Is Your Half-Eaten Lunch Harming the Planet?

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Food waste is a bigger driver of climate change than many people realize. What will it take to solve the problem?

The yogurt that’s past its “sell by” date. The banana in your lunch that turned brown. The leftovers in the fridge that you forgot to eat. For most people, all that food goes right into the trash.

Americans throw out 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. each year, according to the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.). Worldwide, 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste each year, worth nearly $990 billion, the United Nations (U.N.) estimates.

Experts say that food could go a long way toward solving world hunger. But they also point out that there’s another, less obvious reason to be concerned about food waste: It’s one of the top drivers of climate change.

Eight to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to food waste, according to a report released in August by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, global food waste accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any country aside from China and the U.S.

The yogurt that’s past its “sell by” date. The banana in your lunch that turned brown. The leftovers in the fridge that you forgot to eat. For most people, all that food goes right into the trash.

Americans throw out 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. each year, according to the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.). Worldwide, 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste each year, the United Nations (U.N.) estimates. That’s worth nearly $990 billion.

Experts say that food could go a long way toward solving world hunger. But they also point out that there’s another, less obvious reason to be concerned about food waste. It’s one of the top drivers of climate change.

In August, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report about this issue. They found that 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to food waste. In fact, global food waste accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any country aside from China and the U.S.

A Big Waste

Many environmental experts say that throwing away less food is a crucial personal habit people can adopt to help the planet.

“There’s been a lot of focus on energy,” says Paul Behrens, a professor in energy and environmental change at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “But climate change is as much a land issue and a food issue as anything else.”

When most people think of the drivers of climate change, they think of gas-guzzling vehicles and coal-burning power plants. But while transportation and energy account for more than half of all carbon emissions in the U.S., experts say that throwing out food is also a lot more wasteful than it might seem.

“When you throw away an egg or a sandwich,” says Yvette Cabrera, food waste deputy director at the N.R.D.C., “you’re also throwing away all the resources that went into producing those things.”

That includes not only all the water, land, and fertilizer that went into producing that food, but also the massive amounts of fossil fuels used to power the farms, transport the food, and create the packaging.

Many environmental experts say that throwing away less food is something every person can do to help the planet.

“There’s been a lot of focus on energy,” says Paul Behrens, a professor in energy and environmental change at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “But climate change is as much a land issue and a food issue as anything else.”

When most people think of the drivers of climate change, they think of gas-guzzling vehicles and coal-burning power plants. Given that transportation and energy account for more than half of all carbon emissions in the U.S., that makes sense. But experts say that throwing out food is also a lot more wasteful than it might seem.

“When you throw away an egg or a sandwich,” says Yvette Cabrera, food waste deputy director at the N.R.D.C., “you’re also throwing away all the resources that went into producing those things.”

That includes all the water, land, and fertilizer that went into producing that food. It also includes the huge amounts of fossil fuels used to power the farms, transport the food, and create the packaging.

Alexey Smolyanyy/Shutterstock (sandwich); Frannyanne/Shutterstock(grocery bag)

Then there’s the issue of what happens to food after it’s thrown out. More food ends up in U.S. landfills than any other type of trash. Food rotting in landfills emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s roughly 25 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning fossil fuels.

Food waste is a difficult problem to solve, though, in part because it happens for different reasons depending on the country. In developing nations, 40 percent of food is lost before it ever reaches people’s homes, because many of those countries lack the technology and tools to preserve food and keep it from spoiling.

It’s another story in wealthier countries, where most of the food is wasted in people’s kitchens. Americans, for example, throw out a quarter of their groceries each year, on average, according to the N.R.D.C. That’s like going to the grocery store, leaving with four bags of groceries, and then dumping one of them into the garbage before you get home.

Consumers aren’t the only ones to blame in the U.S. though. Grocery stores often throw away food to make room for new goods, and restaurants toss most of their food that isn’t eaten. Plus, a lot of food gets wasted before it even leaves farms. In a recent study of 123 farms in northern and central California, researchers from Santa Clara University found that nearly 34 percent of food that’s grown is either unharvested or left behind in the fields.

Farmers often throw out produce that doesn’t meet the standards set by distributors or supermarkets. Fruits and vegetables that are oddly shaped or bruised get dumped in landfills, even if they’re perfectly fine to eat. Many farmers also overplant to ensure that they’ll hit the quotas set in their contracts, but that often leaves them with fields full of produce at the end of the season that never gets picked.

