Each year, South Carolina produces approximately 600,000 tons of food waste. In fact, unused food is the number one item thrown away in the state, as, annually, an average family of four wastes $1,500 on discarded food. https://www.sccommerce.com/ 2017. America has a huge food waste problem, and these numbers reflect just the financial detriments that result from it. EPA estimated that in 2018 in the United States, more food reached landfills and combustion facilities than any other single material in our everyday trash, at 24 percent of the amount landfilled and at 22 percent of the amount combusted with energy recovery. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that in 2010, 31 percent or 133 billion pounds of the 430 billion pounds of food produced was not available for human consumption at the retail and consumer levels (i.e., one-third of the food available was not eaten).1
Social and environmental damage is also being done. 40% of food in the US today goes uneaten. From a community standpoint, this is particularly disturbing when one realizes that if we cut this by 15%, we could feed 25 million Americans at a time when 1 in 6 Americans (approximately 16.6%) does not have enough to eat. In a study conducted in Charleston, South Carolina, it was found that 19% of municipal solid waste in the city was composed of food, and statistics show that 18% of people in South Carolina are food insecure, meaning they are without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Environmentally, putting all this food in landfills comes at a tremendous cost. Food waste accounts for 16% of methane emissions in the US, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide from cars and energy generation. Additionally, food and organic waste cost $25 per ton when composted in South Carolina, as opposed to $66 per ton when dumped into a landfill, adding to the financial burden that food waste puts on our state and the United States as a whole.
Has it always been this way? The simple answer is “No.” The amount that the average American consumer wastes is up 50% from Americans in the 1970s, showing that we as a country used to waste much less and lending hope that we can get back there again. But how? There is no simple answer to this question, as it will take a multi-level approach to fix this billion-dollar problem. However, as consumers in South Carolina, there are many actions that can be taken to alleviate this social, economic, and environmental problem, and we have a responsibility to do so in order to aid the 18% of our fellow South Carolinians who go to bed hungry every night, in order to protect the environment, and in order to aid our economy.
The grocery store is the easiest place to begin reducing food waste, and actions taken there can consequently save you money.
Buy less: As Americans, we waste 25% of the food we buy. So try buying about a quarter less food. This gives you money to save and spend on other items, or it gives you the opportunity to buy healthier, often more expensive options.
Take more frequent trips to the store and buy less: Use the European model and buy only what you will use for the next couple of days, then take another trip to the store later in the week. This follows the “Just In Time” delivery model that many restaurants use, meaning you get items only as they are needed in the production process, thereby reducing your waste and costs.
Plan menus for the week: Creating a menu for the week helps to create a shopping list that is reasonable and useful. It also helps you buy just what you need, not a surplus. When planning your menu, try to create meals that use the same ingredients, especially herbs, since these tend to go bad quickly.
Take a list and stick to it: Lists are important! Make a list based on a menu that you have prepared for the week. Don’t get sucked in by deals or cravings; use your willpower to stick to the list and buy only what you need! Remember, this will not only reduce the waste your household generates but will most likely save you money, too.
Beware of sales that encourage bulk buying: “Buy One, Get One!” is a common trap. It makes you think you are getting a good deal, but the deal is wasted when the second item isn’t used. Or the first, for that matter.
Don’t shop when you are hungry: Shopping hungry makes everything look good, so just don’t do it. Eat before you go to the grocery store. If you are a busy person, take a granola bar with you wherever you go, so if you need to leave work or do food shopping after a day of other errands, you can eat something and go into the grocery store feeling satiated and not tempted.
Buy Cosmetically Imperfect Produce
A lot of produce is thrown out because it doesn’t meet size, shape, or color standards, but these fruits and vegetables are just as good as cosmetically “perfect” produce. Be willing to buy the less than perfect fruits and vegetables from produce stands and farmers markets. You’ll often get more fresh produce at a better price from these locations.
Cut out bad spots: When foods have started to go bad, but are still mostly good, break out the knife! Cut out small brown spots on apples instead of throwing them away, or cut off the tiny piece of mold on your block of cheese instead of wasting the whole thing. This is perfectly healthy and safe and reduces your food waste by a lot.
