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The Epidemic of Food Waste in the United States

Updated on October 2, 2015

The United States is a world leader in many ways; unfortunately, one of them is our ability to waste food. Our country throws away more food than some countries consume in a year, and there is a growing sentiment among Americans that the tons and tons of food that is discarded on a daily basis could be better served if utilized in other ways.

Many people feel that unwanted food – which is a surprising phrase to be typed out, to be sure – would be much better served being brought to a homeless shelter than simply festering in a landfill somewhere. Your average person probably doesn’t give such notions a second thought; however, little things happen each and every day that can serve as eye-opening experiences when you least expect them.

A writer for environmental blog Yellow Pages Goes Green described an incident they had witnessed at a local fast food restaurant that really opened their eyes as to just how casual the average person can be when it comes to disposing of perfectly good food; clearly, the over-abundance that we as Americans are subjected to daily has numbed many of us to the very concept of waste.

“I visited a local McDonald’s recently and had an incident which made me feel uneasy about restaurant policies regarding food waste. I ordered a sandwich that was brought to me not as I expected, so the lady behind the counter proceeded to dump the sandwich in the garbage in front of me,” they said. “I found it to be rude in some way, almost, insulting. Although I understand the sandwich cannot be sold again to another person, she should have offered for me either to take it as well or at least taken it to the back discreetly to discard. So many starving people in the world seems a real shame.”

When such a small, everyday transaction can open one’s eyes to such a degree, the cold, hard facts will really have most people taken aback at the wastefulness of modern society; The Washington Post sheds some much-needed light upon the totality of how much we as a nation throw out each year.

“In 2012, the most recent year for which estimates are available, Americans threw out roughly 35 million tons of food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That's almost 20 percent more food than the United States tossed out in 2000, 50 percent more than in 1990, and nearly three times what Americans discarded in 1960, when the country threw out a now seemingly paltry 12.2 million tons,” they said. “In 1980, food waste accounted for less than 10 percent of total waste; today, it makes up well over a fifth of the country's garbage. Americans, as it is, now throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, or glass—and by a long shot.”

And if that’s not enough information for you, End Food Waste Now has a plethora of facts for you about the subject; it’s certainly enough to make you lose your appetite.

  • Approximately 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste.
  • Over 97% of food waste generated ends up in the landfill.
  • Consumer and foodservice food waste is the largest source of food loss in the marketing chain.
  • Food waste that goes to the landfill breaks down anaerobically and produces methane; methane is 21 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.
  • In 2010, 48.8 million Americans lived in food-insecure households.
  • Less than 3% of food waste was recovered and recycled [composted] in 2010.
  • Food loss costs a family of four at least $589.76 annually.
  • On average, diners leave 17 percent of meals uneaten and 55 percent of these potential leftovers are not taken home.
  • Reducing food waste by 20 percent would provide enough food to feed 25 million people.

So, after reading all that, you’ve decided that you want to find a decent way to utilize food that would otherwise be heading for the trash can – perhaps composting or feeding those less fortunate than yourself – but you don’t know how to best go about it? Tampa Bay points out a variety of ways to make better use of viable foodstuffs rather than just tossing it aside like so much refuse.

“In the Tampa Bay area there are increasingly sophisticated networks of individuals and organizations devoted to what is commonly called ‘food recovery.’ Publix partnered with Feeding America Tampa Bay, Feeding Tampa Bay's former name, in 2009. Since then, Publix has donated over 164 million pounds of product — the equivalent of more than 136 million meals,” they said. “They don't donate any cooked, ready-to-eat items (think rotisserie chicken). But they do pass on some items you might pass up, such as perishable items that no longer meet average quality standards, but are certainly still fit for human consumption. A simple example is an apple with a bruise."

If there are no food donation groups in your city, try organizing one yourself, either alone or through a local charity, such as a church or community center. Another thing to do with waste food is to make compost buckets to help fertilize your garden, or buy a digestor to break down plate scrapings and pineapple tops into usable fuel. With a little creativity and some hard work, there’s really no limit on what you can do with the food that the average person would throw away without a second thought.

The fact of the matter is simple- we all live on this planet, and life is a continuous circle; do onto others – and just as importantly, the planet – and you would have them do onto you. If more people practiced this simple mantra, the world would indeed be a better place to live.

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