This is an article in an ongoing series where we’ll be diving deep into pressing injustices our world is facing. (You can check out our previous resource about garment workers!)
For each article, we begin by unpacking the history of the problem (in this case, food waste) so that we can learn from the past as we look towards solutions, then we’ll explore current policies connected to the issue, practical steps for individuals to get involved with, places to shop that shift our dollars in a better direction, and people to learn from. And we'll always end with positivity.
Just so you know, some of the links in this article (like those in the Places to Shop section) are affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link, we may earn a commission from our sponsors at no extra cost to you. Thank you!
What’s the problem with food waste?
The problem is not only a humanitarian one, it’s also a significant contributor to the environmental crisis. All the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package food is wasted when it’s discarded.
To make matters worse, as uneaten food rots in a landfill, it produces huge amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas at least 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
To put that into perspective, unused food in the U.S. alone generates the equivalent of 32.6 million cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions.
Perhaps an even more astonishing comparison: the carbon footprint of U.S. food waste is larger than that of the airline industry.
It’s been estimated that 8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided if food waste was curbed.
The issue of food waste is as complex as the food supply chain itself. While much of the waste occurs “upstream” in the process during the production and storage phase, a significant percentage also occurs “downstream” at the consumption level.
The later food is wasted along the chain, the greater its environmental impact, because more energy and natural resources have been expended in processing, transporting, storing, and cooking it.
So, we hate to tell you, but tossing out that moldy bag of green beans that you forgot to eat has a more significant negative impact than if the beans were discarded at the time of harvest.
This should serve not only as a sobering reminder to consumers that their actions matter but also an empowering fact. Changing habits in our own kitchens, where we can control what happens, has just as important of a role in the issue of food waste as the large-scale issues that we may feel powerless to address at a systemic level.
A study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found a clear pattern that middle and higher-income regions of the globe showed greater food loss and waste during the downstream phase — or at the consumption level — while less wealthy countries were more likely to lose or waste food at the upstream phase due to lack of proper infrastructure.
In fact, waste generated at the household level in high-income countries represents about half of the total food waste, making this level one of the biggest contributors.
This pattern can be attributed to the fact that households in developing countries are less likely to throw out food since their access to it is more limited.
Another factor is that many cultures in the global south still embrace Indigenous values that prioritize respect and a more communal approach to resources than wealthy countries in the global north where food has been largely flattened into a mere commodity that can be discarded when the supply surpasses the demand at an individual level.
Our current linear (take-make-dispose) economic model is a framework that will continue to generate waste across food and other industries until it’s holistically reimagined into a circular economy at scale.
Still, even within the current framework, there is much that can be done to mitigate the problem of food waste and begin to shift that destructive line into a generative circle. For example, communities in India are converting food waste into green energy and saving residents money in the process.
Are there any current governmental policy solutions for food waste?
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the U.S. 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction goal, the first official domestic goal to reduce food loss and waste. This goal seeks to cut food loss and waste in half by the year 2030.
While there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to meet that goal, it’s being taken very seriously.
In 2021, the EPA redefined goal terms to expand its reach to even more categories of waste than the original draft. As of summer 2022, the 2023 Farm Bill is currently in its first Senate hearings. A myriad of important policies are included in the bill, and the reduction of food waste at a systemic level is one of the key components.
One helpful website dedicated to the cause — Food Waste Action Plan — offers updates on the bill, as well as a breakdown of specific policies for citizens to voice their support of.
The U.S.’s goal represents just a fraction of the same goal set forth by the United Nations: to cut food waste in half globally by 2030.
The reality is, the world is a very different place than it was in 2015 when this goal was set. No one could have predicted the long lasting setbacks that the effects of COVID-19 would have as it wreaked havoc on our globalized food systems. These problems have been compounded by supply chain issues triggered by the conflict in Ukraine.
Still, the goal stands. It must, as millions of lives depend on it being met. The UN reinforces the point made so clear from every analysis of food waste: in addition to the need for system change, household and individual actions are a key element of this challenge.
Practical ways you can prevent food waste
Plan your meals
Plan your meals and make a specific grocery list — and only buy what you’re sure you’ll use. Multiple studies have shown that people who plan their meals ahead instead of grocery shopping spontaneously throw out significantly less food.
Store your food correctly
Even the best meal planners can unintentionally end up wasting precious ingredients if the food hasn’t been stored properly. This helpful guide shares best practices for lengthening the shelf (or fridge) life of nearly any food you can imagine.
Embrace less-than-perfect produce
Roughly 20% of all fruits and veggies are thrown away each year for being “cosmetically undesirable.” Lumpy, bumpy plants taste just as good – sometimes better – than the perfectly symmetrical stacks at conventional grocery stores.
Look for produce that others might pass over at your local farmers market or sign up for a grocery delivery service that rescues these homely heroes.
