Leftovers are Warming Up the Planet

Almost everyone has a science experiment or two hiding in their refrigerator. (Say, is that last summer's lasagna or an undiscovered species of mushroom?) But food waste creates more than scientific curiosities. It's an environmental problem, too.

Here's a statistic that's hard to swallow: More than one third of all the food produced in a given year never reaches a fork. Instead, it spoils during processing and shipping or goes bad when we don't eat it in time.

Even ignoring the moral implications of wasting 1.3 billion annual tons of food in a world where 805 million people don't get enough to eat, the problem is still big enough to choke the planet. Because wasted food isn't just giving hunger advocates indigestion. It also makes environmentalists queasy.

All this uneaten food wastes buckets of fresh water in an era when water is getting scarce. According to the U.N., the water consumed by wasted food equals the annual flow of the Volga River. That's 284,500 cubic feet every second. And producing, storing, and transporting all that food to nowhere creates over 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. If wasted food were a sovereign nation, it would rank just behind the U.S. and China as the world's number three climate change contributor.

The good news is that by being a bit more careful, we can take a bite out of both global hunger and climate change. Here's how:

  • Before shopping, plan daily menus and create a shopping list.
  • If a recipe uses an ingredient for which you'll have to buy more than needed—say a cup of something sold by the quart—plan additional dishes around the ingredient to use it up.
  • Incorporate leftovers into your menu planning so today's dinner becomes tomorrow's lunch.
  • Take stock before shopping and see what you already have so you don't unnecessarily buy more of the same.
  • At the store, stick to your list and avoid impulse buys, which experts say are a leading contributor to food waste.
  • Eat before you go. Hunger causes overbuying, which creates food waste.
  • Skip sales of perishable items, especially two-for-one specials and other bulk deals that may leave you with more food than your family can eat.
  • Buy “ugly” produce. Foods with colors, marks, or sizes that aren't perfect are perfectly edible yet get thrown away by stores because no one will buy them.
  • Shop weekly. Anything less and food may go bad or get wasted due to unexpected changes in your plans.
  • Keep it simple when life isn't. If you have little time for cooking, don't buy foods or use recipes that are time-consuming to prepare.
  • Cook only the amount of food everyone is likely to eat. If you're planning on leftovers, plan those quantities!
  • Store leftovers in clear containers so you can see what's inside. Use tape to date each one.
  • Put new items behind existing ones so older foods are eaten first.
  • Use cooking apps and sites like lovefoodhatewaste.com, which prevent waste by suggesting recipes based on ingredients you have on hand.
  • Freeze whatever you can't use. Even scraps can be set aside for broths!

Steps like these save more than the environment. According to the book American Wasteland, the average four-person family wastes about $2,200 worth of food each year. Conserving that kind of cash is something we can all sink our teeth into!

written by:

the Inkslinger

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!

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