Climate Change – Food Waste

Climate Change – Food Waste

Welcome to the Food Waste Action Group

“Waste not, want not!” That’s what our parents used to tell us. In the United States, estimates indicate that 40 percent of the food grown is never eaten. What a waste (literally)! People in our own country and abroad go to bed hungry every night.  In 2017, a United States agriculture survey estimated that 11% of the American population was food insecure at least part of the year.   What is even more disturbing is that wasted food is wasted energy – 20% of the total energy expenditure in our country is used to produce food.  And, as if that is not enough, a lot of the wasted food goes into landfills where it decomposes slowly and generates methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

As the chart below from the non-profit ReFED shows, the way we handle food in our own homes plays a critical role in reducing food waste.

Watch the video below for 100 ways you can get started reducing food waste in your home. Pick a few of the ideas and go from there. Anything you can do to reduce waste has an impact both on climate change and household expenses.

Frequently Asked Questions

Members of UUCC met to discuss our concerns and came up with a list of questions about food waste and how we might reduce it. Leads of the Food Waste Action Group researched these questions and summarized our findings along with links to articles that provide more in-depth reading. We encourage members who have additional questions to email Trish Steinhilber and Jim Reiser.

Food Waste FAQ

Did you know that 15% of the energy consumed in the US is used to produce food?  So, wasting food is also wasting the energy used to produce it.  In addition, there is the issue of what becomes of the energy stored in food when it is discarded.

We all know that uneaten food and some other materials, like fresh grass clipping, soon start to look unappealing and smell.  That’s because they are organic materials and once their life is over they start to decay or decompose.  The energy stored in the organic materials is a food source for various microbes.

In a landfill, materials are compacted and covered with soil.  The environment soon becomes depleted of oxygen.  When food and other yummy (to bacteria) materials decompose in an environment with no oxygen, 2 gases are produced – carbon dioxide and methane – in roughly equal proportions.  Both are greenhouse gases but methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas.  On a 20-year timeframe methane has 86 times more Greenhouse Warming Potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide.   Reducing food waste translates to less wasted energy and less production of carbon dioxide and methane.

Want more information?   Click here for the data presented at the November 2020 Climate Action Meeting.

Composting

Some food waste is inevitable.  No matter how diligent we are in using all the edible food we purchase or grow, some waste will be produced.  This may include apple cores, tea bags, coffee grounds, orange peels and such.  Have you considered composting?  Composting is an accelerated decomposition process carried on by microbes in an environment with plenty of oxygen (aerobic environment).   Several things happen during composting.  First, microbes consume some of the energy in the food waste to grow and reproduce.  They, like us, give off carbon dioxide as a waste product.  Second, microbes convert some of the energy on the food waste as heat.   Lastly, a residue remains after the microbes have lived their lives or are unable to use any of the remaining material as a food source.  We call this residue, “compost”, a valuable soil amendment

Home Composting

Perhaps you’d like to compost the food waste (and yard waste) your family produces but you do not know how to get started.  University of Maryland Extension has very informative web page, How to Make Compost at Home (https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/how-make-compost-home#how).  Howard County Department of Public works also has an informative booklet, Howard County Home Composting Guide.

The Howard County Department of Public Works Bureau of Environmental Services office (410-799-2175) provides compost bins to Howard County residents.  (Their offices are currently closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions.)

Centralized Composting

If you live in some areas in Howard County, you may be able to participate in Howard County Department of Public Works (HoCo-DPW) Feed the Green Bin program, a centralized food waste collection and composting initiative.   Details about the pro­grams, including an online search to see if your residence is located within the food scrap collection boundary, can be found at  FeedTheGreenBin.org.  HoCo-DPW also has a 2-page info sheet on food and yard waste compost process, Howard County Food Scrap and Yard Trim Composting Program .

If you live outside the food scrap collection boundary, you may drop off food waste at the Alpha Ridge Landfill.  Food waste may also be dropped off at MOM Organic Market in Jessup where compost collection bins are located right inside their front door.  Food waste deposited at MOM’s is regularly picked up and composted at a commercial composting facility

Composting versus landfilling

How we dispose of our food waste matters!  The only greenhouse gas produced during the decomposition of food waste in an environment like a properly managed composting system is carbon dioxide.  Compare that to throwing it in the garbage where it end up in the landfill.  Waste in landfills is compacted and quickly becomes devoid of oxygen (anaerobic).  In this condition, both methane and carbon dioxide are produced as the food waste (and other organic materials like grass clippings and leaves) decomposes.   On a 20-year timeframe methane has 86 times more Greenhouse Warming Potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide.