Turn leftovers into a creative challenge
Instead of tossing yesterday’s dinner in the trash, use the ingredients to make something new and interesting! Respect Food offers an easily-searchable online cookbook for ways to use aging ingredients, leftovers, and scraps such as potato peels.
Netflix’s cooking competition show, ‘Best Leftovers Ever!’, will similarly leave you inspired to find creative ways to turn your leftovers into a masterpiece.
Learn about mold
While mold isn’t something you want to mess around with, it’s important to know that not all moldy food needs to be fully discarded. The general rule is that mold spreads more easily in soft foods such as bread, fruits, and soft cheeses, which is why you shouldn't just cut off the moldy portion and eat the rest.
However, if you spot mold in harder foods, they might still be salvageable. Here’s a guide with more in-depth information.
Blend up extra food
If you’ve got over-ripe fruit, blend it into a puree to add to smoothies at a later date. Extra veggies? Toss them in the blender, freeze, and melt them into soups or stews when the time comes. Take it one step further by learning to can your own food at home to preserve in-season abundance.
Understand expiration dates
There’s been a huge push to standardize expiration dates, but as of right now, the labeling is still determined by individual brands.
This causes a lot of consumer confusion and many perfectly find cans of food to end up unused. Familiarize yourself with the difference between common food expiration terms.
Compost whenever possible
If your city doesn’t offer municipal curbside pickup, there are alternative options. Even if you don’t have a yard, composting at home is increasingly accessible with innovations such as compact worm composters that are attractive enough to be placed in eyesight within any home. (We also recommend this small, easy to clean compost bin — and some others listed below — for collecting your daily kitchen scraps.)
Be mindful when traveling
While trying a new cuisine is exciting, it often leads to excessive waste when tourists take a bite or two of a new-to-them dish and discard it if it doesn’t appeal to them.
One study in China found that tourists generated a noticeably large percentage of food waste in the region due to their taste and portion preferences differing from local norms.
If you’re visiting somewhere with a different menu than you’re used to, consider committing to finishing any dish you order — even if it takes some getting used to.
Connect with your community
From neighborhood potluck dinners to borrowing rarely-needed ingredients from a friend instead of buying a whole box, staying connected to the people that you physically live near is critical for combatting both food waste and food insecurity.
Keep your eyes peeled for those who may be hungry near you and share your food with dignity.
Items to shop to save food and cut down on food waste
Just so you know, some of the links in this section are affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link, we may earn a commission from our sponsors at no extra cost to you. Thank you!
Misfits Market is an online value grocer dedicated to making affordable, high-quality food more accessible while helping break the cycle of food waste.
They work directly with farmers and food producers to source organic produce, high-quality meats, seafood, plant-based proteins, and dairy products, sustainably sourced pantry staples, wine, and other groceries that might otherwise go to waste and deliver them at up to 40% off grocery store prices.
Eartheasy is a family business committed to offering practical products and information for sustainable living. Inspired by their personal experience living off-grid, Eartheasy provides solutions in the form of eco-friendly products, comprehensive guides, and informative articles.
They work with values-based brands making a positive impact in the world, support carbon-reduction projects, and plant a tree for every order. Their dual-tray worm composter is the perfect solution for those who want to compost at home but have limited space.
The Dual Tray Worm Composter is great for folks who don’t have citywide compost services and want to start composting on their own. The modern design makes this a stylish and eco-friendly item to add to one’s home.
Though the brand is best-known for its popular blenders and food processors, Vitamix also offers a FoodCycler that breaks down food scraps to up to 90% of their original volume and transforms them into a nutrient rich fertilizer that can be added to soil.
Bee’s Wrap is a fantastic way to take care of the food in your fridge. Instead of using disposable or plastic wraps, consider reaching for reusable (and compostable!) materials to seal your food for freshness.
From produce bags to sandwich wraps to custom-cut rolls, Bee’s Wrap has a wide variety of options for keeping things fresh without adding to the planet’s plastic pollution problem. Plus, they’re on a mission to protect the bees!
Here are the helpers making a difference in food waste
Taking control of your own kitchen is the easiest and best place to start making a difference, but if you want to dive even deeper into preventing food waste, there are fantastic organizations to get involved with at both community and global levels.
Whether it’s making a monetary donation, volunteering your time, or starting an initiative in your own neighborhood — be inspired by the helpers below:
Food Waste Reduction Alliance
Food Waste Reduction Alliance is an industry-led initiative focused on reducing food waste by increasing food donation and sending unavoidable food waste to productive use, such as energy and composting instead of landfills.
The organization works to address the root causes of food waste within operations and secure pathways to donate or recycle unavoidable food waste.
Too Good To Go
Too Good To Go is an easy-to-use app that connects consumers with food from local restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores to sell “surprise bags” at a third of the list price.