Learn When Food Goes Bad
Expiration dates of any kind are not federally regulated, except on infant formulas, and they do not indicate safety. These dates are merely suggestions from the manufacturer related to peak quality, and they usually err on the side of caution, so dates may not be completely accurate. Most foods can be safely consumed after their use-by date.
“Sell-by” Date: This date tells stores and retailers how long to display the product. The manufacturers suggest that you buy food prior to this date.
“Best if Used By” (or “Before”) Date: This date is the recommended date to use food for the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date but rather a date that the manufacturer suggests you should consume the product by to ensure the highest quality.
“Use-By” Date: This is the date that indicates when the product should last be used while at peak quality. The manufacturer of the product has determined this date.
Keep Your Fridge in Order
The more organized your fridge is, the better inventory you can keep of what you have and when you need to use it.
Use what you have before you buy more: Utilize websites such as www.lovefoodhatewaste.com or www.supercook.com to help you find recipes that use what you already have on hand before it goes bad you buy more.
Keep a clutter checker in the back of your fridge: Out of sight, out of mind, right? In terms of food, this generally translates to something like “Out of sight, wasted.” To keep this in check, keep a picture in the back of your fridge as a clutter indicator. If you can’t see the picture, your fridge is too full, and you should pare it down a little before restocking
Use clear containers to store food: Again, “out of sight, out of mind, wasted” applies here. If you know what leftovers are in what container, you are more likely to eat them.
Use The Freezer
Generally, frozen foods stay fresher and safer longer. If you freeze fresh produce and leftovers, you have a better chance of being able to eat them before they go bad.
Beware of freezer burn: To prevent freezer burn, a vacuum sealer is particularly useful. If you don’t have one, keep a running list of what is in the freezer and the date it was put in there. Use items in order of how long they have been in frozen storage.
Label and date foods as you add them to the freezer: Label food with what it is, if necessary, and with the date, it is being added to the freezer. Try to use things before they celebrate their freezer birthday.
Large portions have played a leading role in not only the obesity epidemic in the United States but also the food waste epidemic.
Ask for smaller portions at restaurants: Restaurants will sometimes provide half portions upon request and at reduced prices. If this is not an option, request a to-go box (or bring your own!) and put away half of your entrée before digging in to save for another meal.
Serve smaller portions at home: Serving smaller portions at home reduces food waste by ensuring plates are cleared. However, it should also be made easy to get seconds to ensure that as much as possible of what was cooked is eaten.
Eating leftovers reduces food waste and ultimately helps your budget by ensuring you don’t have to buy more groceries to pack for lunch or make another dinner.
Have leftover nights: Have nights where you clear out your fridge and offer up a smorgasbord of leftovers for yourself and your family.
Pack leftovers for lunch: Don’t worry about packing a lunch; just have whatever wasn’t eaten at dinner the night before.
Bring your own containers to pack up leftovers: This is not only eco-friendly in the way that it reduces Styrofoam and plastic waste, but it also ensures that leftovers are in clear containers, the importance of which was stated earlier. Additionally, it makes the leftovers easier to throw in a lunch box and take with you.
Food waste accounts for a large amount of methane dispensed into the air. Food makes up about 13% of the United States’ waste but generates a much higher percentage of the methane produced by the US. To reduce this impact, compost your food scraps, and methane will not be generated as long as the compost pile is regularly turned.
Non-perishable foods and unspoiled foods can be donated to local food banks and soup kitchens. If you aren’t going to use it, give it to someone who needs it.
- Gunders, Dana. “Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill.” Natural Resources Defense Council (2012).
- “Food Product Dating.” United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service. United States Department of Agriculture, 24 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2016. <http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating>.
- Tucker, Molly Farrell. “Charleston County Fosters Food Waste Composting.” BioCycle Jan 2013: 47-48. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
- “Facts about Hunger in South Carolina.” Feeding America. Feeding America, 18 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Mar 2016. <http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/news-and-updates/press-room/press-releases/facts-about-hunger-in-south-carolina.html?referrer-https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F>
- Bloom, Jonathan. American Wasteland; How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do about it). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010. Print
Document last updated on 6/22 by Daniel McKamy.
Originally published 02/99