An astounding 40% of the food produced in the United States is wasted. This excessive and unsustainable amount of food waste is a real tragedy for both our environment and our people. The U.S. agriculture industry accounts for about 10 percent of our total energy used, 80 percent of our freshwater consumption, and 50 percent of our land. And almost all uneaten food ends up in landfills where it decomposes and releases methane gas—which has 25 percent more heat-trapping capability than carbon dioxide. When we waste food, we waste all of the resources used to make that food, and we contribute harmful greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
What’s more is that 48 million Americans, including 208,000 Mainers, are food insecure. Maine ranks at 12th in the nation and 1st in New England for food insecurity, yet we throw away nearly 40 percent of our food. Clearly we must work to make sure that perfectly good food is not wasted, and that any surplus food is feeding hungry people and animals instead of our landfills.
NRCM supports EPA’s food recovery hierarchy, which prioritizes prevention of food waste followed by feeding surplus food to hungry people and animals, all before processing it for energy or composting. To that end, we support policies and programs that do all of those things and keep food (and all organic materials) out of our landfills.
Ways to Prevent Food Waste:
Eat what you buy and buy what you eat: Perfectly good food is wasted at many places along the food supply chain, including at home in our kitchens. Through careful meal planning, better produce storage, and eating the food that you have before going to the store to buy more are just a few ways you can reduce food waste at home.Not only will you be reducing your own contribution to the problem, but you’ll save money and learn new ways to be creative in the kitchen. Not being wasteful is just a good trait that we should all possess.
Increased Awareness about Food Safety: A colossal amount of food is wasted before it even gets to your kitchen due to misinformation about the food’s expiration or sell-by date, and public perception that produce should be blemish-free. The truth is that most dates printed on perishable food are arbitrary and are the manufacturer’s recommendation only, not a date at which the food has become unsafe to eat. Consumers also pick through produce to find “flawless” fruits and veggies, and stores have responded to this consumer behavior by throwing away truckloads of produce that is perfectly edible because they know they won’t be able to sell it. Stores respond to what consumers want. People need to become more aware of the problem of food waste, and society in general needs to adjust to a different mentality in regards to whether or not a food is good to eat—and Just Eat It. This cultural shift will make a big difference.
Gleaning and Food Rescue: Many Mainers are working hard to divert any surplus produce from farms, gardens, grocery stores, and markets that would have otherwise gone to waste and instead donate it to those in need. Organizations like Wayside Food Programs, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, Good Shepherd Food Bank, University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Harvest for Hunger program, and Healthy Acadia, just to name a few, are keeping millions of pounds of food from being wasted through gleaning and food rescue each year and using that food to help combat hunger. Sustainability is generally defined as meeting the needs of our current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. What’s better than meeting our most basic need (to eat) while also tackling one of the most problematic forms of waste? NRCM believes that food rescue and donation is a sustainability slam-dunk.
Composting and Anaerobic Digestion: Any food scraps or organic material that is not safe to eat by humans or animals should be composted in order to return nutrients to the soil or processed for energy in a closed system, like an anaerobic digester. Food scraps are generated by a variety of sources, from households to restaurants, and by institutions like hospitals and universities. A study done by the University of Maine found that 43 percent of household bagged garbage was made of organic, compostable materials and 28 percent of it was food alone—making it the single largest source of household garbage going to landfills. Households, businesses, and institutions should all be taking steps to separate their organic waste from their other garbage. If on-site composting is not an option, then there are growing Maine businesses like We Compost It! and Garbage to Garden that are eager to provide this service.
Food Waste Disposal Bans: Many jurisdictions around the country and the world have instituted policies that restrict certain food waste generators from disposing of it in landfills. Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are leading the way in New England—each of these states has unique policy provisions but all target large generators of food waste. As a result of Vermont’s law that went into effect in 2014, there has been a 30 percent increase in food donations. By reducing food waste, these businesses and institutions are saving money through less food lost and reduced disposal fees, so most are supportive of the policy. NRCM believes that a food waste disposal ban would be a welcome addition to Maine’s materials management policy suite.
Also be sure to check out the “Related Resources” section below for access to important resources.