Does This Look Like Garbage to You?
Louis Albert was running a food pantry a few years back when he was struck by an idea that would benefit the entire St. Louis community his organization served—or so he thought. The concept? Round up surplus meals and groceries from local supermarkets, restaurants, and bakeries, then redistribute the items free of charge among neighbours experiencing food insecurity. “Instead of being thrown away, the food would go to families in need,” says Albert, a longtime WW member. “It was a win-win.”
Except...it wasn’t. To Albert’s surprise, one business owner after another told him no. From a legal standpoint, they said, tossing food in the trash just made more sense—because donating it could leave the businesses vulnerable to being sued.
The fear of legal repercussions is a common misconception. Although federal law exists in the U.S.A (specifically, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act) to protect organizations from liability on the off chance someone gets sick from food that’s been donated and handled safely, vague guidelines on storage, transport, and labelling mean the definition of “safe handling” is open to legal interpretation. And it’s the spectre of drawn-out litigation that compels many businesses to send good food to the dump instead of sharing it with others.
Albert’s frustrating experience illustrates just one reason food waste has reached crisis levels. In the U.S. alone, 30-40% of the entire food supply now ends up in the trash, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). One widely cited estimate puts the annual price tag at about $408 billion.
“Food waste is a huge problem on many levels,” says Brian Roe, PhD, the Van Buren professor of agricultural, environmental, and development economics and head of the Ohio State University Food Waste Collaborative. In addition to perpetuating socioeconomic health disparities for people in the U.S. who face food insecurity (more than 38 million in 2020), wasted food squanders labour and natural resources, distorts grocery prices, and belches out harmful greenhouse gases like methane from vast expanses of landfill.
Dr. Roe notes that food waste happens at every point in the chain: when extra crops go unharvested in fields; when groceries expire at the supermarket; when coffee shops fill trash bags with unsold muffins; when leftovers turn mouldy and gross in the back of your fridge. But there’s an empowering upside to that prevalence: Simple, everyday actions can make a huge difference in reducing waste.
Why Food Waste Starts at Home
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by food waste—and overlook how personal the problem actually is. Something you might not realize is that ordinary households account for an estimated 37% of food waste in America, according to a 2021 analysis from ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss through data-driven solutions. “As consumers, we represent the largest source,” says scientist and sustainability expert Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED.
Let that sink in: We are the largest source of food waste.
You may have even shared a meme or two on social media poking fun at letting healthy perishables go bad (“Does buying baby spinach and throwing the entire bag in the trash count as cardio?”).
But behind the jokes are enormous costs: Each day in the United States, the average consumer trashes almost a pound of food, according to a 2018 analysis published in PLOS One. “A family of four throws out an average of $1,800 worth of food each year,” Gunder says. A 2020 study in Nutrition Journal found this is more than a typical person spends annually on gasoline, clothing, even property taxes.
"“A family of four throws out an average of $1,800 worth of food each year.” "— Environmental scientist Dana Gunders
Throwing out food not only drains your personal budget; it generates an illusion of consumer demand that affects grocery costs for all. “Food waste drives up food prices across the globe,” Dr. Roe explains, creating a systemic barrier to good nutrition.
The planet takes a hit on both ends of the food-waste pipeline, too, starting on farms. “Roughly 7% of our croplands is used for food that isn’t eaten,” says Zach Conrad, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of health sciences at William & Mary in Virginia. Growing, harvesting, and transporting those crops uses up precious resources including water and fossil fuels; it also ratchets up use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
On the receiving end are landfills, where food waste is the No. 1 component, reports the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Buried without exposure to oxygen, rotting food emits enough methane to equal the greenhouse-gas emissions of 50 million cars, Gunders says, noting, “If we don’t change our habits at home, we’re not going to tackle this issue as a whole.”
9 Simple Ways to Fight Food Waste
Back in 2015, the EPA and USDA set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030—an ambitious target that requires a sustained effort from pretty much every human. But don’t stress if you missed the memo, Gunders says. Now is a fine time to start reducing food waste in your life. Here are some simple ways to get the ball rolling today.
1. Sign WW’s petition for policy change
Although the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was designed to encourage food donations from supermarkets and other businesses, many advocates say it’s time to expand that 1996 legislation. What it needs? Clearer guidelines on safe food handling and broader liability protections for businesses looking to share food directly with recipients (vs. charities).
To that end, WW has drafted a petition encouraging Congress to clarify and expand on the Emerson Act. The goal is to prevent good food from going into landfills—and put more onto the plates of people who need it. Click here to get the details, sign the petition, and make your voice heard.
2. Plan your meals
How often have you grabbed a head of kale or a package of chicken at the market, only to find it languishing in the back of the fridge weeks later? Creating a simple meal plan is one of the most effective ways to avoid food waste snafus like that, Gunders says: “It can help you save time and money, and eat healthy.”
