Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Food Waste

Along with inconsiderate people, overuse of the work "like," and tailgaters, waste is one of my biggest annoyances. We live in a world where an island of garbage in the middle of the ocean is a real thing and there is no doubt that waste accumulation is becoming an increasingly bigger problem.

Last semester I gave a presentation on food waste for my Ecology class and the statistics I found were surprising, to say the least. In 2011, approximately 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption was wasted, adding up to 1.3 billion tons (about 20% of all global waste) [1]. This includes pre-consumer (contaminated food, trimmings, overproduction) and post-consumer waste (plate scraps, spoiled leftovers, returns). Not only does this reduce Earth's limited space, but it also becomes an environmental problem: water and fossil fuels are consumed for producing food that will end up in the trash, and composting food waste in landfills emits methane and carbon dioxide.

Of course, this 1.3 billion tons of food in the trash is not solely one person's fault. It takes a collective effort to generate that amount of garbage. So I examined the places and people that are responsible for generating the most amounts of waste: the producers, the vendors, and the consumers.

The Producers

As observed during our Food Industry Tour, every company we visited had their own way of dealing with waste. The most impressive program was Gills Onions who invested $10.8 million to create an award-winning system that would turn their onion peels into usable energy. Smaller companies who do not generate that amount of waste rely on cattle and pig farmers who buy the scraps to feed their livestock. This includes anything from misshapen cookies to almond meal to bruised tomatoes. So ironically, waste unsuitable for human consumption is eventually fed to a pig which will ultimately feed you. Produce that is less than appealing can be sent to juicers and plant trimmings from farms can be composted and aerated, to produce nutrient rich fertilizer. Recycling waste in these manners will not only reserve space in landfills, but it also cuts down on the producers' disposal costs.

The Vendors

After food is produced and distributed, it will most likely end up in a restaurant or in your grocery store. As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry for  more than five years, I can confidently say that there is a 99.99% chance* that all waste generated in food service ends up in the trash bag to be sent to the landfill. This includes carrot tops, the fat trimmed off your steak, the lemon slice in your water, and the last chicken wing no one wanted to eat because they didn't want to be "that guy." Fortunately, that might change soon. The East Bay Municipal utility District in San Francisco, a city that is always environmentally aware, has implemented a system that converts restaurant waste into energy. Hopefully it is effective enough that the majority of the country will follow.

*The other 0.01% is that hungry server who has been working for six hours straight without a break, so yeah, he'll eat your leftover fries.

Grocery stores, on the other hand, are a bit different and this is where it can get interesting. While it's great to know that your neighborhood store has high standards for the items it sells, what happens to that one dented cantaloupe? Years ago, that melon could have been chopped up behind the deli counter and sold as an on-the-go snack. But not anymore. Your typical grocery store nowadays will prepare most of its food off-site to reduce staff size and labor costs [2]. In addition to mistreated produce, retail food waste includes overstocked items, expired Sell By dates, outdated promotional items, and unpopular products. Interested to find out where my local grocery stores sent their waste, I went on an adventure to Trader Joe's and Sprouts.

Trader Joe's touts itself as "your friendly neighborhood store" so I decided to go there first and find out where its unsold food went. There I met a crew member who was indeed friendly and happy to tell me. Each section of a Trader Joe's has an assigned manager who is in charge of seeing that the shelves are neatly arranged, older items are rotated to the front, and that there is a sufficient amount of inventory in the back room for restocking. These managers are also in charge of ordering items for their respective sections and need to make sure that there is enough, but not too much back stock. It is during this ordering process that managers set goals for themselves to minimize waste. This can be a difficult task since waste is dependent on demand for the product, which can be unpredictable. It is also more difficult for those in charge of the produce section because, unlike peanut butter or cereal, produce can go bad within a short amount of time. Each day, the staff inspects the shelves according to a log that tracks Sell By dates and removes the items that have passed their date. Loose produce does not have a Sell By date but is inspected daily for bruising, blemishes, and softening. Store employees are not allowed to take home or eat the removed items, which are placed in the stock room to be picked up and donated to shelters and soup kitchens. Trader Joe's donates 95% of removed food, a fairly equal amount from each section and enough to fill up several shopping carts daily.

Sprouts Farmers Market is in the same plaza as Trader Joe's but has a very different practice for getting rid of food waste due to it being more of a supermarket than a grocery store. The bulk of their food waste comes from produce which is trucked in everyday in small quantities in order to provide the freshest product and to keep the stock room from filling up. Produce that is no longer fit for sale is taken off of the shelves and thrown into a garbage disposal. Food is not donated for liability reasons. Prepared foods from the deli counter reaching their expiration date as well as overstocked items are put on "Manager's Special" to encourage purchasing, but are thrown away when no longer considered safe to eat. Sprouts minimizes waste from the deli counter by only defrosting what they need (meaning that the potato salad you got on sale wasn't even mixed in the store). Products that are discontinued are placed into a bin in the back room for employees to take and are the only items allowed to be taken by them free of charge.

Some grocery stores try to reduce their waste by lowering prices on meats and prepared foods after a certain time while others try to get rid of their non-perishables by designating a bargain shelf where customers can buy "castaways" for less. I once bought a dark chocolate bar reduced from $6 to $2 because the store decided to stop carrying it. Other chains such as 99 Cents Only fill their shelves with overstock and just-about-to-expire items from regular grocery stores. It's great for when you're on a budget, but you can never rely on them having what you need since their inventory is based on what other stores need to get rid of.

The Consumers

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American throws away $28-43 in the form of about 20 pounds of food each month [3]. As a student who relies on her own money to pay for most things, I've developed a pretty good grasp on how to reduce my food costs and maximize my "food mileage." However, a few of the girls I share a house with have the luxury of a larger budget and don't quite realize the extent of their waste and how it can be avoided. I can't keep track of the number of times that I've seen leftovers turn moldy, unopened bags of produce rot, and quarts of milk curdle. Not only does their spoiled food occupy space in the refrigerator, but it also creates a food safety issue (not to mention a yucky smell). Sell By and Best By dates are also a concept they have yet to learn. These dates are not federally regulated nor are they indicators of safety, but instead are the manufacturer's suggestion for optimal quality [4]. Many unopened foods will be perfectly fine consumed after their Use By dates. Thankfully, the EPA website provides helpful suggestions on how we can reduce our waste and where to donate our excess food.

The goal of this article isn't to scold people for wasting food or to preach that no food ever be thrown away. I simply want everyone to be more aware of how food waste is produced and where it goes. Even if you make the smallest effort to reduce the amount of food you throw away, whether it be using stale bread to make french toast or taking home leftovers from a party, it makes a difference. And with a combined effort, we can significantly reduce the amount of food wasted which has substantial economic, social, and environmental benefits.

[2] http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf 

[3] [4] http://www.nrdc.org/living/eatingwell/files/foodwaste_2pgr.pdf