Feed People, Not Landfills

Have you ever wondered where your uneaten food goes after you throw it in the trash? Wasted food is a significant problem in the US and around the world, even contributing to climate change. While some families go hungry, others throw away scraps which end up in a landfill.  Food scraps make up the second largest percentage of material in landfills, following paper products.[1] Landfills are the 3rd largest source of methane gas (CH4) in the US which creates a serious emissions problem as methane gas is an even more potent greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.”[2] Food waste also drains our already depleted natural resources and has a negative impact on the environment. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, “the global food production occupies 25% of all habitable land and is responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption, 80% of deforestation, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is the largest single driver of biodiversity loss and land-use change.”[3] Additionally, UNEP states that, “the total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km3) is equivalent than three times the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28% percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted.”[4]

Over 36 million tons of food were wasted in the U.S. alone in 2011, almost all of which were disposed of in a landfill. On the other hand, 14.9 percent of households were food insecure. This paradox, between the amount of food wasted and the amount of families going hungry, is one that supersedes the US and permeates the globe. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted… At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger.”

A substantial amount of this “waste” is actually edible food and the remaining portions of it are perfect fodder for rich soil.  Yet despite the potential to harness our food waste to feed the hungry and contribute to nutrient-rich soil, the US and much of the international community have yet to implement large-scale programs that help reduce the waste? A huge part of the problem boils down to a lack of education about solutions to food waste and access to alternative options like donation and recycling.  One step in the right direction has been launched by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture. They joined in 2013 to launch the Food Recovery Challenge which encourages individuals and businesses to lessen their environmental impact and help others through prevention, donation, and recycling of food waste. Under the moniker “feed people, not landfills,” they are educating the public and businesses that they can save money by paying less in disposal fees, help feed others who otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to feed themselves, and reduce their greenhouse gas footprint by contributing less to methane emissions.[5]

In addition to the Food Recovery Challenge in the U.S., other nations and international organizations have also taken on the food waste challenge. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in collaboration with Messe Dusseldorf, a German-based trade fair ground and organizer, have also created a food waste action plan, SAVE FOOD, based on four pillars: awareness raising; collaboration; policy, strategy, and programme development; and investment programs and projects. Their goals of “changed behaviour of actors and consumers in the food chains,” and “establishing a global partnership of public and private sector organizations and companies that are active in the fight against food loss and waste” are a great start to combating this global issue.[6]

While these initiatives offer great common sense solutions to food waste for both producers and consumers, there are other methods of diverting food waste from the landfill, including the use of biodigesters, which can increase the amount of waste diverted from landfills while also providing valuable resources. This process of recycling food waste through composting can be “used to create electricity, heat, and transportation fuel.”[7] As climate change sheds light on unsustainable energy practices, and threatens our ability to continue to produce food at the same rate, a solution like this has multiple benefits. Biodigestion allows us to curtail food waste, which contributes to climate change, while also producing clean and sustainable energy resources.

In honor of these initiatives, as well as to raise awareness of the gravity of the issue of food waste, the United Nations Environment Programme chose food waste as the theme for its World Environment Day 2013. The theme was Think.Eat.Save, an anti-food waste and food loss campaign that encourages individuals to reduce their “food-print.”  The goal was to make people aware of the environmental impact of the food choices they make and empower them to make informed decisions.

This is an alarming issue that more of us should care about, especially when there are simple, easy things we can do as individuals, or within our organizations, to reduce our “food-print” while actually saving money and doing some good for our neighbors. While committing to recycling, composting, and donating food waste are important steps, there are also small decisions we as individuals can make each day in order to reduce our impact. For example, sticking to a strict menu when grocery shopping and avoiding buying perishable items in bulk, taking home leftovers for a later meal when eating out, and even creatively using parts of food you would normally throw out, such as using stale bread to make croutons, are all easy, every-day ways to stop feeding landfills.[8]

Mae Bowen is a junior in the college studying political science and environmental sciences. She is currently studying abroad in Athens, Greece and interning with the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa with the State Department’s Virtual Student Foreign Service. She has previously interned with Organizing for America, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and The Carter Center. Her academic interests include international and U.S. environmental policy, marine conservation, and the intersections of politics and the media. After graduating in 2016, Mae plans to attend law school and concentrate in environmental law before pursuing a career in public service.

[1] Environmental Literacy Council, “Landfills,” last updated Apr. 2, 2008, accessed on November 18, 2013. http://www.enviroliteracy.org/article.php/63.html

[2] Environmental Protection Agency, “Overview of Greenhouse Gases,” last updated July 2, 2014, accessed on November 18, 2013. http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html

[3] United Nations Environment Programme, “WED Theme,” accessed on November 18, 2013. http://www.unep.org/wed/theme/

[4] United Nations Environment Programme, “Food waste harms climate, water, land and biodiversity – new FAO report,” Sep. 11, 2014, accessed on October 13, 2014. http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2726&ArticleID=9611

[5] Environmental Protection Agency: Sustainable Materials Management, “Food Recovery Challenge,” last updated Oct. 15, 2014, accessed on November 18, 2013. http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/smm/foodrecovery/

[6] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Save Food: Global Initiative on Food Losses and Waste Reduction,” accessed on November 18, 2013. http://www.fao.org/save-food/savefood/en/

[7] Environmental and Energy Study Institute, “Reducing Food Waste, Addressing Climate Change,” June 13, 2014, accessed on October 20, 2014. http://www.eesi.org/articles/view/reducing-food-waste-addressing-climate-change

[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Reducing Wasted Food Basics,” last updated Mar. 16, 2014, accessed on October 13, 2014. http://www2.epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-basics

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