How Your Leftovers Are Feeding Climate Damage

Your food waste footprint is bigger than you think. Here's how to minimize your climate impact. (And, no, composting is not the answer.)

Mindful eating is all the rage lately. People are paying attention to the flavors of their food and being careful to stop when they feel full. But few are thinking about the food they don’t eat — what gets scraped into the garbage can or compost bin at the end of dinner, or goes bad in the fridge before it ever sees a plate.

Food waste is one of the most overlooked contributors to the climate crisis, according to a report released Thursday by the World Resources Institute, a research nonprofit. Nearly a third of all the food produced in the world is lost or wasted each year, accounting for an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. A quarter of all water used by agriculture goes to producing food that never gets eaten, and growing that never-to-be-eaten food requires an agricultural area the size of China. What’s more, the report warns, if we don’t get a handle on the situation, we’ll have to convert an Argentina’s worth of natural land into farms over the next three decades in order to meet the world’s food demands.

But we can avoid that, the authors submit, if we cut the amount of food we waste in half by the year 2030. “Halving food loss and waste by 2030 is critical if we’re to feed the world without destroying the planet,” said WRI head Andrew Steer.

The report lays out how governments, corporations, retailers, farmers and consumers can all do their part to meet this goal, originally set by the United Nations in 2015. For those of us eating three square meals a day in North America and Europe, that means — in the simplest terms — not throwing away so much food.

CocoSan via Getty Images

Food loss looks different at different parts of the supply chain and in different parts of the world. A third of the 1.3 billion tons of food lost each year happens in developing countries, where farmers struggle to get their products to market before they spoil, due to problems such as lack of refrigeration and bad roads. Just as much is wasted by consumers in wealthy countries who don’t finish their leftovers. (The rest can be attributed to issues in processing, packaging, and distributing food.)

Nearly 60% of food waste in North America, and more than 40% in Europe, is caused by consumers. It typically comes down to two main issues, Liz Goodwin, WRI senior fellow and director of food loss and waste, told HuffPost: We buy too much food, and we don’t use it in time.

“It’s partly because we don’t plan properly,” she said. We lead busy lives and take for granted that we can pop into a store whenever is convenient and buy what we need — often to get home and realize we didn’t actually need it. Plus, she added, “We’re not very good at portion sizes. We cook too much and then don’t use the leftovers.”

Wasting food is a normal part of daily life, she said — but it shouldn’t be.

We need to rethink what is waste and what is not waste, said Natural Resources Defense Council food waste director Elizabeth Balkan. “It might be that you’re quite accustomed to cooking with kale or Swiss chard, but you throw away the stems. But there are lots of recipes that use the stem,” she said. “Making use of the whole ingredient … reduces the amount of food scraps you’re producing.”

Balkan stressed that food waste advocates like herself are not here to tell people what they should and should not eat — she doesn’t expect people to start making vegan “pulled pork” out of banana peels (which is apparently a thing you can do). But she and Goodwin want people to realize that when you waste food, you waste all the resources that went into producing that food — the land, the water, the labor and the energy it took to process and transport and store it.

“When you waste food, you waste all the resources that went into producing that food.”

By some estimates, making a single quarter-pound burger takes over 14 gallons of water, 13 pounds of cow feed, and 64 square feet of land, plus the carbon footprint of raising, slaughtering, packaging, storing and selling the ground beef. If you leave that burger languishing in your freezer for months and then decide it’s too old to eat, you’re throwing away all those resources along with it.

Not all food waste is created equal. Beef and dairy have the highest environmental footprint. A fruit or vegetable takes fewer resources to produce, said Balkan, but “that’s not to say that if you’re throwing away all your banana peels and eating all your meat you’re OK.”

Even the seemingly insignificant things add up. She offered the example of apples, which are not nearly as resource intensive to produce as meat. If you always peel off the skin, you might then be throwing out a tenth of every apple you or your kids eat. Now imagine people all over the world were throwing away 10% of every apple. That’s a lot of edible, nutritious food, as well as a lot of production energy, going to waste. “There are certain behaviors we do without question, and now we see that they are wasteful and perhaps not the right thing to do from nutrition or climate perspective,” Balkan said.

Changing these behaviors needn’t be solely in the service of a lofty global imperative. Your goal doesn’t have to be to reduce food waste in order to actually reduce food waste. Your goal can be to save money and to save trips to the supermarket — which might just help save the planet, too.

To be sure, the onus is not on consumers alone to reduce food waste. Producers and manufacturers can improve efficiency, technology and packaging to preserve food better once it leaves the farm. Retailers can stock their shelves with “ugly” fruits and vegetables that don’t look perfect but are perfectly good to eat. Did you know that those confusing “best by” dates have nothing to do with food safety? Companies could take them off their products, and governments can enact legislation to standardize labeling, so buyers don’t get the impression that food has expired when it hasn’t. Restaurants can serve smaller portions.

It will take all that and more to tackle the rampant food loss that adds to greenhouse gas emissions, ecosystem destruction and global food insecurity. We each can be part of the solution by changing small but deeply ingrained food habits, shopping smarter, cooking only as much as we need, and actually eating our leftovers.

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