36 million tons of food waste goes to landfills every year (just in the U.S.) That’s about 30-40 percent of all food. Can we do something?

From PBS NewsHour: basically, about 30 percent of the food produced in the United States ends up as waste. 36 million tons goes to landfills, which is bad news for the environment — food waste ultimately converts to methane, which is 25x more powerful than carbon dioxide with regards to global warming. Now, the obvious thing would be to channel 1950s suburban housewife models and say, “There are starving people in China who want that food!” Indeed there are — and more drastically in other places. People try to come to the idea as rational businessmen/women, like Andrew Shakman of LeanPath, but the basic issue remains the basic issue: if someone in the U.S. has the knowledge to pack up their food on a Sunday, can you get it to starving people elsewhere in the world by Tuesday and have it still be good? Isn’t the basic issue one of transportation and logistics, and not necessarily manpower or technology? Here’s a description of what LeanPath does, from the above video, so you have a little context:

So what LeanPath does is we help people understand what they’re putting in the garbage, so that they can then make changes to production, to purchasing and to menus so that in the future, they don’t have that waste again.

PBS mentions some other organizations dedicated to the same idea — Food Cowboy, Crop Mobster and Daily Table — as well as farmers using food waste as compost (which in turn saves them up to $50K per year on commercial fertilizer, as compost is fairly nutrient-rich).

Back to the logistics for a second. Here’s the central issue — and we’re just talking in the U.S. here, not globally:

But there are still challenges. Gordon says it has been difficult to get food retailers on board. Many are concerned they’ll be blamed if someone gets sick. And even though there is a federal tax credit, the financial incentive may not be enough to sway them. Another major hurdle is convincing food charities to have flexible hours to receive a load on a trucker’s 24/7 schedule.

“Dumpsters are always open. And there are more Dumpsters than food banks,” Gordon says.

The ‘more-dumpsters-than-food-banks’ aspect goes back to time as a human’s most valued asset. Faced with two choices, we’re most likely to take the easier choice — and often, that involves throwing it out (this is kind of the same problem faced by recycling advocates, at least in the early going). Anything that involves the two-step of education and direct action is going to be hard to adapt on a massive scale, unless it involves something like buying an iPhone (people can figure out what’s happening there pretty quickly).

At this point in the game, it seems like the biggest things we need — and this is just domestically — would be (1) commitment (which 100 NYC restaurants recently did), (2) marketing/education about the ideas around food waste, (3) a centralized marketplace for amounts of food and pick-up windows, perhaps by city and (4) a couple of trucks wholly dedicated to this task. That sounds really easy to write in one paragraph, but theoretically it could work. This summer, I worked for a huge health care company. They worked with about 45 different oncological practices all over the country. Chemo drugs have about the same shelf life as food; in some cases, it’s even less. They had an internal system for the practices — if someone in Miami misses an appointment and his/her drugs are relevant to someone in Seattle, those drugs can get to Seattle by the next day. This is about saving lives. If vegetables are getting wasted in Miami and there are hungry people in Portland, OR — can’t we do the same thing? It seems possible.

The only true execution model here probably needs to be local. I’d be reluctant to assign the centralized marketplace idea to city governments, as I feel it would get tied up in bureaucracy, but the largest supermarket chain in each area has a responsibility to this issue. I think my math is about to be a little shoddy, but if people buy $100 of food and throw out $30 of it, as opposed to shopping smarter and buying $70 and using $70, couldn’t that benefit supermarkets (and the community as a whole) in the long run? More money in the pocket, more comfort in the kitchen, maybe get a little adventurous and go for $85 the next time out? (That might be the failing here.) Wegman’s gave some advice to local consumers in upstate NY, for example:

Buy the correct quantity of food. Buying in bulk only saves you money if you actually consume everything you purchase. Sometimes the better value is to purchase a quart of milk (instead of a gallon) or a smaller size food product that you know will be consumed, even if the unit price is higher.

Check your freezer, refrigerator and pantry before you go shopping. Don’t buy more of what you already have on hand, especially if it is perishable.

Cook with what you have. Plan meals around the food you already have on hand. Search for recipes online based on ingredients that are already in your kitchen, especially the perishable ingredients.

Love your leftovers. Use them in a new dish for the next night’s meal or freeze them for later.

I actually used to do none of this and now I do all these things before I make a big supermarket run. It’s much cooler to run to the supermarket and get paprika, because you need it for a recipe constructed around what you already have, then it is to run and spend $25 every day because “Oh, I don’t have this, or that, and oh, I could use some scallions.” That attitude ultimately leads to a lot of the food waste we’re discussing, and good goddamn, that’s most people I see walking around supermarkets — and not just where I live. (Supermarkets interest me, so sometimes when I travel, I check out the local ones, because I’m a huge f’n nerd.) You always see people walking around like, “Oh, we need this kale! Better get more just in case!” You know that kale’s ending up in a landfill.

Until aquaponics becomes all the rage (might be a bit), this is clearly an issue we need to address. Whether you view it in moral terms — people are hungry — or economic terms — we’re wasting food, which represents money — it doesn’t matter. We do need more solutions. It’s good to see some people are working on it, but even more can be done. Tablets are supposed to save every other industry, so maybe…

Ted Bauer

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