Earth Matters: Food waste warms climate

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By Patti Wood

As Thanksgiving is almost upon us, most of us are planning some
kind of special meal, either a quiet COVID-19 dinner for two or a small family gathering. But how many of us are thinking about the leftover food that will be scraped into the garbage as we clean up the kitchen after our feast?

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite food holidays, and thoughts of turkey soup and turkey curry, and those fabulous day-after turkey dinner sandwiches, complete with stuffing and cranberry sauce, are all part of the anticipation. However, using up leftovers is not everyone’s dream or an option for those with limited space. Commercial food preparers and restaurant kitchens routinely discard leftover food for reasons of economics.

Food waste is particularly heavy on holidays, but it is actually a problem everyday in America, where one pound of food per person is wasted. This adds up to about 40.7 million tons (81.4 billion pounds) of food waste every year, or between 30-40 percent of the food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average American family of four discards $1,500 of food annually.

The greatest amount of food waste worldwide is food left in the field, or unharvested crops. In low-income countries, 40 percent of food is lost due to the lack of refrigerated storage, efficient transportation and infrastructure. But the United States holds the dubious distinction of being the worldwide leader in generation of household food waste, with the majority of this food being sent to landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is the most common material in our landfills, accounting for 21.9 percent of all municipal solid waste.

Landfilling of food waste contaminates our soils, water and air and has major environmental and economic impacts. Most significantly, when food waste is landfilled, it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. It actually has a warming potential of 21 times that of carbon dioxide, and municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States.

How you throw your food away matters. If you throw your vegetable and fruit leftovers into a regularly turned and well-maintained compost pile, you are not contributing to greenhouse gas releases into the atmosphere. This is referred to as aerobic composting, or the decomposition of organic materials using microorganisms that require oxygen. Aerobic composting requires the introduction of oxygen to compost piles to allow aerobic microbes to thrive. The only byproducts of aerobic composting are heat, water, and a very small amount of carbon dioxide, which is absorbed by soil and surrounding vegetation. Anaerobic composting is the method of composting similar to landfilling, without introducing any oxygen, which means the breakdown of the organic materials takes much longer and produces little heat. This lack of heat results in the survival of many pathogens and causes significant amounts of methane to be released into the atmosphere.

The other important issue surrounding food waste is the very real problem of food insecurity, a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. The statistics for the numbers of U.S. residents who are food insecure are astounding: more than 37.2 million residents in the United States; 2.2 million are New York state residents and 1.1 million are New York City residents. Tying the problems of food waste and food insecurity together seems to offer a solution that will benefit the environment and, even more importantly, hungry people.

Here on Long Island there are many groups focused on collecting food from farms, grocery stores and restaurants and delivering it to food pantries and food distribution centers. The need is greater than ever due to COVID with the loss of income for so many families. If you have access or connections to food sources that would otherwise be wasted or want to help, you can contact Long Island Cares at licares.org (631-582-FOOD) or Island Harvest at islandharvest.org (516-294-8528 or 631-873-4775).

One last word… when we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport and package it. Personal shopping habits, food storage and meal planning can go a long way to reduce food waste in our own kitchens. Recommendations from the EPA and other federal and state agencies include more careful planning of food shopping trips, using meals and leftover meals as a guide and sticking to a list. When you buy in bulk or stock up on sale items, think about freezing or processing those foods so they don’t spoil before you have a chance to use them. And add soups to your weekly menus – making soups, like minestrone, can be a great way to use up leftover vegetables. Overripe fruit and a few wilted greens whizzed in a blender with a scoop of plain yogurt and orange juice is a treat for the taste buds and a gift to the environment.

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