Food Waste

By: Kim Au


Along with inconsiderate people, overuse of the work “like,” and tailgaters, waste is one of my biggest annoyances. We live in a world where an island of garbage in the middle of the ocean is a real thing and there is no doubt that waste accumulation is becoming an increasingly bigger problem.

Last semester I gave a presentation on food waste for my Ecology class and the statistics I found were surprising, to say the least. In 2011, approximately 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption was wasted, adding up to 1.3 billion tons (about 20% of all global waste) [1]. This includes pre-consumer (contaminated food, trimmings, overproduction) and post-consumer waste (plate scraps, spoiled leftovers, returns). Not only does this reduce Earth’s limited space, but it also becomes an environmental problem: water and fossil fuels are consumed for producing food that will end up in the trash, and composting food waste in landfills emits methane and carbon dioxide.

It takes a collective effort to generate that amount of garbage. To understand this issue further, I examined the places and people that are responsible for generating the most amounts of waste: the producers, the vendors, and the consumers.

The Producers

During Chapman’s Food Industry Tour course, we observed that every food manufacturing company had their own way of dealing with waste. The most impressive program was Gills Onions who invested $10.8 million to create an award-winning system that would turn their onion peels into usable energy. Smaller companies who do not generate that amount of waste rely on cattle and pig farmers who buy the scraps to feed their livestock; ironically, waste unsuitable for human consumption is fed to a pig which ultimately feeds you. Other produce can be sent to juicers or to be composted and aerated, producing nutrient-rich fertilizer. These methods not only reserve space in landfills, but also cut down on the producers’ disposal costs.

The Vendors

After food is produced and distributed, it will most likely end up in a restaurant or in your grocery store. However, most waste generated in food service ends up in the trash bag to be sent to the landfill. Fortunately, that might change soon. The East Bay Municipal utility District in San Francisco has implemented a system that converts restaurant waste into energy. Hopefully it is effective enough that the majority of the country will follow.

Grocery stores, on the other hand, are a bit different. While it’s great to know that your neighborhood store has high standards for the items it sells, what happens to that one dented cantaloupe? Years ago, that melon could have been chopped up behind the deli counter and sold as an on-the-go snack. But not anymore. Your typical grocery store nowadays will prepare most of its food off-site to reduce staff size and labor costs [2]. In addition to mistreated produce, retail food waste includes overstocked items, expired Sell By dates, outdated promotional items, and unpopular products. Interested to find out where my local grocery stores sent their waste, I went on an adventure to Trader Joe’s and Sprouts.

At Trader Joe’s I met a crew member who was indeed friendly and happy to tell me their food waste policies. Each section of a Trader Joe’s has an assigned manager who is in charge of seeing that the shelves are neatly arranged, older items are rotated to the front, and that there is a sufficient amount of inventory in the back room for restocking. These managers are also in charge of ordering items for their respective sections. It is during this ordering process that managers set goals for themselves to minimize waste. This can be a difficult task since waste is dependent on demand for the product, which can be unpredictable. Each day, the staff inspects the shelves according to a log that tracks Sell By dates and removes the items that have passed their date. Loose produce does not have a Sell By date but is inspected daily for bruising, blemishes, and softening. Store employees are not allowed to take home or eat the removed items; these are placed in the stock room to be picked up and donated to shelters and soup kitchens. Trader Joe’s donates 95% of removed food, a fairly equal amount from each section and enough to fill up several shopping carts daily.

Sprouts Farmers Market is in the same plaza as Trader Joe’s but has a very different practice for getting rid of food waste due to it being more of a supermarket than a grocery store. The bulk of their food waste comes from produce which is trucked in everyday in small quantities in order to provide the freshest product and to keep the stock room from filling up. Produce that is no longer fit for sale is taken off of the shelves and thrown into a garbage disposal. Food is not donated for liability reasons. Prepared foods from the deli counter reaching their expiration date as well as overstocked items are put on “Manager’s Special” to encourage purchasing, but are thrown away when no longer considered safe to eat. Sprouts minimizes waste from the deli counter by only defrosting what they need.  Discontinued products are placed into a bin in the back room for employees to take and are the only items allowed to be taken by them free of charge.

The Consumers

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American throws away $28-43 in the form of about 20 pounds of food each month [3]. As a student who relies on her own money to pay for most things, I’ve developed a pretty good grasp on how to reduce my food costs and maximize my “food mileage.” However, a few of the girls I share a house with don’t quite realize the extent of their waste and how it can be avoided. Not only does their spoiled food occupy space in the refrigerator, but it also creates a food safety issue.  Sell By and Best By dates are also a concept they have yet to learn. These dates are not federally regulated nor are they indicators of safety, but instead are the manufacturer’s suggestion for optimal quality [4]. Many unopened foods will be perfectly fine consumed after their Use By dates. Thankfully, the EPA website provides helpful suggestions on how we can reduce our waste and where to donate our excess food.

The goal of this article isn’t to scold people for wasting food or to preach that no food ever be thrown away.  I simply want everyone to be more aware of how food waste is produced and where it goes. Even if you make the smallest effort to reduce the amount of food you throw away, whether it be using stale bread to make French toast or taking home leftovers from a party, it makes a difference. And with a combined effort, we can significantly reduce the amount of food wasted which has substantial economic, social, and environmental benefits.

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  1. Great article Kim! I totally agree that wasting food is a huge pet peeve (plus I feel like I’m throwing away money) – I think the hardest thing for me is potatoes. The 10 lb bag is always a tempting deal, but we can never eat them fast enough so I’ve had to force myself not to buy such a large amount.

  2. Definitely in food manufacturing, retail and food service a lot of effort is put into preventing food from going to waste because margins are already pretty tight. I think people are less aware at home because we’re buying the food to eat and not resell. I used to be much worse but when you realize how much money you’re throwing away you think twice about the quantity of food you’re going to buy, how much you will eat, how long it will last, etc. When I worked in the food service industry, I was pretty much required to use every bit of raw material I had. And in food manufacturing controls are very tight as well, making sure every ingredient is well documented so it’s known what quantities to order so money isn’t tied in something that won’t be used in the near future. Good post!

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