When is the last time you threw away a box of carryout that had been forgotten in your fridge, uneaten?
Half a carton of milk that went bad? Old eggs? Fruit? Food waste is a global problem that is particularly prominent in the United States, where we throw away an average of 219 pounds of food per person each year.
Overall, between 30 and 40% of our food supply ends up in landfills. And while other environmental issues are mainly caused by players way above the level of consumers, we the people are actually responsible for a very large portion of food waste. A 2018 study even found that nearly 40% of food waste in North America happens at consumer level.
While this makes us consumers highly complicit, it also means we have a great amount of power to make positive changes that can impact the amount of food that is wasted. So where to start?
Know the value of food
How is it that somewhere along the way we lost sight of how much effort and how many resources go into the production of what we eat? Just step into a supermarket and it’s easy to figure out: endless aisles packed high with anything and everything you could think to eat, a literal cornucopia. When we’re surrounded by so much abundance, when it’s so cheap and so easy to access, it’s no wonder we don’t hesitate to throw it away.
A big step towards eliminating food waste is to be more mindful food’s true value, understanding just how hard and resource-intensive it is to produce. Change your mind set by going to a farm stay on your next vacation, giving WOOFing a go, or trying to plant your own vegetable garden. Coming in direct contact with food production is an eye-opening and humbling experience that will make you think twice the next time you consider tossing away what you don’t feel like eating.
Change how you shop, cook, and eat
Yes, saving the planet requires a little more effort on your part. It’s time to change some bad habits. If it’s any motivation, making these incremental lifestyle changes won’t just cut down on food waste, but also help you optimize the food you have and save money.
Buy less, shop more often: Once-a-week shopping trips are typical, but they might not actually be practical or efficient for those of us with busy schedules. Rather than do one big weekly trip and have fresh food go bad before you can eat it, do smaller more frequent shops and only buy what you need for the next few days. Unless you live in a food desert, you can always go again, or go without.
Organize your fridge and store food correctly: How can you keep food from going bad if you can’t even see it? Keep your fridge and cupboards organized with regular cleans, and prioritize anything that looks on its way out or that has an encroaching use-by date. Once things are organized, learn how to store food correctly to prolong its life and ensure it stays safe to eat.
Broaden your repertoire to incorporate sad food: Don’t banish fruit and veg that has wrinkled or gone floppy to the bin; find a delicious solution for it instead. This could be a smoothie or a sauce. Or a jam, or a stew. You can also get creative with food scraps to ensure that really nothing goes to waste.
Put your freezer to work: An oft-neglected resource that is perfect for busy people, the freezer can be used to store everything from pre-cut loaves of bread to big batches of chili separated into meal-sized portions. Check out how to freeze different kinds of foods and get into the habit of doing it when you’ve got too much or won’t have time to eat it before it goes bad.
Don’t fear leftovers: Even if you just have a little bit of a meal left, put it in the fridge, but don’t let it sit there. Make it a habit to eat leftovers as part of breakfast or lunch the next day. It won’t be the most glamorous meal by any means, but it will keep your fridge tidy and precious food out of landfill.
Compost: Whether you live in a house with a yard or an apartment without a balcony, there’s a composting technique that will work for you. Don’t have plants or a garden to use all that soil? Share it with friends or neighbors, or even put it on Craigslist.
Share what you have with others
Speaking of sharing, when you have too much of something to finish it all, why not offer it to someone who could? Enlist family, friends, and even neighbors to join in the fight against food waste by sharing surplus with each other.
You can try asking them directly, or even starting a WhatsApp group with anyone who is interested. Charities and food banks are also always grateful for donations of unopened dry and canned goods, and some kinds of fresh foods. If you’re struggling to find people who are open to taking extra food, there are also food sharing apps like OLIO that can connect you with others in your community.
Support initiatives to fight food waste
Making personal changes to cut down on your own food waste is a good start, but it’s also vital to work towards eliminating waste that takes place further up the chain. Start with businesses in your local area: Which ones are taking action to reduce food waste, and which aren’t? Support those businesses that are environmentally responsible and speak or write directly to those where improvements are needed.
Then set your sights higher by petitioning your local representatives for more ambitious food waste regulations. Many are likely already sympathetic to the cause, and as governments worldwide are implementing initiatives to tackle food waste, making your voice heard can help compel politicians in your area to do the same.
Although food waste is a global problem with a multitude of causes, it’s not an impossible challenge to face. Start by putting your hands to work in a garden, cleaning your fridge, or writing to your local politicians, and you’ll be surprised how much your actions can make a difference.