Jonathan Bloom has been researching and writing about food waste since 2005, when he got his start as a volunteer at DC Kitchens, a Washington, DC-based organization working to reclaim surplus food to redistribute to people in need. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Bloom about his work to prevent food waste, the great problems that it poses to the environment, and what consumers everywhere can do to eliminate waste.
Food Tank: How does the United States compare to other industrialized countries in terms of food waste?
Jonathan Bloom: A full 40 percent of the U.S. food supply isn’t used. We live in a throw-away society and our abundant food waste is just another reflection of that attitude. That is largely driven by the reality that food is cheap in the U.S. No other nation spends as little of their budget on edibles.
While global comparisons are difficult, it’s safe to say that the U.S. wastes more food than any other country. Per capita food waste for North American consumers is larger than that of any other region, and ten times the amount wasted by those in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.
FT: Where does most food waste in the United States come from (e.g. restaurants, grocery stores, or households)?
JB: We still need more definitive data on how much food is lost at each step of the food chain, but the best estimates are that the two largest producers of food waste are farms and households. The former is slightly more palatable because the majority of the on-farm food waste is plowed under, where the nutrients can replenish the soil. Meanwhile, home waste often ends up in landfills, where it creates methane.
FT: How does food waste contribute to climate change?
JB: Speaking of methane, that greenhouse gas is one of the two main ways food waste contributes to climate change. Methane is more than 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat, and unfortunately, we create it in abundance when we throw away food. Landfills are the second-largest source of human-related methane emissions, and food is now the largest component of our waste stream ending up in landfills.
More importantly, the food we waste represents squandered energy (and water and land). About four percent of all U.S. energy usage is embedded in the food we squander. That’s a massive amount of oil used for naught, yielding unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Being more efficient with our food could mean we could grow less, cutting oil and water usage and allowing more land to regenerate its nutrients. It could also mean being better at redistributing our excess food, alleviating hunger.
FT: What are some examples of successful food waste reduction or composting initiatives you’ve encountered or initiated at colleges and universities?
JB: There are far more composting initiatives at colleges than programs to reduce food waste. That is both understandable and unfortunate. It makes sense because reducing the amount of food wasted is harder—it asks us to change our ways. But it’s regrettable because trimming our food waste is more important than composting our excess.
I’ve encountered some really progressive food waste reduction schemes in my travels. By far the most straightforward idea is tray-less dining. Simply removing trays from all-you-can-eat cafeterias makes it harder for students to take too much. The “tray-less” movement, which began at tiny St. Joseph’s College in Maine and has spread to more than half of U.S. college cafeterias, reduces food waste by 25 to 30 percent and saves water and energy (because there are no trays to wash).
Anti-food waste signs are another effective way to cut waste. I worked with students in a Mindful Consumption class at Bucknell University to create awareness materials that were then displayed in the school’s cafeteria. Notre Dame Food Services has a Waste-Free Wednesdays initiative that includes messaging posters. And Bon Appetit Management Co., which serves more than 20 college campuses, uses awareness campaigns to prompt students to think before they over-serve themselves.
Waste audits are another useful tool. Getting students to weigh the cafeteria food waste created at a meal or in one day raises awareness and often prompts behavior change. I’ve helped with waste weighs at Bucknell and witnessed them at a few other campuses.
Most often, though, college food waste reduction takes the form of food recovery groups. These student-led initiatives redistribute unserved prepared food from campus eateries and local restaurants. The Campus Kitchens Project and Food Recovery Network both have chapters across the country that rescue literally tons of edible, unsellable food that they then deliver to those in need. Meanwhile, the independent Stanford group SPOON has been doing the same since 1987.
FT: Your blog lists a lot of recent examples of legislative initiatives on food waste, such as Massachusetts banning commercial food waste by 2014. Do you think this trend will continue? How do you think the public will react to such initiatives?
JB: These landfill food waste bans will continue because they just make too much economic and environmental sense. More and more municipalities and states will realize that they are discarding a potential resource—and one that becomes an environmental ill when it decomposes in the landfill. While it remains unfortunately cheap to throw away stuff in much of the U.S., the more populated areas have high waste costs that will help steer elected officials toward more progressive solutions for waste. And the creation of more composting and true waste-to-energy facilities (biogas generators, not incinerators) will only help the equation.
Following the Massachusetts announcement, we’ve seen a few positive steps recently. For example, Austin, Texas just determined that retailers and restaurants will have to recycle food waste beginning in 2016. And Vermont just passed a law banning landfill disposal of organic materials by 2020.
There may be some grousing at first, but the public will adjust—just as it did in the 200-plus towns who have curbside compost collection and as we’ve seen in the countless communities now recycling other materials. Twenty years from now, the idea of allowing a potential energy source or soil amendment to aid climate change by becoming methane in a landfill will seem laughable. Until then, the joke’s on us. And the planet.
FT: What is the number one thing individuals can do to reduce their food waste?
JB: In two words: Buy less. Or at least shop smarter.
Most of us don’t think we waste any food, because it disappears quickly—into the trash or down the disposal—but we Americans don’t use 25 percent of the perishables we bring home. With that statistic in mind, it probably makes sense to buy less food. One way to do that is to make more frequent, but smaller shopping trips. If that doesn’t work plan out meals, make a detailed shopping list and—this is easier said than done—stick to it!