Climate change is a serious problem – probably the most dangerous predicament humanity has ever been in. And every second that goes by and we’re not doing anything about it, the more dangerous things are going to become, and the harder it will be to fix them. But let’s not kick off this list on such a gloomy note, and instead look at what can be done to change that. The answer is as simple as what caused all of this in the first place – namely, the little things. Slight tweaks in our habits can go a long way, without us having to revert to a pre-Industrial, 18th century-lifestyle to get there. And yes, we are on topic here, in case you were wondering.
Some call this the Age of Efficiency, in which Mother Earth forces us to, in a manner of speaking, evolve or get out of the away. And one of the first and easiest ways to become more efficient as a species is to address food waste. Up until fairly recently in our history, we didn’t have to bother ourselves with waste of any kind. But in more recent decades, however (with the spread of consumerism), we can no longer afford this luxury. Luckily, in what some call “the world’s dumbest problem” many see an opportunity – and that is, of course, wasted food.
10. The Overwhelming Statistics
There is a tremendous amount of food being wasted around the world. In fact, roughly one third of all food goes to waste, either during production and retail, or thrown away by the consumers themselves. That’s about 1.3 billion tons per year, or about half of the world’s entire cereal production. In the already developed parts of the world, like Europe and North America, consumers’ behavior plays a bigger part in food squandering than in developing countries. Here, on the other hand, technical, managerial, or financial constraints have a much larger role. The lack of infrastructure, agricultural grants, advanced harvesting and transportation technology, or adequate cooling facilities, account for most of the food waste. In all, developing countries lose 40% of their discarded food during harvest and processing, while already developed countries waste 40% of their food at the retail and consumer levels.
On average, rich countries produce almost 2,000 pounds of food per person per year, whereas poorer regions produce slightly above half, or 1,014 pounds. Out of these, European and North American consumers alone squander some 230 pounds, whereas consumers from Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia are responsible for 17 pounds each. Every year, consumers from these rich areas waste almost as much as the entire food production in Sub-Saharan Africa – 222 million and 230 million tons, respectively.
9. Food Equals Money – Wasting One Means Wasting the Other
Tax cuts seem to be a trending topic nowadays. Now, regardless of the fact that taxes are what make a middle class broad and stable, governments usually sell these tax cuts to us as a great way to save money. But we have a much better alternative for you. While the planned tax cuts are said to save low-income households some $40 per year, the average household of four can save around $2,000 just by being more conscious about their food management behavior. It is said that, on average, one American family throws away about a quarter of all the food they buy, which is the equivalent of anywhere in between $1,365 to $2,275 annually. In total, the United States wastes 35 million tons of food this way every year, which is the equivalent of $165 billion. Worldwide, this sum jumps to roughly $1 trillion.
In an estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste has risen in the United States by 50% since 1990 and is now three times as high as it was during the 1960s. One element that has exacerbated the problem, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is the steep rise in portion sizes and calorie density. Over the past 20 years, hamburgers have expanded by 23%, soft drinks have increased by 52%, while chips and pretzels have grown by 60%. Pizza, on the other hand, remained more or less the same, but it now has 70% more calories than it had in the ’80s. An average Caesar salad doubled, and a chocolate chip cookie quadrupled their respective calorie counts. Supermarkets have also employed various psychological tricks and tactics to make their customers impulse-buy. From offering various product samples, to providing us with big shopping carts, and strategically placing products around the store, they make us buy more than we actually need. One great way of avoiding these traps is to make a shopping list and then stick to it.
8. Fridges, Plates and Food Trays
In general, humans love wide open spaces. Interestingly enough, however, the same thing doesn’t apply to food. Like portion sizes, plates have also grown over the years. Whether it was the larger food portion or the larger dinner plate that came first, we have no way of knowing, but since the 1960s, average plates have increased by around 36 percent. And when we have a big plate, we tend to pile on more food, regardless of whether we will be able to eat it or not. Color contrast also plays a role here. Scientists have discovered that people tend to add more food to their plate if their colors –the food’s and the plate’s – match. The opposite happens, however, if the plate is similar to the background (such as the tablecloth). So, in other words, if you want to eat more greens, you should do it on a green plate against a red tablecloth.
