91. That’s the number of times the Empire State Building could have been filled from top to bottom with the amount of food wasted in the United States in 2010. And the problem gets worse every year.
Each year in the United States we waste 40 percent of the food produced for our consumption—40 percent! That can seem like an amorphous number when you think of it in terms of the entire country’s food basket. So imagine it on the personal level instead. You go to the grocery store and get five shopping bags full of food. Then, on your way to the car, you drop two of them in the parking lot and just don’t pick them up.
It sounds ridiculous but in fact, the food waste problem is much worse than that because it leads to so much other waste. In reality, much of that food is only thrown away after makes it all the way home, sits in the fridge for a few weeks or is combined and prepared into a meal, and then the leftovers are eventually thrown away. In other words, people are spending money on food, then spending money to drive it home, then spending money for some sort of fossil fuel to refrigerate and cook the food, then throwing it away.
And, what’s worse, food waste doesn’t just happen at the home level. Supermarkets, restaurants, institutions, and other large scale food handlers also waste an enormous amount of food before it gets to your home or plate. Likewise, farms waste an incredible amount of food during production and harvest. All of these avenues add up to 40 percent of our food grown just to be landfilled.
Representative Chellie Pingree’s bill, the Food Recovery Act, seeks to address this senselessness in a comprehensive way by tackling waste at the levels of consumer, stores and restaurants, schools, and other institutions, and on farms – waste reduction from field to fork. The Food Recovery Act attempts to create funding sources for intelligent handling of food waste for both composting and infrastructure to create energy, thus deterring food that does need to be discarded from ending up in a landfill where it breaks down and forms and releases methane – a global warming gas 20 times more powerful than CO2!
The Act also seeks to revamp the nation’s failed date labeling system, which is misleading at best. There is currently no standard for how manufacturers and packagers label foods regarding expiration. Many companies put a date on packages that represents the date by which the food should be eaten to retain the same crunchiness (or softness or any other number of factors) as the day it was packaged. The dates have nothing to do with safety or health. However, most people believe they should never consume food if the date on the package has past.
Like Congresswoman Pingree, the Natural Resources Council of Maine is committed to ensuring the massive problem of food waste is addressed. Each and every one of us can make a profound impact by reducing the amount of food wasted. And we should do so for reasons that are both environmental and economic. NRCM’s Sustainable Maine program is working on several initiatives that directly affect food waste.
Did you know that materials management (i.e. what to do with our trash) is one of the top four expenses in most communities? Considering the amount of money we spend to manage our waste stream, doesn’t it make sense to remove food and organic waste first? Food waste is very heavy, which means it is disproportionally expensive to truck it to a landfill. Many municipalities already have the infrastructure necessary to create safe and effective compost piles, namely a bucket loader/tractor to turn the pile and a bit of space to house it. Towns can also use compost on public parks and recreation areas and let residents use the compost in their gardens and on their lawns.
This kind of thriftiness was once an ingrained quality in Mainers. It’s time to reinstate such forward looking but ancient, grandmotherly sayings as “waste not, want not.” Mainers across the state are heading that way at the personal and community level. Representative Pingree is working to make the same common sense solutions available across the country, which is great, because the Empire State Building is fine the way it is.