Skip directly to content

Zero Waste: From Farm To Trash (Not To Table)

on March 12, 2019 - 1:45pm


In America we love food. The Natural Resources Defense Council stated that 40 percent of all food produced in the United States (US) never gets eaten. Americans throw away $165 billion dollars’ worth of food every year or 20 pounds of food per person per month. That is enough food to fill 730 football stadiums each year.

Between producers, sellers, and consumers, Americans are tossing a third --or even more—of our food. That’s outrageous! Especially when in many cases it’s actually good enough to eat. This picture from our own transfer station shows edible food that should have been a salad, but is instead bound for the landfill: baby red butter lettuce, parsley, a slightly bruised yellow bell pepper, apples and tangy red onion.

Unfortunately, there are many people in our country who could benefit from this food. According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America in 2017, an estimated one in eight Americans couldn’t afford enough food. This equals 40 million Americans—including more than 12 million children—who are food insecure. Even here in Los Alamos, we have hungry kids.

The fact that we are throwing away 150,000 tons of food every day while people are hungry is alarming. There are also less obvious consequences of food waste, like land, energy, and water resources used to raise food that goes into the landfill to rot into the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste, while contributing to methane gas emissions. This equals local money. In 2018, Los Alamos County invested $1.2 million dollars in a methane extraction system to collect methane from rotting food and organic yard trimming waste from our closed landfill.

In a waste sort performed in 2016, it was determined that 14 percent of residential waste is food. Based on this information it costs roughly $42,000 each year to transport and dispose of food waste from Los Alamos residents (that does not include collection costs). The NRDC estimates that an average U.S. household of four, wastes an estimated $1,350 to $2,275 of food each year. This is in essence like rolling down your car window and throwing out $100 - $200 dollars each month.

Food waste is often the result of our habits, misconceptions, and consumer-focused marketing strategies. In order to sell more products, grocery stores have to appeal to our senses. Appeal is the key word. If fruits, vegetables, and meat are not aesthetically pleasing (i.e., flawless) they will be discarded. Farmers are required to provide fruits and vegetables that meet a strict standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture used to determine the quality of the product. This picture shows a USDA Strawberry Visual Aid.  Based on these standards, a farmer would receive less pay for a No. 2 strawberry. Many retailers have standards much stricter than the USDA. 

Not only is food discarded because of aesthetics, but also because of misconceptions regarding “sell by,” “best by,” or “expiration dates.” Consumers commonly believe that these are official labels to keep the public safe, but this is usually not the case.

Emily Broad Leib of Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic notes, “It has nothing to do with safety. It is the manufacturer’s best guess of when food will be the freshest and the best quality.” The federal government does not require food manufacturers to provide an expiration date, except for infant formula and some other specific products in certain states. Most the time product dates look official but are not credible. These dates not only cause alarm to consumers, but also grocers, causing both to discard perfectly edible food instead of consuming it, or donating it to someone in need. In fact, a United Kingdom charity organization called Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), estimates that up to 20 percent of household food waste is linked to date labeling confusion.

This is a problem of epic proportions that impacts us financially, socially, and environmentally. With small, food-conscious choices, we can all make a difference, prevent food waste, feed people in need, and stop wasting precious resources.

Here are some tips to help reduce food waste:

  • Shop wisely. Take inventory of what you already have on hand before you go shopping.
  • Plan meals. Use shopping lists. Buy from bulk bins to avoid excess packaging.
  • Avoid impulse buys and ‘buy one, get one free deals’ unless you will use the food.
  • Learn how to store food properly to avoid spoilage.
  • Cook only what you need.
  • If you have extra food - freeze it, share it, donate it, or lastly compost it.
  • Download food sharing apps such as OLIO or Famine to Feast.
  • Buy imperfect products, such as produce that is perfectly edible even if it is less cosmetically attractive.

 “We love our food.  Let’s treat it with respect and bring it from farm to table instead of farm to trash,” says Jody Benson, Zero Waste Team Member.

Watch for other tips and action to take to reduce food waste, coming soon from the Los Alamos Zero Waste Team!

Zero Waste Tip:

If you have extra food - freeze it, share it, donate it, or lastly compost it.