Something similar applies to food trays. A big tray will make people add more to it, with much of the food ending up going to waste. Jill Horst, the director of residential dining services at the University of California Santa Barbara, noticed this in her college dining hall. In 2009, Horst decided to eliminate food trays altogether, and food waste dropped by 50%. Students can still eat as much as they want, but they now have to manage their trips and portion sizes.
But when it comes to our homes, oversized fridges are the main cause for food going bad. Like the plate, fridges have also increased in size, especially in the United States, where we have 25 cubic feet (and larger) models. By contrast, most European fridges are around 10 cubic feet. We’re not comfortable with a seemingly empty fridge, and we tend to want to fill it. But a lot of food products can still spoil in a fridge after only a week, and a big one makes us buy more than we would be able to consume during that time. Refrigerators were also proven to decrease the value of food we put inside. Surveys have shown that we feel less guilty if we drop a carton of eggs that’s been sitting in the fridge for several days, as opposed to when we just got home with it from the supermarket.
7. Land, Water, and Biodiversity Simply Wasted Away
Another way of looking at our own inefficiency when it comes to food is to analyze the three criteria listed above. In 2007, the total land area used on food that eventually ended up at the dump was around 1.4 billion hectares. That’s more than Canada and India put together! The major contributors when it comes to food waste are meat and dairy. Now, even though these make up just 4 and 7 percent of all the wasted food, respectively, these squandered animal-based products take up a whopping 78% of the surface area mentioned above. To better understand this phenomenon, we should be aware that an area roughly the size of the entire African continent is made out of pasturelands, while a third of all arable land available is used for animal feed.
What’s more, roughly 10 million hectares of forest worldwide are being cleared annually. Food management inefficiency contributes to a large degree here – over 74% – with agricultural lands expanding into wild areas at an unprecedented rate. Overfishing is of serious concern, as well. It’s estimated that by 2048, there will no longer be any more commercially viable fish left in the oceans. This is in part because fishing is still seen as hunting, where fishermen catch as much as they possibly can – not because of demand, per se, but because other fishermen might catch them if they don’t. Secondly, size-selective fishing has cut the average size of fish in half over the past four decades, and has severely hindered their capacity to replenish their populations. Moreover, bycatch – or marine species caught unintentionally and then discarded – amounts to 27 million tons annually (since 1994). Over 300,000 whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and porpoises also die in fishnets every year.
When it comes to our fresh water supply, 70% goes into agriculture, 20% is used in industry, while the remaining 10% is for everyday, domestic use. Wasted food accounts for a quarter of all available fresh water on the globe. That’s equal to 3.6 times the amount of total water used in the United States, the annual discharge of the Volga River (the largest in Europe), or about 60 cubic miles in total.
6. Just a Quarter of All Food Waste Can Feed All the World’s Hungry
Yes, this is the sad reality we are currently living in. On average, the United States throws away enough food to fill up 730 football stadiums to the brim every year – half of which is untouched, fresh, and completely edible food. That’s equal to 20 pounds for every man, woman, and child per month. In other words, the United States, like many European countries, has twice as much food stacked on supermarket shelves and in restaurants than it actually needs to feed the American people. If we were to take into account the amount of corn, oats, and other edible plants used as animal feed, the United States has four times as much food as its population needs. And yet, 1 in 7 Americans need to use food banks or are struggling to put food on the table. That’s nearly 50 million people.
Internationally, well over 800 million people endure regular hunger or are malnourished. The 1.3 billion tons of food discarded for various reasons worldwide is enough to feed more than 3 billion people, or 10 times the population of the United States. Now, if we were to save a quarter of all the food wasted, we would be able to feed over 870 million people – more that the world’s entire hungry population. When looking at these numbers, we can see why some people call this the world’s dumbest problem. This incredible amount of excess can only be characterized as a success story that started some 12,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution. But our incredibly poor management pushes the planet’s ecological limits to the brink of collapse, and this success is quickly turning into a tragedy. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be over 9 billion people on Earth. Will the other 1.5 billion people have enough to eat, or will they go hungry?