These bags range from $4 to $6, significantly lower than your typical dine-in experience. The do-good app has partnered with over 87,000 local food businesses across the globe and is also actively involved with pushing forward essential policy to prevent food waste globally.
World Wildlife Fund has created a comprehensive resource focused entirely on fighting food waste in the hospitality industry called Hotel Kitchen. Its website offers food waste reduction toolkits that anyone on the team can utilize — from culinary teams and kitchen managers, to HR and marketing staff.
Other food waste organizations to support
The majority of organizations fighting food waste have a more localized approach that often focuses on redistribution of food to those who are hungry. Here are just a handful across the globe, but there are hundreds of others that are worth looking up to find one near you!
- Australia: OzHarvest
- Brazil: Full Belly Brasil
- Bahamas: Hands for Hunger
- California, USA: Food Forward
- Canada: Second Harvest
- China: Rare
- Colorado, USA: Boulder Food Rescue
- Germany: Culinary Misfits
- Hawaii, USA: Aloha Harvest
- India: Food Dosti
- Italy: Food For Soul
- Jordan: Tkiyet Um Ali
- London, UK: Food Cycle
- New York, USA: City Harvest
- Michigan, USA: Forgotten Harvest
- Spain: Yonodesperdicio
- Taiwan: World Vegetable Center
LeanPath uses specialized technology to measure, analyze the data, and generate recommendations for food waste reduction.
JoAnne Berkenkamp is a senior advocate in the Food & Agriculture Program at the NRDC, with considerable experience working in food systems and food waste. Berkenkamp tackles food waste through industry-based approaches, consumer education, and policy advocacy.
Through documenting her own journey, she’s inspired thousands to rethink the way they shop for and consume food.
Massimo Bottura is a world-renowned chef. In 2016, Bottura started the nonprofit Food for Soul. Food for Soul aims to tackle the dual issue of food waste and food insecurity by creating inclusive community projects that utilize surplus food.
These include innovative community kitchens and weekly dining services offered in community spaces. He has also created Bread is Gold, a recipe book that offers dishes that can be made with simple and potentially wasted ingredients.
Nicholas Lim, Tylor Long & Jiacai Lau
Nicholas Lim, Tylor Jong, and Jiacai Lau co-founded TreeDots, These three entrepreneurs developed TreeDots as an outlet to connect consumers with unsold food. They are encouraging people to embrace imperfect foods and hope to expand into other countries in Asia.
Niyati Parekh and her colleagues in NYU’s Public Health Nutrition research group are creating an app called “Food2Share,” designed to connect local restaurants with food-insecure individuals.
Once the app is launched, people will be able to claim food from local restaurants willing to provide free or highly discounted food donated by other customers.
In grocery stores and supermarkets, barcodes on food products link to the cloud-based app, with the item’s price decreasing as it nears the end of its shelf life. These discounts are visible to low-income individuals and charities, who then redistribute the food to populations in need.
He has dove into more than 2,000 dumpsters across the United States to demonstrate how nearly half of all food in the U.S. is wasted while one in seven citizens are food insecure.
Selina Juul is a forceful advocate for sustainability in food consumption and has become recognized for her forward-leaning activism to combat food waste.
Ximena Adriazola Du-Pont
Ximena Adriazola Du-Pont is CEO of the Peru-based startup Bio Natural Solutions. She and her team created the Bio Natural Cover, a colorless, odorless spray that prolongs the shelf life of fruits. The spray is edible and is sprayed on fruits post harvest, reducing the amount of food that goes to waste.
Pausing for positivity before we go on our way…
It can seem challenging to find positivity in such a daunting problem, but there is great reason to be engaged and hopeful in the movement to reduce food waste.
Despite the setbacks that 2020 brought, UNEP’s food systems expert Clementine O’Connor said in an interview near the end of 2021 that she is hopeful the 2030 goal can be met, as 2021 was a “...momentous year with 148 countries holding food systems dialogues and now developing national food systems pathways under the auspices of the UN Food Systems Summit.”
Outside of any regulations, some businesses are already taking initiative to voluntarily tackle food waste in their own supply chains. Young entrepreneurs are launching innovative businesses that are built entirely around upcycling food waste into delicious treats.
Wasting less is better for businesses, in addition to being important for the environment, so it’s expected that more companies will take advantage of the resources being created to improve their processes.
In 2016, France became the first country ever to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, pushing them instead to donate it to charities and food banks. Other countries are watching this closely to learn from the bold endeavor. Cities like Milan have launched Food Waste Hubs to funnel excess food from supermarkets to those in need.
It’s an incredibly exciting time to see individuals, businesses, and entire countries waking up to the urgency of our collective food waste problem and do something about it.
To learn more about hope and helpers in the food industry, you can check out Good Good Good’s page featuring good food news.