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Americans throw away billions of dollars' worth of food. Here's how to change that

Oct 10, 2016

The Next Idea

Every year, the United States spends $218 billion growing, transporting, and processing food that no one ever eats. That's billion. The financial, resource, and environmental costs of all the wasted food in the United States is staggering. 

A report called ReFED, "Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data," has outlined the challenges facing food systems in the United States. Looking at the entire supply chain, the study has found enormous waste all across the system, from farm to refrigerator. 

Much of the trash at landfills comes from food waste.
Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/9090732482

J.D. Lindeberg is the president of RRS, a recycling company based in Ann Arbor. He and Hunt Briggs, who was a project manager on the ReFED study, are trying to spread the word about food waste. They are also trying to suggest some ways to solve the problem, both at the state and nation level and in your own kitchen. 

According to Lindeberg and Briggs, a lot of the food waste in the U.S. is coming right out of our refrigerators. Most consumers don't know if a gallon of milk or a carton of yogurt is actually spoiled on a best-by date, a sell-by date, or an expiration date. Most people just throw things out to be on the safe side, even if the food is perfectly good.

Not only does this type of food waste cost consumers a lot of money, it also has massive environmental impacts. Food that ends up in a landfill decomposes down to methane, a gas that has 24 times more carbon output than regular carbon dioxide. That means that throwing out an edible but mildly bruised apple is not only a waste of the average person's dollars: it also, over the long run, contributes to climate change.  

So what's The Next Idea?

The bad news is that the ReFED study found that 43% of food waste is coming out of homes. The good news, though, is that some minor changes to product labeling and consumer behavior can go a long way.

Standardizing date labels, it turns out, could potentially save millions of tons of food. Currently, date labels on food send a lot of mixed signals. It is hard to keep track of best-by, sell-by, or expiration dates and what they all mean. 

It is hard to keep track of best-by, sell-by, or expiration dates and what they all mean.

In response, according to Lindeberg and Briggs, "we end up throwing away a lot of food that we think is bad, but actually isn't past the safe levels of consumption." If industry leaders could get together and establish some norms around labeling, and consumers could be educated on those new norms, this food waste could be avoided.

Repackaging food so that consumers can buy smaller amounts at a time is another potential fix. While it might be cheaper in the short run to buy large amounts of cereal or oatmeal, buying too much and not being able to consume it before it spoils doesn't help save money, either. Simply putting food in smaller containers could save a lot of money, energy, and natural resources. At restaurants and cafeterias, smaller plates and trayless dining can be part of the solution as well. 

According to Briggs, Michigan in particular has an opportunity to expand composting systems so that food waste can go back into growing new food. Organic material is a big fraction of what is filling up Michigan's landfills. People can start their own composting buckets at home, but we could also institute a larger system of centralized composting. Instead of going to landfills, old coffee grounds and banana peels can grow Michigan's next crop of cherries or apples. 

Instead of going to landfills, old coffee grounds and banana peels can grow Michigan's next crop of cherries or apples.

Of course, for some of the big-picture solutions, state legislatures could pass some more aggressive policy approaches. According to Lindeberg, some states ban food waste disposal in landfills outright. Some states set targets for food waste recovery. Taxing methane might be a controversial idea, but it would act as a major incentive to recycle more food waste. 

There's a circle of life for food waste, says Lindeberg. If we don't use it, it could be donated, composted, in order to grow more plants. 

In a world with a quickly growing population, and in an environment where we have more demand for food and less opportunity for production, "we're going to have to take advantage of organic resources."

Ultimately, according to Lindeberg, "this is all about food for the future." 

J.D. Lindeberg is president of RRS, a recycling company based in Ann Arbor. Hunt Briggs is a consultant for RRS.


The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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