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A food-waste primer

(article, Jonathan Bloom)

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Wasted food is the elephant in the sustainable kitchen. Not only is our squandered food somehow ignored, it’s both massive and stinky. Unfortunately, the majority of the smell occurs not in our homes, but at the dump. That’s unfortunate for two reasons: rotting food in landfills prompts environmental problems, and were we to notice our waste, we’d be more motivated to do something about it. Like anything. 

Hopefully the following eight items will prompt you to heed your own wasted food and take steps to reduce it.

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#(clear n1). Buy less. On average, we don’t eat a quarter of what we bring into our homes. Yes, 25 percent! We bring this trouble on ourselves by simply buying too much food; we either don't plan ahead for our shopping trips, or we feel compelled to fill our mammoth refrigerators to the brim.

#(clear n2). Think small. We’re wasting some serious bread. In my conservative estimate (based on USDA averages) a family of four throws away $2,200 each year in uneaten food. The main culprits are buying far too much food (leading to spoiled food) and dishing out more food than our family and friends want to eat (leading to plate waste). 

#(clear n3). [%image reference-image float='clear right' width=350 caption="Composting is a good way to divert food waste from landfills."] Avoid the garbage pail. We’re aiding climate change with our kitchen-waste bins. A full 97 percent of discarded food ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times as potent at trapping heat as carbon dioxide. 

#(clear n4). Cherish the meat you eat. We waste a lot of meat, at a steep environmental cost. Almost 20 percent of all edible meat ends up in landfills, and more than 20 percent of meat’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from what’s discarded (as opposed to the environmental impact of production). 

#(clear n5). Ignore labels. Expiration dates send much food to a premature death. First, date labels are voluntary; infant formula is the only product mandated by the FDA to have a use-by date. And because there’s so much caution built into these dates — which refer to food quality, not safety — they are best ignored. Trust your senses instead. 

#(clear n6). Eat restaurant leftovers. According to Brian Wansink, an eating-behavior researcher at Cornell University, we don’t eat about half of the restaurant leftovers we bring home. It’s odd, because doggie-bag contents make ideal lunches — heck, they’re already packed up! Yet more often than not, we don’t use these foods, forgoing the potential savings of time and money. There’s no sense in bringing something home — and using up a take-home container — only to toss it two weeks later.  

#(clear n7). Freeze. Freezing food is a fabulous waste-delayer. You’d be surprised by just how many foods can withstand a spell in the freezer, from apples to zucchini. (Milk, bread, herbs, and eggs are other surprisingly freezer-friendly edibles.) Freezing food can keep those buy-one-get-one deals from going awry. And freezers are a godsend for anyone who enjoys smoothies and soups (who doesn’t?!).

#(clear n8). Recycle. When you have food you’re not going to use, it’s easy to divert food from landfills. With garden excess, you can spread the wealth by donating to those in need. (Ample Harvest helps locate recipient food banks.) And whether it’s composting, feeding scraps to chickens, goats, or worms, or using an indoor-composting contraption, it doesn’t take much to separate food scraps from the rest of your trash. Once you start doing so, throwing away something as small as a banana peel will feel as strange as not recycling the newspaper.

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p(bio). Based in North Carolina, Jonathan Bloom is a food-waste expert who writes the blog Wasted Food. He is the author of American Wasteland.


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