Eat Leftovers, Compost, Trim Some Carbon from Your Footprint

In the latest issue of OnEarth, Laura Wright reminds us that "As kids, we were all admonished to finish what's on our plate for the sake of those starving children in poor, faraway countries." Among environmental issues, however, food waste barely registers as a concern. Yet when we do the math, tallying all the resources required to grow the food that is lost as it journeys from farm, to processor, to plate and beyond, the consequences of our wastefulness are staggering: 25 percent of all freshwater and 4 percent of all oil consumed in this country are used to produce food that is never eaten."

Staggering is right! While it's no real surprise that the U.S. gets the gold as the #1 trash-producing country in the world, at 1,609 pounds per person per year, it's hard to get one's arms around the idea that three-quarters of what's dumped, according to, is organic garbage, food waste by any other name, that could be composted.

A new study just published in the journal PLoS One found that the amount of food that gets thrown out in this country each day is equivalent to 1,400 calories per person--that's about three-quarters of the number of calories each of us needs to survive. Previous research from the USDA has found that the amount is equivalent to 122 pounds per month for a family of four.

And while you might think a lot of that food is lost long before it gets to our kitchens, home or institutional, rejected on the farm or by a processor or distributor, that's not true. According to USDA statistics, in 1995, some 5.4 billion pounds of food were lost at the retail level, while 91 billion pounds were lost in America's kitchens, restaurants, and institutional cafeterias. In other words, as OnEarth's Laura Wright reports, "food-service and consumer loss make up 95 percent of all food waste, which means most of the responsibility falls on those who prepare the food we eat, whether it's a homemade meal, a dinner at a sit-down restaurant, or the Egg McMuffin we gobble down during the car ride to work."

Here's the kicker: All that food rotting in landfills emits methane, a greenhouse gas that traps more heat than carbon dioxide. Based on Environmental Protection Agency data, rotting food may be responsible for about one-tenth of all anthropogenic methane emissions.

This is a big problem, one which will take many players at many points to address. For all of us eaters, here's an interesting fact from NRDC Simple Steps: by eating leftovers and composting the rest, the average family of four could cut their own greenhouse gas emissions by 400 pounds per year. Yet another reason to eat in and clean your plate - saving the planet.