5. Unsustainable Beauty Standards
Over the past several decades, we’ve gotten so used to the food abundance all around us that we’ve begun to grade our food in terms of its appearance. Never mind the fact that ‘ugly’ foods are totally good to eat – if they don’t meet absolute perfection in terms of their shape, size, or coloring, we simply throw it away. And by we, we’re referring to the farmers who grow this food in the first place. They’re not really to blame here, however, as they are the ones who have to bear the financial cost of this wasted food. A slight bump, a variation in color, or any other simple imperfection can downgrade a piece of fruit or vegetable from a Class I to a Class II, with a price decrease of two thirds or more.
This makes it completely unprofitable for the farmers to even pick them up – spending even more money, time, and energy in the process. Under normal circumstances, farmers throughout the entire agricultural industry have to leave more than a third of their harvest to rot on the ground because of these government-approved grades and standards. But these undesirable fruits and vegetables could easily find their way into the hands of people who actually need it, right? Yes, but unfortunately the cost of picking, packaging, storing, and shipping this produce is not covered by any reliable government grants or tax breaks, and farmers have to, first and foremost, look after their own bottom line.
And once these top grade foods do make it onto the shelves, supermarkets and grocery stores have to overstock so as to give the appearance of abundance. They are fully aware that if only a few items remain on display, people generally don’t want to buy them. This trend happens because we tend to assume that the last option is, more often than not, a bad option – which in this case is just false. And as a result, this overstocking leads to many items going bad, either on the shelves or in the store’s warehouse.
4. If It Was a Country, Food Waste Would Be the Third Largest Emitter of Greenhouse Gases
See? We told you that climate change stuff in the intro was on topic. Agriculture is, without a shadow of a doubt, humanity’s biggest impact on the planet. It takes, by far, the largest amount of land and water of any other activity. Soil degradation and water pollution are topics that we won’t even begin to touch on in this list, and instead, we’ll only try and focus on air pollution instead. After all, the change in the chemical composition of our atmosphere is what causes global warming and climate change in the first place. Worldwide, food waste accounts for 3.3 billion tons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents in the atmosphere. To put this into perspective, if it were a country, it would rank as the 3rd highest emitter after China and the United States – and that’s without actually subtracting these countries’ own share of wasted food. Nevertheless, these emissions can be broken down into two parts.
First, we have methane gas emissions coming from rotting food. If we were to throw away an apple core or a banana peel somewhere in the woods, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But when hundreds upon hundreds of tons of organic material are piled in landfills, this food waste begins to decompose in an air-depleted environment, which leads to the creation of methane gas. And as some of us know, methane gas is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. American landfills are responsible for 17% of all the country’s methane emissions. Second, we have all the energy that’s used to produce this food in the first place. It is estimated that for every one kcal of food, farmers use 3 kcal of fossil fuel energy. And this is before taking into account food processing, transportation, or storage. In 2003 alone, the United States consumed over 300 million barrels of oil on food that made it straight to the dump, where it almost immediately began churning out methane gas.
3. Misleading Expiration Dates
We don’t know about you guys, but we here at TopTenz used to suffer mini heart attacks every time we realized that the yogurt we’ve been so feverously munching down on was two days past its expiration date. But if you are anything like us (and if you are, our sincere condolences), then rest assured because as it turns out, almost all of these dates are complete BS. The bad news here is that these expiration dates are at best an approximation, and at worst, a way for food manufacturers to make a quick buck by indirectly telling us to throw away perfectly edible food and then go out and buy more. To date, only baby formula has a federally-required expiration date stamped on it, while all the other ‘best-by’ labels are up to the manufacturers themselves.