Expiration Dates

Dumping food that has passed an expiration date contributes greatly to food waste in the home, but unfortunately the short answer is that there is no ground truth about expiration dates. Surprisingly, there are no federal laws establishing regulations for dating foods for either quality or safety except for infant formula.  The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service only in 2019 recommended that labeling for food quality use Best If Used By, but there are as many as 50 different date labels that have appeared on products. The USDA FSIS has no recommendations for food safety labeling, leaving this up to manufacturers, which seems strange for a government service established to ensure food safety.

So, what can you do?

The Food and Drug Administration provides resources that can help consumers make decisions about food storage. In particular, the FDA maintains an easy-to-use FoodKeeper App and a refrigerator and freezer storage chart (links below). Understanding the difference between food quality dates and food safety helps. Most date labeling on food refers to food quality, not safety. Food is safe long after those dates. Scott Nash, the founder and CEO of Mom’s Organic Market, experimented on himself by eating “expired” food for an entire year, including meat and dairy, sometimes long after their package expiration dates.  Trust your nose and eyes. If food isn’t moldy and doesn’t smell bad, it is likely safe to eat. You can help reduce the need to decide about expired food by planning and avoiding bulk and impulse purchases.

Sources

  • “Best if used by.” The FDA renders its decision on food expiration date labels, The Washington Post, May 23, 2019
  • Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods?, The Food and Drug Administration, accessed January 19, 2020
  • My Year of Eating “Expired” Food, Blog post by Scott Nash, February 11, 2019

Buying ugly produce, or ugly food, has become a popular cause in the fight against food waste. Proponents of buying ugly produce make the case that tons of food are wasted because it is unpresentable. A closer look at the food industry puts this claim into perspective. Much food that never leaves the field is because of overproduction or because it is overripe or it shows signs of insect damage or a plant disease and is unpresentable. Most food waste in the US, around 80%, is lost in the home, grocery stores, and restaurants. Purveyors of ugly produce buy their product from packinghouses of large producers, food that would not likely have been wasted anyway as it would have been processed for the food service industry, frozen or canned, fed to livestock, or plowed back into fields. The packinghouse industry reports that only about 1% of the food it processes ends up in a landfill.

Buying regular deliveries of ugly produce from companies like Hungry Harvest or Misfit Market can generate food waste in the end unless you are flexible and disciplined enough to use all the random vegetables and fruit you receive. My personal experience with Misfit Market is that the produce is good quality at a fair price, but not a bargain, if you can use it all, which was difficult sometimes. My chief objection to Misfit is the packaging, as the insulation material is not recyclable in Howard County and so ends up in a landfill. A better option would be to use local services like Howard County’s Roving Radish, which uses seasonal, often locally-produced food in pre-planned complete meal kits. My family has used the vegetarian option for an entire season now and find the portions generous, the meals easy to prepare with minimal, and sometimes no, food waste. Cost works out to about $5 per serving, and is eligible for food stamps and other local cost support. We often got a dinner and a lunch portion out of each meal. Two meals for four come in each order. Packaging is minimal as you must pick up your order from one of several drop off points across the county.

For more on this subject read:

Governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have compiled extensive information on food waste and its reduction.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published Wasted: How America is Losing 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill (second edition) in 2017.  The extent of food losses as well as steps to remove inefficiencies is discussed from harvesting, processing, distribution, retail sales, households, and finally to disposal.

ReFED, a collaborative effort of more than 20 governmental leaders, NGOs, foundations and businesses, published A Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste by 20 Percent in 2016.  Packed with information and graphics about prevention, recovery and recycling, the roadmap also includes an economic analysis and action steps.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service published a detailed analysis in 2014 entitled The Amount, Value and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses in the Retail and Consumer Levels of the United States.  This report is packed full of data and graphics showing the losses in calories, weight and dollar value of many food groups (grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meat and fish).

For more information, please contact Jim Reiser or Trish Steinhilber.

Useful information and web links