By Scott Smith, Communications Director
We live in a land of plenty, and for that we should all be thankful. But too much of a good thing can be a problem, particularly when it’s taken for granted or, worse, wasted.
We’re talking about the need to reduce the massive amount of food that ends up in the nation’s landfills. A recent report in The New York Times highlights this growing problem: “For centuries, people used everything they could: the stalk of a banana tree, vegetable peels, a carrot that grew twisted underground. Today, 31 percent of food that is grown, shipped or sold is wasted.”
Fortunately, there’s a solution to the food-waste crisis, one that can help stem much of the downstream damage that occurs from our modern lifestyles. Veganism.
Compared to a plant-based diet, the meat and dairy industry that feeds most Americans is wasteful in every way, from the land it requires, to the resources it sucks up, to the pollution it leaves behind. If we switched to plant-based diets, we would reduce the amount of land devoted to farming—much of it used to feed doomed cows—by 76%. Fully three-quarters of the world’s supply of soybeans is “wasted” fattening up farm animals for slaughter.
Eating a soy burger instead of ground beef would not only free up resources and land available for more sustainable agricultural practices and wildlife habitat but also help reduce the need for more landfills and the pollution they cause. Food waste in landfills produces the third largest amount of methane emissions in the United States (15%), after petroleum production (30%) and animal gas and manure (27%), according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
By weight, fruits and vegetables make up about 42% of total food waste. While not deemed necessary for a healthy diet, meat, fish, milk and dairy account for fully 40% of food that’s thrown away after purchase, according to a report compiled be ReFED, a nonprofit focused on reducing food waste. (Check out ReFED’s “A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste By 20 Percent,” which highlights 27 cost-effective and scalable solutions all along the supply chain.)
Meat waste is especially noxious and notoriously difficult to dispose of. Research compiled by the University of Colorado found that wastewater produced by the meat industry is 5 to 10 times as strong as domestic sewage and contains much higher nitrogen, phosphorus and grease concentrations. As with most dairy products, meat contains a lot of fat, which takes longer to break down than the more basic carbohydrate structures found in plants and yard waste. Even worse, “60% of a slaughtered farm animal becomes abattoir waste and, as such, has to be either recycled or disposed of,” reports The Atlantic. In all, the animal farming industry in the U.S. produces 116,000 pounds of waste per second, according to a recent study published by the National Institutes of Health.
The best things come in no packages
Shopping for a plant-based diet makes it easier to skip wasteful packaging in favor of stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables, bulk-bin purchases of grains, seeds and nuts as well as vegan staples with long shelf life, like pasta, potatoes, dried beans and dried fruit. According to the EPA, food and food packaging materials make up almost half of all municipal solid waste. ReFED, calculates that up to 25 percent of residential food waste is due to packaging size or design.
In U.S. supermarkets, the most common type of packaging for animal products features oxygen-permeable film covering trays of Styrofoam made from polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic. The EPA has established styrene as a possible human carcinogen. Not to mention Styrofoam is non-biodegradable and is considered a main component of marine debris.
Another problem with packaged perishables—which exacerbates the food waste crisis—is the confusion over “Sell by…” and ”Best by…” date labels. A lack of standardization and consumer education often leads shoppers to throw away food before it’s spoiled, causing an estimated 20% of at-home food waste, reports ReFED. Some supermarket chains have begun to remove date labels on produce after research showed that including them led people to trash perfectly good food.
There’s no more room at the landfill
With the nation’s landfills stuffed and precious little room to expand, state and local governments are seeking ways to divert food waste from turning into yet another point source of greenhouse gas and groundwater pollution as it rots away. A new state law that took effect at the beginning of 2022 mandates that Californians toss unused food into bins they use for other “green” waste, such as lawn clippings and leaves. Another part of the law calls on grocery stores and restaurants to recover a large portion of their edible food and donate it to those in need. The goal of the new state law is to reprocess 75% of this green waste by 2025, turning it into compost or use it to create biogas, an energy source that is similar to natural gas.
California isn’t alone. New York state also kicked off 2022 by requiring businesses making two tons of food waste per week or more to donate edible foods to those in need or recycle food scraps, with most going to create compost for healthier local soils.
Vermont already has a universal recycling law banning food scraps from landfills. In the Connecticut town of Meriden, a pilot program involving 1,000 households has them putting their food waste in plastic bags alongside their regular trash. It will be turned into renewable energy and compost, diverting 2.5 tons of food scraps a month from the waste stream. And in nearby Westport, the local branch of Sustainable CT has set up a food-waste drop-off bin at the refuse center used by residents to dump their trash. The food scraps are turned into compost rather than gumming up the works of the incinerator used to generate electricity for the region.
Another welcome trend is the rise of “compost entrepreneurs” serving communities around the country. A service called Curbside Compost picks up food waste around towns in New York’s Westchester County on a weekly basis and in return, for a monthly subscription fee of about a buck a day, will also deliver finished compost to your door.
Such changes do begin at home, so keep in mind that restaurants are notoriously wasteful. The worst offenders are the buffet-style, all-you-can-eat dining establishments and cafeterias that use trays. Seventy percent of discarded restaurant food comes from food that’s paid for but uneaten, reports ReFED, which adds that the University of Massachusetts Amherst removed trays from its dining halls and reduced post-consumer food waste by 30%.
Take-out and delivery options are hardly better, especially when you factor in the bulky packaging. Case in point: Three billion pizza boxes are discarded each year. The grease that soaks through the liner makes them hard to recycle; even worse, soiled pizza boxes often contaminate whole loads of cardboard bound for the recycler.
Home-cooked, plant-based meals will almost always result in less waste than restaurant fare, to say nothing of the fact that they’ll also be cheaper and healthier. But if you do go out for a celebratory meal, make it a visit to your favorite vegan restaurant, where you’ll be sure to clean your plate of every delicious last morsel!
How to reduce food waste at home and in your community
To be sure, even the most conscientious vegan can reduce the amount of food that goes uneaten or make sure that the food scraps and leftovers are put to a beneficial end use. Here are some practical, easy-to-follow practices to “waste not, want not”:
Have a list and a meal plan when you go to the grocery store. Shop for things in the bulk aisle to reduce packaging and don’t impulse buy, especially for perishables. As much as 55% of food purchases are unplanned, which leads to over purchasing and food spoilage
Practice portion control, and adjust recipes accordingly to manage leftovers. When you have excess of some type of food, look for recipes that feature whatever that is, so that it’s used right away instead of sitting in the refrigerator
Make your own vegetable stock from leftover vegetables — you can use almost anything, in any condition, and stock can be frozen indefinitely
Avoid buying products you don’t use often or at all; learn to make some of your condiments from scratch (especially ones you don’t use often or in great quantity) — a cookbook for this is The Vegan Pantry by Miyoko Schinner
Plant a garden to grow seasonal vegetables and herbs; share excess produce with neighbors or donate to a local food bank
Be less picky. A less than perfect carrot tastes just as good!
Take your own “doggy bags” to restaurants, to avoid using more throw-away plastic and to avoid wasting food. Skip the serve-yourself, “all-you-can-eat” dining establishments that feature tray dining
Compost organic leftovers so the nutrients and carbon from trimmings and uneaten food can be recycled back into the garden soil. If rodents or other pests are a problem, choose an enclosed system such as a tumbler
Get active at the local level by volunteering to transfer unsold grocery items to food banks. If you live near a farming community, check to see if there’s a “gleaning” program to harvest surplus crops or edible produce not judged of commercial quality.