All that rotting food emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change.

Chipping away at the food waste conundrum could solve a few problems at once, Gunders says. It could provide jobs in municipal compost, cut down on confusion at the grocery store with new date labels and slow greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. But putting the plan in action will require action from everyone, from the farmers who grow food to the companies that process it and everyone who eats.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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