The United States spends roughly one billion dollars per year to dispose of food waste. Food leftovers are the largest portion of our waste stream according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This waste includes unconsumed food and food preparation scraps such as vegetable peels.

What you need to know about food waste, composting, and the environment

August 26, 2021
5
 Min Read

Below is an excerpt from Amanda Terillo's book, Kitchen Confidence, which outlines the environmental impacts associated with food waste, how food waste is generated, and a simple way you can start reducing your own food waste: home composting.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF FOOD WASTE

The United States spends roughly one billion dollars per year to dispose of food waste. Food leftovers are the largest portion of our waste stream according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This waste includes unconsumed food and food preparation scraps such as vegetable peels. [1]

Food waste has a significant impact on the environment. Growing food requires a lot of inputs, such as water, energy, and fertilizer/animal feed. In America, bringing food to our plates uses 10% of our total energy budget, 50% of land, and 80% of freshwater per year [2]. In fact, agriculture is responsible for one-third of climate change [3]. To make matters worse, 40% of food that is grown is wasted. When we waste food, we are also wasting the inputs used to grow our food. [2]

Food is wasted at all stages of the food chain from harvesting in the fields to consumer waste. Fifty-four percent of the world’s food waste occurs during the product, postharvest-handling, and storage phases. The other forty-six percent of food waste occurs at the processing, distribution, and consumption level. [4]

Sending food to the landfill increases the release of methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, into the environment. Greenhouse gases increase the temperature in the atmosphere and make the oceans more acidic. Acidic oceans cause the death of aquaculture (farming of fish, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic plants), which reduces the diversity of commonly consumed fish species. Today more than 1 billion people worldwide rely on aquaculture as a primary source of food. [5]

Produced-but-uneaten food occupies almost 1.4 billion hectares of land in the word. This represents 30% of the world’s agricultural land area, the land cleared for growing food. This wasted land is about the size of India and Canada combined [6]. Cutting down arable land increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which leads to climate change. In addition, when we cut down land in order to raise livestock, we are decreasing habitats of many animals leading to species loss.

Certain foods require more inputs than other foods. Animal proteins, such as meat, poultry, and dairy, require more inputs than vegetables. In the United States 47% of soy and 60% of corn are used for livestock consumption. This soy and corn take up 33% of arable land. Therefore, when we waste animal products we are not only wasting the animal, but also the feed, inputs for feed, and the land used to raise the animal.

The increase in droughts across the globe has made wasting water a significant issue. Since 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture, the food we eat has a large impact on how much water is used or wasted. Animal proteins require the largest amount of water to produce. Check out the Water Footprint Calculator to learn more about the water footprint of different foods.

​Every time we throw food away, we also throw away the precious water used to create the food. At the retail and consumer level, fruits and vegetables make up 32% of total food waste. Though not as high as animal proteins, vegetarian proteins and plant-based foods require heavy inputs as well. These foods many not need to be fed grain, but they still need water and fertilizer to grow. Reducing food waste at the consumer level can significantly improve the environment. One way to reduce food waste, and lower your water and carbon footprints, is to send less food to the landfill. ​

INTRODUCTION TO COMPOSTING

Reducing food waste is the best choice for the environment, but the next best thing to do with wasted food is to compost. Composting is a process of recycling decomposed organic materials into nutrient-rich soil known as compost. When added to the soil in your garden, compost help plants grow by adding nutrients back into the soil rather than sending them to the landfill [7].

Food scraps and yard waste are easy-to-compost items. There is no set recipe for creating a compost, but it is important to create a balance between green materials (nitrogen) and brown materials (carbon). The recommended ratio of brown materials to green materials is three to one. The following table provides a list of green and brown materials.

There are many ways to compost at home. The equipment needed for each style of composting varies. Composting does not require a lot of space. You can even compost inside an apartment. If you manage your compost bin well, it should not attract pests or create unpleasant odors.

Keeping your compost contained in a structure works best. There are many different containers and materials you can use to create a structure for composting, but you must have airflow. You can create airflow by drilling holes in a container or using chicken wire or hardware cloth around your bin.

Turning your compost will help facilitate the process of decomposition. Turning your compost exposes it to air, which will keep your compost pile aerobic. This encourages microbes to decompose the materials. It is recommended that you turn your compost weekly with a pitchfork, but if you miss a week or two your compost pile will be okay [8].

Keeping your compost pile moist is also important. You can maintain proper moisture by monitoring the amount of rain in your area and watering your compost during dry spells. If your compost pile starts to get too moist, simply add more brown material to absorb the excess moisture.

Check out the following resources to learn more about composting at home:

REFERENCES

  1. “Food Waste in America,” Society of St. Andrew, accessed January 30, 2016, http://endhunger.org/food-waste/.
  2. Dana Gunders, “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” National Resources Defense Council, last modified August, 2012, http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf.
  3. “Agriculture,” Climate Institute, accessed January 30, 2016, http://www.climate.org/topics/agriculture.html.
  4. “Food Wastage Footprints,” FAO, accessed March 7, 2016, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/nr/sustainability_pathways/docs/Factsheet_FOO D-WASTAGE.pdf.
  5. “What is Ocean Acidification?,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed January 30, 2016, http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F
  6. “Food Wastage Footprints,” FAO, accessed March 7, 2016, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/nr/sustainability_pathways/docs/Factsheet_FOO D-WASTAGE.pdf.
  7. ​“Composting at Home,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, last updated April 8, 2016, https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home.
  8. “Backyard Composting,” Eco-Cycle, accessed January 30, 2016, http://www.ecocycle.org/backyard-composting.​