Then there’s the issue of what happens to food after it’s thrown out. More food ends up in U.S. landfills than any other type of trash. Food rotting in landfills emits methane, a greenhouse gas. It’s produced by burning fossil fuels. And it’s about 25 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Food waste is a difficult problem to solve. That’s partly because it happens for different reasons depending on the country. In developing nations, 40 percent of food is lost before it ever reaches people’s homes. That’s because many of those countries lack the technology and tools to preserve food and keep it from spoiling.

It’s another story in wealthier countries, where most of the food is wasted in people’s kitchens. Americans, for example, throw out a quarter of their groceries each year, on average, according to the N.R.D.C. That’s like going to the grocery store, leaving with four bags of groceries, and then dumping one of them into the garbage before you get home.

Consumers aren’t the only ones to blame in the U.S. though. Grocery stores often throw away food to make room for new goods. Restaurants also toss most of their food that isn’t eaten. Plus, a lot of food gets wasted before it even leaves farms. A recent study of 123 farms in northern and central California was conducted by researchers from Santa Clara University. They found that nearly 34 percent of food that’s grown is either unharvested or left behind in the fields.

Farmers often throw out produce that doesn’t meet the standards set by distributors or supermarkets. Fruits and vegetables that are oddly shaped or bruised get dumped in landfills. This happens even if the produce is perfectly fine to eat. Many farmers also overplant to ensure that they’ll hit the quotas set in their contracts. Unfortunately, that often leaves them with fields full of produce at the end of the season that never gets picked.

Alexey Borodin/Shutterstock

Oddly shaped produce is often thrown out by farmers who assume it won’t sell.

‘Ugly’ Foods

A growing number of cities, nonprofits, and start-ups in the U.S. are trying to tackle the food waste problem. Many cities now pick up compost directly from people’s homes, along with garbage and recycling. Food that’s composted releases less greenhouse gas than food rotting in landfills. Some waste management centers also trap the methane released by food scraps and convert it into electricity.

Many schools are reducing waste at lunchtime by creating “share tables” in their cafeterias. Students can place unopened food that they’re not eating on those tables for other students to take.

A number of nonprofit groups are partnering with restaurants to donate leftover food to food banks instead of throwing it in the trash. And some companies now buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables that farms might otherwise have thrown out and sell it for less than what produce usually costs in supermarkets.

But ultimately, experts say, individual consumers need to do their part (see “Tips for Reducing Food Waste”).

“We all have a role to play,” says Cabrera, “because when you add up all those individuals, our collective impact is much bigger than we think it is.”

A growing number of cities, nonprofits, and start-ups in the U.S. are trying to tackle the food waste problem. Many cities now pick up compost directly from people’s homes, along with garbage and recycling. Food that’s composted releases less greenhouse gas than food rotting in landfills. Some waste management centers also trap the methane released by food scraps. They then convert it into electricity.

Many schools are reducing waste at lunchtime by creating “share tables” in their cafeterias. Students can place unopened food that they’re not eating on those tables for other students to take.

A number of nonprofit groups are partnering with restaurants to donate leftover food to food banks instead of throwing it in the trash. And some companies now buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables that farms might otherwise have thrown out. This produce gets sold for less than what it usually costs in supermarkets.

But ultimately, experts say, individual consumers need to do their part (see “Tips for Reducing Food Waste”).

“We all have a role to play,” says Cabrera, “because when you add up all those individuals, our collective impact is much bigger than we think it is.”

With reporting by David Segal of The New York Times.

With reporting by David Segal of The New York Times.

Tips for Reducing Food Waste

JollyPopLA/Shuttestock


USE YOUR SENSES:
Most of the date labels on food packaging—such as the “sell by” and “use by” dates—aren’t based on exact science. Before you throw something out, judge whether it’s still safe to eat or drink by examining its color, texture, and smell.

COMPOST:
Find out if your city picks up compost from curbsides. If not, you can still compost in your backyard or search online to see if there’s a drop-off spot near you.

GET INVOLVED:
Discuss with your teachers and school administrators ways to reduce food waste in your cafeteria, such as setting up share tables or donating leftovers to food banks. You and your teachers can find resources to help you get started at worldwildlife.org.


USE YOUR SENSES:
Most of the date labels on food packaging—such as the “sell by” and “use by” dates—aren’t based on exact science. Before you throw something out, judge whether it’s still safe to eat or drink by examining its color, texture, and smell.

COMPOST:
Find out if your city picks up compost from curbsides. If not, you can still compost in your backyard or search online to see if there’s a drop-off spot near you.

GET INVOLVED:
Discuss with your teachers and school administrators ways to reduce food waste in your cafeteria, such as setting up share tables or donating leftovers to food banks. You and your teachers can find resources to help you get started at worldwildlife.org.

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