You don’t need to create an elaborate chart mapping out every single meal for a month; it could be as simple as prepping a few days’ worth of snacks, or slicing up a big bowl of fresh fruit to enjoy with breakfast for the week ahead.
Some general planning tips can serve almost anyone well, Dr. Conrad says. Before heading to the store, take a quick inventory of your kitchen and make a shopping list. That way, you won’t buy extras of something you already have. Then, try these kitchen hacks to streamline any big-batch prep work.
On the occasions when you find yourself stuck with random odds and ends of ingredients? Simply open the WW app and tap the “What’s in your fridge?” feature for ideas on using whatever you have on hand. (When in doubt, make a soup.) So much better than throwing good food in the trash.
3. Pay attention to portions
When we talk about portion sizes, it’s usually in the context of eating a nutritious, balanced diet. But dishing out suitable servings isn’t just about ensuring you get enough fruits and veggies; it also helps keep food out of the garbage chute.
On average, Americans scrape 3% of every home-cooked meal into the trash, a tiny-sounding amount that’s actually huge in aggregate, Dr. Roe says. In restaurants and workplace cafeterias, the amount is much larger—about 40% of the average meal gets tossed, according to a study published in PLoS One.
Dr. Roe’s advice: Err on the side of smaller portions at home so you don’t become too stuffed to finish what’s on your plate. (You can always go back for more if you like!) When dining out, ask your server to describe the meal size. If it’s more than you’re planning to eat, have half the meal boxed up to go before your order arrives at the table.
4. Get smart about food storage
Knowing how to properly store your food can prolong its shelf life and maximize your opportunity to enjoy it. Airtight containers help keep foods fresher for longer, says Carmen Byker Shanks, PhD, RD, a principal research scientist at Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition and Faculty at Montana State University.
The free app FoodKeeper tracks the age of your foods, while Best Before sends reminders to use something before it goes bad. Produce starting to look limp? Put ripe fruit, such as whole tomatoes, avocados, and oranges, in the fridge to extend their life for a few days. Soaking wilted produce in ice water for 10 to 15 minutes can perk those items right back up.
5. Put your freezer to work
“Most people underutilize their freezers,” Gunders says. “They’re like a magic pause button.” You can use it to stop time for a few days or week for a long list of unexpected foods. Freeze bread, baked goods, cooked pasta or rice, pasta sauce, butter, grated cheese, milk, nuts, and more.
Sliced fruit, peeled bananas, and blanched vegetables also freeze well, although the process may affect their texture. In that case, you can add frozen fruit to smoothies, and veggies to soups or casseroles, suggests Gunders.
6. Know the meaning of “best by” dates
Nine out of 10 Americans say they’ve tossed out food purely because the items have passed their “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before” dates, reports the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In some cases, they may have acted too soon. “These dates are the manufacturer’s best guess at when the item is at its freshest,” says Gunders. “They don’t mean you can’t eat it past that date.”
She recommends using your senses as a guide; most foods are perfectly fine to eat as long as they don’t look or smell weird. Just a few safety exceptions to keep in mind: Deli meats, raw fish, and unpasteurized cheeses can develop sickness-causing bacteria in the fridge without developing an off odour or taste. Those foods should be used by their expiration dates and cooked as directed on packages or in recipes.
7. Get creative with leftovers
Leftovers are one of the top foods that people throw out, according to the NRDC. To remember to use them up, store them in clear containers at the front of your fridge. “Schedule one night a week to use up those leftovers,” suggests Gunders. You can reinvent them into soups, casseroles, and stir-fries. For more ideas, she recommends searching for recipes on savethefood.com.
8. Consider composting
In a perfect world, you’ll buy and use the exact right amount of food every time. But odds are you’ll wind up with more than you need at a certain point. You’ll also produce, y’know, actual garbage—parts of foods you simply don’t eat. For those items, you might want to try your hand at composting, a process that turns trash like orange peels, mushy old vegetables, eggshells, and coffee grounds into rich soil fertilizer.
Many cities and towns have composting programs where residents simply drop off their scraps every week to create fertile soil for the community. You can also make a backyard composting pile for private use, or an indoor worm composting bin if you lack outdoor space and don’t mind having a few squirmy roommates.
9. Support food-rescue organizations
These groups scoop up unsold food from restaurants, stores, and other businesses, and distribute the items to people and communities in need.
Now retired from his role at the food pantry, Louis Albert says he is heartened by the growing public awareness and action on the interrelated issues of food waste and food insecurity. If all WW members made their voice heard, he says, the impact would be “considerable.”
Sharon Liao is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, nutrition, and fitness. She lives in Redondo Beach, California.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in November 2021 by Christi Smith, MS, CSCS, associate manager for science translation at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.