Expiration dates began appearing around the early ’70s when much of the population stopped growing and making their own food and began buying it from grocery stores. These stores then came up with the idea of an ‘Open Dating’ system, which is when a manufacturer voluntarily stamps a date on its food product, loosely indicating when the item will reach peak freshness (not when it will go bad). This method was used by retail stores to determine for how long to display it on their shelves. The ‘Closed Dating’ system, on the other hand, shows the date when the item was produced. Though helpful at first, this system ended up being taken too literally by consumers and is now a much bigger problem than a solution. Even though it’s almost impossible to determine how much edible food is thrown away based on these dates, surveys have shown that 54% of consumers believe that eating food past their best-by date is a health risk. What’s more, 91% of consumers have said that they occasionally throw away food past their ‘sell-by’ date, while 37% said that they always toss their food after its ‘best-by’ date.
The US government had several pieces of legislation in the works regarding these expiration dates, but with the exception of baby formula, none of them went into law – except maybe in our heads. In any case, this is by far the fastest and easiest way for any government to begin tackling the problem of food waste. In the meantime, everyday consumers shouldn’t take them too seriously and only use them as a base of reference. Even though they look official, they’re not.
2. The Landfill Lunch
With all the facts presented here about food waste, it could be quite hard to understand why politicians don’t talk about this issue, let alone do anything about it. To be fair, governments are oftentimes nothing more than the ‘mirror-reflection’ of the people they represent, and only after enough citizens actively demand something will things begin to change. Nevertheless, it’s never a bad idea to bring up the topic of food waste with the world’s political society. This is everyone’s problem, after all, and we all need to find a solution. And what better way to make politicians start talking food waste than to serve it to them at lunch, right? Well, this is exactly what happened during a 2015 UN Summit, where over 30 world leaders, including France’s then-president François Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, were seated at the dinner table and catered to by some of the world’s most prestigious chefs.
Everything seemed normal until they were presented with the US-themed menu. Prepared by renowned New York chef Dan Barber and former White House chef Sam Kass, the meal was comprised of, for starters, the so-called ‘Landfill Salad’, made out of vegetable scraps and sub-par apples and pears. The veggie burger was made out of “pulp left over from juicing,” and a “repurposed bread bun.” The fries were actually a kind of starchy corn used in animal feed, which makes up 99% of all the corn produced in the United States. And as refreshment, the distinguished guests were served “Chickpea Water”… or the liquid that’s drained from a can of chickpeas. In an interview, Barber said, “It’s the prototypical American meal but turned on its head. Instead of the beef, we’re going to eat the corn that feeds the beef. The challenge is to create something truly delicious out of what we would otherwise throw away.”
1. The Awesome Power of the Individual
As average citizens of the world, living in the relative comforts of anonymity, we oftentimes find it daunting and feel almost helpless to do anything about the global state of affairs. Even if we were to do our best and waste little to no food whatsoever, it would still feel like a drop in the ocean. But never underestimate the power of leading by example. Instead of feeling down – or worse yet, being part of the problem – disregard your negative feelings and focus on the positive. Convince several of your friends of the benefits of not wasting food, and before you know it, you might start a chain reaction that can alter the face of the world.
But let’s tone down the inspirational talk for a moment and focus on a real-life example instead. Selina Juul, a graphic designer living in Denmark, has been credited by the Danish government for singlehandedly helping the country reduce its food waste by 25% in just five years. Today, Denmark is the leading country in the world when it comes to managing its food waste. The whole thing started several years ago when Juul established a lobby group called Stop Spild Af Mad (Stop Wasting Food). As a Russian immigrant, she moved to Denmark when she was 13 and was shocked by the sheer amount of food people were wasting on a daily basis.
“Coming from a place where there were food shortages and people queued for bread, I was amazed at how much was wasted in Denmark, so I started a Facebook page,” she said in an interview. Juul then began offering tips like, “encouraging people to make a list before they go to the supermarket or take a picture of the inside of your fridge with your phone, if you have no time.”
Three months later, and based on her ideas, Denmark’s largest supermarket chain began replacing its quantity discounts like “buy two get the third free” with single item discounts to minimize food waste. An average supermarket wasted on average 100 bananas per day, but after they put up a sign saying “take me I’m single,” the number of discarded bananas dropped by 90%. Today, every supermarket in Denmark uses at least one food-saving strategy. “She basically changed the entire mentality in Denmark,” said Maria Noel, communication officer at a Danish retail company.