Food Waste Is One of the Most Actionable Issues We Can Tackle in the Fight Against Climate Change
Consumer habits are the largest cause of food waste in America—but they can evolve. Here’s how to eat like your planet depends upon it.
Our food system is radically inefficient.
Overall, it is estimated that 24 percent of all food in the U.S.—about 54 million tons—goes to waste annually. That means that each year, we’re letting the equivalent of nearly 90 billion meals’ worth of food go unsold or uneaten, which is roughly 2 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
At ReFed, a national nonprofit where I serve as executive director, we focus on ending food waste across the U.S. food system by using market data and consumer insights to help inspire change and targeted action at touchpoints along the farm to trash-can pipeline. As it stands today, less than one percent of food waste is donated to those in need and more is recycled—but the vast majority goes straight to landfill, incineration, down the drain, or is simply left in the fields to rot.
The impact of food waste on our climate and environment is significant: Food that is never eaten still requires resources to grow, harvest, transport, cool, cook, or otherwise prepare. And when it ends up being disposed of, food generates methane as it decays. Methane lingers in our atmosphere and, along with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, contributes to the dangerous warming of the planet by trapping heat in the atmosphere. Roughly 8 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste. In fact, the United Nations estimates that if global food loss and waste were a country, it would rank third in the world for greenhouse gas emissions (after the U.S. and China).
In America, consumers are the largest source of food waste, with the average household of four people wasting almost $1,500 per year on food that goes uneaten. While businesses and governments can (and should) help solve the food-waste epidemic by reshaping consumer environments to promote waste-free lifestyles (especially when it comes to inconsistent date labels on food products and waste-promoting portion sizes at restaurants), it’s equally important to highlight the fact that the majority the food being thrown away in homes comes down to our own individual habits and behaviors.
The important thing to remember is that just because something goes in the trash doesn’t mean it’s actually “waste.” This is especially true when it comes to food. Much of what’s discarded is actually nutritious, delicious, and perfectly safe to eat, having just been disposed of because they “look funny,” confusion over date labels, and so on. What’s more, even the inedible food parts like bones, pits, and peels can have enormous value when they are upcycled into completely new products.
To curtail the amount of food waste that comes out of your own kitchen, start practicing these practical tips as you shop for, prepare, serve, and store your foods.
Simple, impactful strategies to reduce food waste at home
Prioritize meal-planning—especially prior to grocery shopping
For starters, try to avoid going for a grocery run without thinking ahead a few days (even a week) to consider what you’ll be cooking and which nights you may be eating out or ordering in. After jotting down your grocery list and surveying your pantry for which shelf-stable items you already have on hand, do your best to solely buy the items you know you’ll use.
Also, consider prepping some of your perishable ingredients in advance so you can easily incorporate them into multiple meals throughout the week. For example, if you cook a roast chicken for dinner one night, make chicken tacos the next night, and chicken salad for lunch the following day. The same can be done with sauteed or grilled vegetables, tofu, grains (try making a big batch of rice or quinoa and using it as the base for grain bowls), even sauces and salad dressings. When it comes to cutting food waste at home, prioritizing versatile ingredients that can be easily repurposed is key.
Put food away properly
All fresh foods have an ideal way to be stored, and they’ll last a lot longer when they're kept correctly. For example, fresh herbs should be stored in a glass of water (just like flowers) in your fridge, apples last significantly longer when kept in the crisper drawer in the fridge, oranges stay juiciest when kept on your counter, and bread should be wrapped in a reusable bread bag to retain its moisture.
Embrace your freezer
Freezing food is a great way to extend its life. Think of your freezer as a magic “pause” button to keep food fresh longer—you can freeze practically anything, both cooked and uncooked. An added benefit? When you don’t feel like cooking, you can just grab something you already cooked and chilled out of the freezer to defrost, heat, and eat.
What’s more, frozen food allows you to get the nutritional quality of fresh produce year-round, and they last (almost) forever. To preserve the quality of your produce, give fruits and veggies a thorough wash and dry, then slice and dice them up. (Make sure to dry everything before freezing to keep ice crystals from forming.) To prevent chunks of berries or broccoli florets from sticking together, line them in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze until solid. Once frozen, you can transfer the produce to a reusable freezer bag or sealed container and scoop out one serving at a time.
