The Shocking Statistics of Food Waste (and How to Keep Your Contribution to the Problem at a Minimum)

food in trash cans

Last year at my twice monthly morning mother’s group, we were treated to garbage bags full of day old bagels, breads, cookies, and other baked goods courtesy of a local Panera Bread. How did we get them? All we had to do was ask. There was so much thatΒ  I would bring reusable bags and take home bagels, loaves of Italian, ciabatta, and focaccia bread, and often a few cookies. Many of the woman did the same. If our group hadn’t taken them, chances are they would have been thrown in the trash.

Before you get all self-righteous about the waste of food by restaurants, think back to the last time you cleaned out your refrigerator. What did you throw out? How about the last time you ate in a restaurant? What did you leave on your plate?

Last week at World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, some shocking food waste statistics were presented. What place does food waste talk have at a water conference? It takes a lot of water to produce the food that is ultimately wasted.

In the US, it is estimated that as much as 30% of food gets wasted. That’s about $48.2 billion of food. That’s shocking at first thought. But when I think about what has been thrown out from my fridge over the years, what I’ve seen at the restaurants I’ve worked at in the past, what gets tossed in school and work cafeterias, and all the other places that contribute to the food waste problem, I can believe it.

The people in Stockholm called on governments to reduce the amount of food that is wasted by half by the year 2525. That’s a long way away but we’re talking about governments here and we all know how long it takes them to achieve things.

So I call on everyone reading this blog to reduce the amount of food that they personally waste by half in the next week.

  • Plan out meals weekly – Perishables picked up without a meal plan can go bad before you have a chance to use them. If you plan meals out between shopping trips, you’ll buy only the perishables you need.
  • Don’t prepare too much food – Scale down recipes to ensure you only make what you need.
  • Reuse leftovers – A lot of what gets thrown out from the frig is leftovers. If you’re not going to reuse it within a couple of days, freeze it.
  • Become a diner – I’ve been known to utter the phrase “This isn’t mom’s diner. I make one meal and you get what you get,” quite a few times in the past. I’ve learned to modify that. I’ll be a diner if someone is willing to eat leftovers. If I’m making salmon, my six-year-old’s world seems as if it’s ending. I’ve learned this is a perfect time to use leftovers. I offer him some leftover chicken or pasta in place of the salmon.
  • Share – After a big party send home leftovers with guests or offer food to neighbours the day after. Put together a plate with leftovers after dinner for a single or elderly neighbour. Donate those canned goods you bought for a casserole but never made to a food pantry before their expiration date arrives. There are tons of ways you can share instead of waste food.
  • Know what you’ve got – Put food in clear containers in the frig so you can see what you’ve got.
  • Doggie bag it – If you eat out, take your own containers for a doggie bag and bring home your leftovers. Then actually eat them.
  • Grow you own – I can guarantee you that not one tomato, pepper or herb from my garden has gone to waste this summer. It’s a lot of hard work to grow them, and I’m not about to throw that hard work in the trash.
  • Be truthful with yourself – You may have the best intentions in the world to cook a healthy dinner every night, but don’t buy a week’s worth of food if in reality you know you’re going to end up picking up take out or eating out a couple of times each week. Shop for who you really are, not for who you want to be.

In addition to seriously cutting back the amount of food you waste, you’ll end up saving quite a bit of money, too. That should be an added incentive these days.

How do you curb the amount of food that you waste? If you’ve got any tips, please share them.

Image credit: petrr at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Read More about Food Waste:

Food Auditing: How to Reduce the Waste

As Food Costs Rise, Consumers Look at Food Waste

Straightening Out a Broken Food Chain

  1. Adam

    You’re absolutely right. In addition, genetically modified seed companies like Monasto would have us believe that the only thing we can do to feed the growing numbers of people on this planet is to grow more food. (doubling the yield per acre and destroying the environment in the process) They want us to waste.

    But as you said, 30% of the food is thrown away. That’s 30% more usable acreage to feed 30% more people. So I guess that people who waste food shouldn’t be upset that they are eating food grown from patented, spliced, fertilizer and chemical dependent food.

    Excellent site by the way. I’m going to have to look around.

  2. Kristen

    I take my food scraps (and some leftovers) to a drop-off site for compostable materials.

    Knowing this will require me to pack it into bags and carry it on the subway goes a long way towards me being sure I’ve used everything I can possibly put to use.

    New Yorkers are pretty tolerant but I’m sure no one really wants to have to sit next to me, the bags-full-of-spoiled-tomatoes-and-old-couscous lady.

