Jonathan Bloom isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty as he examines American food waste from all angles, literally. In his new book, American Wasteland, Bloom convinces us that food waste is a huge—but solvable—environmental and economic issue.
I enjoyed Bloom’s trek through American farms, schools, restaurants, highways, groceries, homes, and landfills to see first-hand where 50% of edible American food gets wasted.
People think that because food is biodegradable, it’s okay to toss it onto the ground. But food waste contributes significantly to global warming. It emits methane, which gradually releases carbon dioxide into the air. Organic waste is especially detrimental when it sits in landfills, where it can emit methane for generations. And as recycling increases, a higher percentage of landfills consist of organic materials.
A big part of the solution involves treating food waste and landfills in an ecologically sound way, by capturing methane from landfills and moving toward anaerobic digestion to dispose of food waste. But aside from working to change public policy, what can the average consumer do to prevent waste?
Retailers don’t make it easy, by doing everything they can to convince you to buy more than necessary. If you live alone, you can’t always find half a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. In some stores like Costco, you can’t buy less than a package of twenty oranges. Then there are sales that encourage you to buy one, get one free.In Great Britain, where the government is making a serious effort to reduce waste, retailers advertise “Buy one, get one later” and pass out a voucher.
In a book full of memorable anecdotes, two stood out for me. Bloom visited an elementary school in Quitman, Alabama, one of the poorest school districts in the US. Sitting with kids in the lunchroom at 11 am (!), the kids threw out more than they ate. No surprise, since they had already been served a free breakfast at 9 am. Lunch consisted of four corn-dog nuggets, a cookie, a serving of corn niblets and a four-ounce cup of peach slices. School lunch waste is a country-wide problem. Research clearly shows serving lunch after recess results in 30% less waste. Yet only 5% of elementary schools do so.
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, Bloom compiles a list of the refrigerator contents of a childless couple who describe themselves as “foodies.”
And all that was on a single shelf! The complete list takes up four pages of the book.
Bloom made the point that today’s large refrigerators encourages waste. When he went to Great Britain to see their campaign to cut consumer food waste, he visited Barbara Wormsley, the “Green Granny.” She is part of Britain’s campaign to buy less and eat leftovers. Warmsley doesn’t didn’t think of herself as an environmentalist, but she did grow up in a generation when throwing out food was bad form. He was impressed with her narrow refrigerator.
With a big refrigerator, we “lose” food, and we buy more than we need. Bloom suggested that a larger fridge means we won’t have to remove things to make room for new purchases. I disagree, since one should try to put off grocery shopping until the fridge is fairly empty. As Bloom pointed out repeatedly, we consistently choose the freshest food and neglect older items until they get spoiled.
The preference for perfectly fresh and beautiful food also explains the colossal amounts of food waste long before it gets to the store, because the produce has been judged too small, brown or misshapen for American consumers.
To learn more about food waste see my comments on Bloom’s book at the Middle Eastern environmental blog, Green Prophet.com.
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