Haste makes waste, and as we race through life we often neglect to make good choices with regard to our consumption. On a daily basis, we are confronted with such decisions: how many apples should I buy? Will I eat these leftovers or go out to eat? Will I bring this food home from this restaurant, or will I allow the server to throw it away?

Citizens of the world (primarily the western world) are confronted with these decisions every day, and so often does the choice result in food being thrown away. But how much food is being thrown away? And what kinds of food? What about all the waste that accompanies the food production process—from packaging to fuel used in transportation. Finally: where does food waste go and what can we do about all of this?

How much food do we waste?

As a species, we waste astronomical amounts of food on a yearly basis. Annually, those in the first world waste around $680 billion, while the third world collectively wastes around $310 billion worth of food. All told, that’s nearly $1 trillion worth of food wasted every year.

But you can’t eat a dollar, so to put it more descriptively: as a species, we waste one-third of the food we produce. We waste 4.3 billion TONS annually. In pounds, that number is 8.6 trillion, or, to be even more descriptive, around 25.8 trillion apples. Every year. In fact, produce is the most commonly wasted form of food at nearly 50% of waste. Cereals and grains account for 20% of waste, while meats account for 30% of food waste, according to the United Nations.

Other forms of waste in the food production process

Not only does food itself get wasted, but there are a number of byproducts of the food production process that are forms of waste in and of themselves. For example, 25% of the water Americans use goes toward wasted food, with 4% of gasoline going toward the same bitter end.

On top of that is all the packaging that goes to waste. PET plastic bottles break down and leak particulates into the water supply, plastic bags from grocery stores are used by the hundreds of billions per year worldwide. Even paper, which is more biodegradable, ends up in landfills, where a lack of oxygen prevents it from breaking down for perhaps decades, or in some cases, hundreds of years.

Another dangerous byproduct of the food production process is farm runoff, in which harmful varieties of fertilizer and other chemicals associated with factory farming wind up in local water supplies after rain carries them there. This can be toxic to residents near factory farms, and can spur growth of seaweed in lakes, which can then produce harmful forms of algae.

Finally, fossil fuels are used and wasted throughout the food production process, primarily on processing and transportation. According to CNN, “The average meal travels 1,500 miles before it gets to the diner’s plate.”

Where does it go in the end?

Landfills. Much of the food waste humans produce ends up in landfills inside of plastic garbage bags that can take up to 1000 years to biodegrade. Dumps are the cheapest way to dispose of waste, but they can have negative impacts on the environment, such as toxic waste leaking into the water or deadly methane gas leaking into the air.

A more effective way to dispose of food that effectively recycles the food is composting. According to RecycleNow.com, there are two main types of food recycling. The first is in-vessel composting, which “involves mixing food waste with garden waste—shredding it and then composting it in an enclosed system for around 2-4 weeks… The material is then left outside to mature for a further 1-3 months with regular turning and checks to ensure quality before going on to be used as soil conditioner.”

The second form of food recycling is anaerobic digestion, which “uses microorganisms to break down food waste, animal manure, slurries and energy crops in the absence of oxygen, inside an enclosed system. As it breaks down it gives off methane, which is collected and converted into biogas and used to generate electricity, heat or transport fuels. It also creates a nutrient-rich digestate that can be used as a fertilizer for agriculture and in land regeneration.”

These two forms of recycling are effective and safe and can be done at home, although ideally it should be done in specialized facilities, of which there should be more. Composting takes time that many people can’t afford to spend, and it also takes property space, so many people don’t have the capital to compost at home. That is why there need to be more facilities and composting needs to be done in the same way as trash.

What else can we do about the problem of waste?

The developing and developed world face two completely different sets of challenges in the realm of food waste. The developed world wastes food because of overproduction and individual overestimation of needs at meal-time and when shopping. The developing world, however faces monetary challenges in storing food, or in acquiring private capital to fund farm projects and make them more efficient—investments in a farm’s community.  The developed world’s waste happens at the end of the supply chain (at the table), while in the developing world, it happens at the beginning, before the food even leaves the farm.

Complicating the matter is that imports from farms in the third world are more wasteful in terms of transportation costs, which might affect sales as more we educate consumers.

The first solution to the food waste problem in the first world is as simple as it is a multi-faceted challenge: Education. A change in attitude. History shows that large populations of people can be taught new habits and behaviors (for better or for worse), and that campaigns to shape public perceptions, when effectively executed, have an impact.

Another very important and simple solution is for people to donate food from private cupboards and grocery store shelves that would otherwise be thrown away.

The more complex solution is for lawmakers to develop legislation to further guide behaviors with regard to food waste. This is complex not because the right policy decisions aren’t available to be made, but because of lawmakers’ affiliation with Big Food lobbying groups and their unwillingness to run afoul of these special interests. The problem is that many policies should be regarded as inconsequential, such as mandating composting and recycling at the federal level.

Knowledge is power, and educating the public and encouraging them to take action and put pressure on their public officials, while managing their consumption at home is the key. If we build the facilities to manage food waste as effectively as possible, people will want to use those facilities. Short of mandating people compost a certain amount of food each month, people will want to do the right thing if you provide some sort of encouragement, whether by building a composting facility, or by creating some sort of incentive program to nudge them in the direction of the behaviors of reducing food use and recycling wasted food.

Each of us must be the change we wish to see in the world. If we reduce waste and recycle food, we can ensure that our children and grandchildren can eat for generations to come.



Chad Weisman—CEO, Golden Strands Communication; ‘creative type’; surfer on the amber waves of grain; avid concert attendee.