  3. Tim

    This is one of the reasons I won’t eat at the restaurant chain Chevy’s. Their serving sizes are so ludicrously huge that I often have to leave half my dinner on my plate; and I’m a 200lb, 6′ 2″ guy so imagine how much food that must be.

  4. Robin Shreeves

    Tim- I don’t know what Chevy’s is, but restaurant portions are often ludicrous. Even for kids’ meals. I have six and nine year old sons, and I always get one meal to split between the two of them from most restaurant menus.

    Even years ago before I stopped going to fast food restaurants, I’d order the boys two kids’ meals and I’d just order myself a small burger. I’d take fries from both their meals and take a sip or two of their drinks. We’d still have food left at the end.

    It’s interesting that food at the grocery store keeps getting smaller (like ice cream containers that keep getting just a hair smaller) but restaurant portions keep ballooning. Why is that?

  5. Pamela

    Are you aware that it is estimated that 18.7% of the Worlds energy is used by refrigeration.
    In today’s world we take for granted the refrigerator cooling our groceries 24/7 and when we turn off the lights in our homes and businesses, and lock the door for the evening, one of the things which will continue to use power around the clock is our refrigerators and freezers.
    New energy saving technologies, are being launched every day, but who can afford some of these technologies which we are being offered, or how difficult are they to install. And how long will it take for me to get my money back in energy savings, big questions.
    Refrigeratorsaver is the simplest, most effective, and inexpensive energy saving device for refrigeration.
    Invented in the UK by two highly recognized Harry Banham & Guy Lamstaes, who have both recent been listed in the Guardian Observer in the top (50) people who could save the planet,
    The Refrigeratorsaver is a silicone gel based thermometer that reads the exact product temperature rather than the air temperature, most refrigerators cool produce colder than needed, and on many home refrigerators we cannot see what the produce temperature, only the reading only the air temperature reading.
    This technology which won a millennium award, has no installation, you simply place the Refrigeratorsaver on the shelf, leave for (1) hour, and then you can make slight adjustments on the dial thermostat dial, or digital display in line with the product temperature.
    For every one degree you are able to adjust your home or business thermostat is the equivalent to 8% in energy savings, and we have averaged 20 to 24% on most home refrigerators.
    We have also found that by cooling produce at the right temperature, produce life extends by 2 to 3 days and with gas prices rising, many businesses are feeling the pinch with fuel charges being added to deliveries, this simple device makes huge saving on any businesses bottom line.
    The Refrigeratorsaver is a must for all restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels, hospitals, schools, colleges, universities, and especially homes,

  6. Gita

    I grew up in India & never had fridge till I came to high school, In my house no food was wasted. We got fresh Milk everyday, which we finshed by end of the day, rest was made into yogurt. We bought vegitables in season from farmers market, most of the vegitables were organic. Any extra leftovers were given to neighbours cows or dogs. Our protocol was to finish the leftovers first. It’s hard to imagine life without fridge now but I surely never missed the fridge those days.

  7. Stormn

    Wasting food has been a pet peeve of mine all my life. Being raised by depression era parents and living on a farm…. it was drilled into me about take what you want but eat all you take. I drives me nuts when I see people go to all you can eat restaurants and throw out half of what they take. At home I used to say to my kids around the dinner table… why would someone work to make money…. go to the trouble of grocery shopping… then dump 25% of the groceries down the drain?

  8. Steven

    Does anyone know the source for “In the US, it is estimated that as much as 30% of food gets wasted. That’s about $48.2 billion of food.”? Or, where could I find more statistics like this? Thanks!

  9. S.M. Stirling

    It’s only waste if you can’t afford it.

    In North America we spend about 2% of our income on food. When it’s that low a share, even very large changes are trivial relative to the total. 50% of 2% is only 1%, so cutting waste in half wouldn’t affect most people noticeably.

    And $48.2 billion sounds like a lot of money, until you take into account that the GDP of the United States is nearly $19 -trillion-.

    So $48.2 billion is a minuscule proportion — one part in, what? 500? It’s about the cost of three or four aircraft carriers.

    It would probably require spending more money than $48.2 billion to reduce that amount substantially.

    Peasants feed all their scraps to the chickens and pigs… but nobody, or close enough to nobody for government work, wants to be a peasant, as opposed to occasionally playing at it, like Marie Antoinette with her little dairy in the grounds at Versailles. Peasants do that sort of thing because they’re -poor-.

    For the first time since the Neolithic, the majority of human beings aren’t peasants, because they flee to the city as fast as they can — where they can aspire to a large enough income not to care about “wasting” food.

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