The next big environmental movement might be something you rarely think about: controlling food waste. And now it goes far beyond your mom telling you to finish what’s on your plate. We’re talking about tens of millions of tons of food being thrown out each year in the US alone.
Earlier this week, the city of Seattle went so far as to approve $1 fines if “compostable items [such as food waste] make up 10 percent or more of the trash.” San Francisco has had a similar rule in place since 2009. And while it might sound ridiculous to fine someone for throwing away a half-eaten apple we need rules like these more than ever. As the Washington Post points out, though the current UN Climate Summit has put climate change front and center as the world’s most pressing environmental issue, food waste, especially in America, is a rapidly growing problem.
The notion that wealthy nations waste food isn’t new. But for most people is an underappreciated fact. According to the UN, “Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million metric tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million metric tons).” But throwing out food is about more than simply the haves and the have-nots. Food waste that otherwise could be composted fills landfills, creating methane emissions; not to mention the added environmental stressors created by overproduction of unneeded food.
The Post provides a number of eye-opening statistics about the US in particular. Among those, they cite a National Resources Defense Council paper estimating that 40% of America’s food supply goes to waste. And that waste is increasing at an alarming rate: the EPA states that, in 2012, the US threw out around 35 million tons of food, which is 20% more than we did in 2000, 50% more than 1990, and three times as much as 1960.
Obviously, much like climate change, food waste isn’t an issue one person can tackle alone. Taking home your leftovers (and then actually remembering to eat them) won’t add up to 35 million tons of salvaged food. However, like any large-scale environmental issue we have reversed—the resurgence of the ozone layer is the classic modern example—being conscious of the problem is the first step.
One more statistic: Speaking with NPR, Ashley Zanolli of the EPA said, “Our best estimates are that about 40-50 percent of food waste comes from consumers and 50-60 percent from businesses.” Translation: about half of the problem is demanding more from the businesses we patronize, but the other half is right at our kitchen tables. Something to think about the next time someone laughs about their eyes being bigger than their stomach.