The Biggest Source of Waste Isn’t What You Think—and You’re Creating a Pound of It Every Single Day

Photo: Photo: Stocksy/Toma Evsuvdo; Graphics: Well+Good Creative
"Reduce, reuse, recycle" is the single lesson I remember from my environmental science classes in high school and college. And while the jingle is still relevant (especially the "reduce" bit), we're all misunderstanding one major thing about human waste: Trash and recycling don't account for most of it. As of 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a single American produces a prodigious 4.51 pounds of waste dailya pound of which is food. Meaning, food waste in America (banana peels, meat scraps, and eggs shells, not plastic or other trash) is what accounts for the largest waste category contributing to landfills.

"Food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste [or MSW, the type of waste made up of everyday items discarded by the public] going to landfills," says Amanda Weeks, co-founder and CEO of Ambrosia, a company dedicated to creating a waste-free "circular" economy. "Food accounts for over 20 percent of waste by weight. And of all the food that is wasted, only 6 percent is diverted for composting."

This is especially important because this discarded food actually doesn't decompose in landfills. "All organic matter requires aerobic—meaning requiring air—decomposition," says Levi Gardner, founder and co-executive director of Urban Roots, a non-profit community farm and education center in Michigan. "This means that biota, bacteria, and other microscopic living things can help the decomposition process."

In plainer language? In a landfill, your discarded apple core may get wrapped up in other forms of trash, like say, a pair of jeans. This is called "comingling." "If separated, all organics can decompose through a managed process, but that process simply won't happen when comingled," says Gardner. Instead, your apple core begins to rot, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. "If food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the U.S.," reports Climate Central, a research organization focused on climate change."

"If food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the U.S." —Climate Central

While it's unclear why no one seems to have gotten the memo about food waste in America being such a problem, Weeks speculates that comes down to education practices that focus almost solely on recycling and trash. "I think that people’s misconceptions about food waste really stem from a lack of visibility and education regarding what happens to our garbage."

Economic strategies also play a large role in spotlighting practices like recycling while largely ignoring compost options, says Gardner. "Food manufacturers and corporations have put the emphasis on recycling because it doesn't distract from consumption. Composting is not so straightforward because it inherently challenges the waste in the corporate food supply chain. It's somewhat intentionally hidden because it exposes problems in how we grow, package, ship, manufacture, store, retail, and distribute food." Every American has to come to terms with the one pound of food we waste per day, but that number pales in comparison to the 72 billion pounds of food waste that occurs at every stage of the food production and distribution system (think: restaurants, farms, and factories).

And yet, aside from using our voting power to influence local and national policies on waste, the majority of Americans can't make a significant dent in how much food waste happens behind the scenes at eateries and in large-scale food production. What we can do, however, is phase out our own food waste until one pound becomes zero. And since it's Earth Month, what better time than now to get started?

You're responsible for one pound of the food waste in America each day. Here's how to lessen your ecological footprint

According to the experts, making a dent in your personal food-waste output comes down to two things: how you purchase foods and how you dispose of them.

How to become a smarter buyer

When you're about to buy produce, consider that the decisions you make really do matter before you buy those oranges, kale, and lemons. "Most people don’t know that each type of produce that’s grown or imported to the U.S. has a grading guide that lists every possible scar, dimple, or other surface flaws that might make it unsuitable for grocery stores," says Abhi Ramesh, founder and CEO of Misfits Market, a delivery subscription service for funky-looking produce. "Because supermarkets prize uniformity, anything that’s too big or too small for grocery displays or a little misshapen is also likely to get rejected. A recent study found that a staggering 33 percent of produce grown in the U.S. is left on the field at harvest, chiefly because it doesn’t meet grocery store standards for perfection."

Subscription services like Misfits Market curb some of this waste by purchasing "imperfect" goods straight from farmers and selling them directly to consumers at slashed prices. And thus, you can consider buying food through them a score for the environment (and your wallet). If you're not looking for a subscription service, though, Ramesh says buying the ugly-duckling produce at your local supermarket can also help. That curled cucumber or slightly-bruised tomato has the highest chance of getting tossed in the garbage if the store can't sell it. But really, your tastebuds and body won't be able to tell the difference.

Lastly (and this one should go without saying), don't purchase what you don't need. If you're going to end up throwing away half of the avos in the avocado bag (sad!), then maybe just by two avocados and compost their pits and skins. Which, brings us to…

How to start composting

Composting isn't much more involved than sorting your recycling or taking out the trash—and it has a huge environmental impact. "Technically speaking, composting is the managed decomposition of organic material into a valuable soil amendment," says Gardner. "Incorporated into a garden's topsoil, compost improves soil structure and may help plants ward off disease, while providing plants with nutrients. A layer of compost just one inch thick will provide a garden with all the nutrients it needs for a year.

Of course, where you live (and how much space you have) determines the best method of composting for you. But hey, if my roommates and I can do it in our shoebox-size New York City apartment, it's possible anywhere—right?

If you have a backyard: "The simplest way to compost if you have a yard is mixing greens—which is the color of your food waste generally—with browns. Stack a few inches of your food waste in between old pizza boxes, newspaper, or straw." Remember, meat, fish bones, pet litter, dirty diapers, dairy products, and oils go in the trash, but pretty much any other thing can be layered between the boxes. They'll break down with the food and—bam—you have yourself a garden bed that will have fewer weeds because of the pizza box material. Magic. Check out the video below for more details.

If your succulent is the closest thing to a backyard in your life: Freeze your green and brown food scraps in an old container (like a yogurt carton or an old takeout container). Then, leave them at a drop-off point. "Even at our Urban Farm, folks can drop off their food scraps in a self-drop area without having to interact with any surfaces, eliminating any risk for virus transmission," says Gardner. Or, given that we're social distancing and quarantining right now, you can store your scraps in the freezer and take them to a community garden or drop-off point once the world returns to normal. Just be sure you're trashing your meat and other animal products.

If your city offers a compost program: Many cities, like Milwaukee and Boston, are no experimenting with independent composting programs. NYC's organic collections program lets you request a special brown composting bin that gets picked up on a regular basis like trash or recycling and even allows meat and dairy into the mix (which can be presumed to resume service once pandemic concerns as assuaged). The city of Portland runs a similar program, so do a little Google and check out this compost map to choose the easiest compost method for you, during this time and once the world returns to its regularly scheduled programming.

Here's what healthy eating looks like for yourself and the planet. And here's why climate anxiety is actually good in the fight to save Mama Earth. 

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