Most Americans Think They Waste Less Food Than Their Neighbors

CC BY 2.0. Nic McPhee -- Kitchen scraps

A new report by the NRDC examines how much food is being wasted, where it's going, and why. The results aren't pretty.

If you have ever tossed an overripe banana in the trash or dumped a pot of cold coffee down the drain, perhaps you felt some guilt, followed by self-reassurance: 'It's not that big a deal.' After all, what's a shrivelled banana peel in the grand scheme of things?

It turns out, those small pieces of waste add up quickly. A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that household waste accounts for the largest quantity of food waste generated in the United States, followed by restaurants and caterers, food manufacturing and processing facilities, distributors, and elementary schools.

food waste diagram

© NRDC report

Currently, a shocking 40 percent of food sold for human consumption in the U.S. goes to waste. This adds up to $218 billion thrown away each year, unfortunate for another reason:

"Forty-two million Americans are food insecure. If we reduced our food waste by just 30 percent, it would equate to enough food to provide the total diet for 49 million Americans."

The NRDC report looked specifically at Denver, Nashville, and New York City, all of which have existing food waste diversion plans or interest in pursuing them. From WasteDive:

"New York continues to expand organics collection; Nashville launched a multi-faceted food waste education campaign; and Denver is seen as having big potential for composting, especially now that Colorado has its first-ever statewide diversion goals."

The NRDC researchers, however, wanted to track not only how much food is wasted, but what types, where to, and why. This was done "with an eye toward determining how much of that food was potentially edible, and therefore could potentially have been eaten and not wasted."

Participating households were given kitchen diaries and before-and-after surveys to complete. Researchers conducted bin digs, picking through kitchen trash in order to separate food into ten categories, including fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, dairy and eggs, prepared food and leftovers, liquids and oils, baked goods, dry food, snacks and condiments, and inedible parts. What they found is disturbing and intriguing:

The average amount of total food wasted per capita across all three cities was 3.5 pounds per person per week. An average of 68 percent of all food discarded as tracked in kitchen diaries was potentially edible.

Surveys revealed that 76 percent of participants believe they throw away less food than the average American, and 58 percent felt less guilty about wasting food if it is composted, not landfilled.

The report is lengthy and detailed (you can read the whole thing here), but there are some useful recommendations.

-- Households should realize what a major role they play in generating food waste, and know that they can make a difference by starting in their own kitchen.

-- Consumer education campaigns should target specific foods that are known to be the most wasted, i.e. coffee, bananas, chicken, milk, apples, bread, potatoes, and pasta. Teaching people how to use these more efficiently would be useful.

-- Composting is good, but it shouldn't make people feel fine about throwing away decent food. For example, in New York City, "households participating in composting or organics collection were more likely to generate higher quantities of wasted food in total than those not participating in composting." So composting outreach programs should emphasize that preventing food waste in the first place is preferable.

-- Food donation programs need to be improved to capture much of the uneaten food. This would particularly help the ICI (industrial, commercial, and institutional) sector.