By Bonnie Washuk, Staff Writer
Sun Journal news story
It’s almost Christmas, a time traditionally to not only spend money on gifts and decorations but also on food for feasts and gatherings.
Want to save some easy money during this budget-busting season? Don’t buy food and throw it away.
That’s the message from a host of organizations that say wasted food creates a range of problems for consumers and society.
Statistics from the National Resources Defense Council show that for every $100 that Americans spend on groceries, $20 of that food gets thrown away; overall, the average person tosses out 300 pounds of food a year.
If we just ate what we bought, we would save 20 percent of our food bill. For the average family of four, that comes out to $4 a day or almost $1,500 a year.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30 percent of all food in this country is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels.
When the food industry as a whole is considered, research shows 40 percent of U.S. food goes to waste and $218 billion in food is thrown away each year, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and National Resources Defense Council. And while waste occurs on farms and at grocery stores, the biggest amount happens in consumers’ homes.
There are other reasons to be mindful of food waste besides the subsequent money loss to consumers. Consider the environment.
“When you throw out an apple core in the woods, it’s not a big deal,” said Ryan Parker, the environmental policy outreach coordinator for Natural Resources Council of Maine. That apple core breaks down and turns into soil.
But food waste enclosed in a plastic bag and sent to a landfill has a very different impact; it’s hurting the environment.
It decomposes in the absence of oxygen, Parker said, which creates bacteria that produce methane gas. Methane is more damaging to the climate than even carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.
Food is the No. 1 item in America’s landfills, and it contributes more to climate pollution than all of the cars in Georgia, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
Food waste that goes to incinerators — such as the Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp. incinerator in Auburn — isn’t good for the environment either.
Food waste is heavy because it’s mostly water, Parker said. That adds weight and cost to its transportation. The heavier the waste, the poorer the gas mileage of garbage trucks, some of which only get three miles per gallon.
And just like green wood doesn’t burn well, trash containing wet food waste doesn’t burn well, Parker said. “If you talk to incinerator operators, they hate food waste. It takes way more energy to burn.”
That’s why landfilling and incineration are at the bottom of the food waste recovery hierarchy.
When food waste is sent to a landfill or incinerated, “you’re taking nutrients that should return to the soil and getting rid of them,” which means a greater net loss to the soil, Parker said.
Another reason to not throw away food: Wasted food wastes taxes.
Town tax revenues are used in many communities to haul trash away to landfills or incinerators and to operate those facilities.
Studies have shown that 28 percent of solid waste in landfills is food or food scraps, which means about a quarter of what property taxpayers spend on solid waste could be avoided if the food was not thrown away and scraps were composted, Parker said.
Still another reason not to waste food? The energy it takes to grow it.
Food production uses about 4 percent of all the energy generated in the United States, Parker said. That’s not including energy needed to package and transport food. Wasted food is wasted energy.
The origins are innocent enough in most cases.
We buy food at the store, drive it home and put it in the refrigerator with the firm intention of eating it. But then we may forget about it, losing it in the back somewhere. Or we use it and store the leftovers, which again gravitate to the back of the refrigerator.
By the time it’s found, it isn’t any good. “Then we spend money to transport it to the landfill, which makes methane gas,” Parker said.
As a farmer, Parker hears a lot of discussion about the world’s growing population and the need to produce more food.
“That is false,” he said, explaining that there is enough food to feed the planet’s population, and more, if it isn’t wasted.