The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was, obviously, a national tragedy. Yet every year we squander 70 times that amount of petroleum through a simple, preventable source: wasted food.
There are ethical and economic reasons why we shouldn't waste food. But, putting those aside, the environmental impacts alone make our national culture of waste unpalatable.
A tremendous amount of resources go into growing our food. And processing, shipping, cooling and cooking it. A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin professors Amanda D. Cuellar and Michael E. Webber found that two percent of all U.S. energy consumption goes into producing food that is ultimately thrown out. That's the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil.
Worst of all, the two percent figure is a very conservative finding, as the study's authors noted. It's based on the low-end estimate of food's energy usage. Plus, the waste percentage the researchers use is ancient -- OK, mid 90s -- finding that we waste 27 percent of all our food. The most recent estimate is 40 percent, which comes from an NIH study.
Using that more up-to-date waste percentage and the most recent estimate of how much energy food production gobbles, our food waste could represent as much as six percent of U.S. energy consumption.
Regardless of exactly how much energy the food chain uses, Cuellar and Webber were quite right when they concluded, "The energy embedded in wasted food represents a substantial target for decreasing energy consumption in the U.S."
Fresh water is another resource embedded in our food waste. With today's irrigation-heavy farming, a tremendous amount of water goes into growing our food. When we then waste our food, that water has gone for naught. Using a conservative 30 percent waste estimate, our squandering of food flushes away enough water to meet the needs of 500 million people. And while we've long taken water for granted, its scarcity is becoming harder and harder to ignore.
In addition to squandering resources when we waste food, we're creating another problem -- food trash. Far too much food ends up in the landfill, where it encourages climate change. We discard roughly our bodyweight of food every year -- an annual average of 197 pounds per person. When food decomposes in a landfill, it does so without air (anaerobically), producing methane. That greenhouse gas is roughly 20 times more potent a heat trapper than CO2.
Landfills are the second largest human-related source of methane. Food is second largest component of landfills. In a sense we're aiding global warming when we throw food in the garbage. Composting -- whether it's through traditional bins, worms or the Bokashi method -- and creating energy from waste are wise alternatives that avoid methane emissions. Even better -- reducing the amount of food that we waste.
When we throw away food in the regular waste stream, we're unnecessarily filling up landfills. This hastens the building of new ones, with their environmental concerns. In short, we're burying more pockets of potential pollution, with storm overflow and leachate leakage major concerns. Unlike with other goods, there's virtually no recycling of food waste. That would be composting, for the most part. According to the EPA, less than three percent of food waste is recycled.
Not only are we unnecessarily adding to the waste that we haul around in gas-guzzling garbage trucks, we're adding an incredibly heavy waste source. As a result, waste haulers' fuel efficiency suffers. Since so much of food is water. we're basically trucking it around (great distances, too -- as inter-state waste shipping is common). It's the height of inefficiency. In addition to the further use of oil, hauling food waste increases pollution from the emissions and the smell of rotting food.
While we won't ever eliminate food waste, we can make a real dent in the problem. If we do, our planet will be a lot happier. Food waste isn't the most dire environmental problem we face, but quite possibly the easiest to reverse.
Jonathan Bloom is the author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). The North Carolina-based journalist also writes the blog WastedFood.com.
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