Soup can last for months in the freezer, too, but the single serve strategy is the key to success. Rather than freezing soups or stews in bulk, divide them into single-serve, airtight containers or in freezer bags. Make sure to cool down the soup before you put it into the freezer to prevent heating up other foods inside—and try to remove as much air as possible before sealing the bag.
Don’t rely solely on expiration dates
Something hugely important to keep in mind when meal-prepping: In the U.S., there is no federal standard for date labels (aside from infant formula). And while some states have their own policies, a lack of consistency makes it difficult for consumers to know how long it’s practical or safe to keep both perishable and non-perishable items.
The most common date labels are “best if used by,” “sell by,” or “expires on” followed by a specific date—but learning what these labels actually mean can save you from throwing something away when it’s still perfectly good to eat.
Date labels typically refer to quality, not safety. Major food industry groups have endorsed the use of “use by” to indicate when a product should be discarded for food safety reasons and “best if used by” to indicate that the date is simply about quality and the food can be consumed beyond that date.
My recommendation? Use your best judgment. If a product looks good, smells good, and tastes good, and has a “best by” or “best if used by” label, it’s probably okay to consume it past the date listed (except when it comes to baby food and infant formula; be sure to follow the labels for those). That being said, if you do detect any “off” odors, flavors, or changes in the appearance of a food or beverage, don’t risk it—it could be a sign of bacterial growth.
Get creative with past-due produce and leftovers
As you plan ahead and consider what you’ll be cooking for the week ahead, work in a day where all your meals get designed around what’s still lingering in your fridge and pantry. Fry up your last few eggs, slice your sourdough ends up for toast and sandwiches, dice up the dregs of your herbs, produce, and proteins, and finally reheat that lingering leftover pasta.
Separately, the odds and ends in your fridge might not be enough for a full meal, but together, they’re just right. You can create a smorgasbord of leftovers to graze on, or toss together versatile dishes like stir fries, soups, and sandwiches where you can be creative with a range of different ingredients. (Think of it like going out to a restaurant and ordering a delicious array of appetizers for dinner—reimagining what a “square meal” looks like can be an asset to those looking to reduce waste.) And whenever possible, try to prioritize eating leftovers for lunch.
Become a more climate-conscious shopper
Outside of your home kitchen, you can reduce food waste by employing your wallet.
Get started next time you’re at the supermarket. Keep an eye out for “upcycled” products, which are made with ingredients that are byproducts of other foods that would otherwise have gone to waste. Same goes for “ugly” produce: the wonky-shaped, slightly-imperfect pieces of fruits and vegetables that tend to get tossed because they don’t meet the strict appearance standards of consumers and retailers. (Roughly 10 million pounds of cosmetically imperfect food gets wasted each year globally. Remember: You don’t always have to reach for the reddest apple!)
You can also use markdown alert apps, like Too Good To Go and Flashfood, which pinpoint retailers and restaurants offering discounts on food at risk of going to waste. And finally, consider testing out a meal-kit service—these can help you cut food waste by giving you pre-portioned ingredients so you’re only purchasing the exact amount you need. They’re a great way to explore a range of menu options while also preventing waste.
For a healthier future food system, we need to galvanize together
Cutting food waste by half in the U.S. would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 million metric tons each year—the same as taking 16 million gas-powered cars off the road. It would also generate an economic return of $75 billion each year due to the positive impact on the supply chain.
Reducing food waste leads to significant co-benefits for other critical issues. The United Nations predicts the planet will need roughly 60 percent more food than we have today to feed the estimated global population of 9.3 billion in 2050. It is imperative that we start to consider where that food will come from. Reducing the amount of food that goes to waste lowers overall demand, reducing pressures to convert more native ecosystems to agriculture. And as the planet continues to warm, we need to learn to adapt our systems and lifestyles to this new reality.
Climate change is already significantly impacting agricultural productivity around the globe, so making the best use of the food that’s already being produced isn’t just a “nice” thing to do—it is necessary. Food waste is a system-wide problem, which means it requires system-wide action to stop. But if we all did our part, together we could create a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that makes the most of the food we grow—including every last peel, pit, and bit of leftover penne.