Americans Spend Nearly A Third Of The Food They Buy

Americans Spend Nearly A Third Of The Food They Buy

Jennifer Savage was scrambling to pull something together for dinner. Deep in the back of her fridge, she found a container of stuffed peppers. Very old stuffed peppers. She groaned, then did what millions of Americans do every day, without a second thought: She scraped the rotten food into the garbage.

Sitting nearby, her daughter, Riley, burst into tears.

Riley, then a fourth grader, had learned at school about people who don’t have enough food to eat. She’d also learned about the impact of food waste on the planet: When food rots in landfills, it generates methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Seeing her mother toss one of her favorite meals in the trash brought these messages home.

The family resolved to do better. Riley began asking for smaller portions, knowing she could always go back for more. Her father started packing leftovers for lunch. Ms. Savage searched for recipes everybody would devour.

“If no one was watching me, I might be a little more wasteful,” Ms. Savage said. “But she’s watching and she’s asking questions that I can’t deny are really important.”

In a land of seemingly endless supermarket aisles, “don’t waste food” may sound more like an old-fashioned admonition than a New Year’s resolution. But to some people, especially those concerned about the environment, it’s a cause that​ deserves ​our attention. In the United States, food waste is responsible for twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as commercial aviation, leading some experts to believe that reducing food waste is one of our best shots at combating climate change.

With a warming planet in mind, a small but growing number of states and cities have enacted regulations aimed at keeping food out of landfills. Most require residents or businesses to compost, which releases much less methane than food dumped in landfills. California recently went even further, passing a law mandating that some businesses donate edible food they otherwise would have tossed out.

In the Columbus, Ohio, area where the Savage family lives, nearly a million pounds of food is thrown out every day, making it the single biggest item entering the landfill. (The same is true nationwide.) Households account for 39 percent of food waste in the United States, more than restaurants, grocery stores or farms. Change, then, means tackling the hard-wired habits of hundreds of millions of individuals, community by community, home by home.

This is no easy feat. Despite decades of haranguing, Americans are still terrible at recycling. And the reasons people waste food are much more complex than the reasons they throw water bottles in the wrong bin: They forget the spinach in the fridge and get more; they buy avocados that go bad before they get eaten; they cook a huge holiday spread to show love to friends and family and then can’t finish it all. As Dana Gunders, executive director of the nonprofit ReFED, points out, one-third of the food in this country goes unsold or uneaten — evidence of a culture that takes abundance for granted.

“Nobody wakes up wanting to waste food,” Ms. Gunders said. “It’s just that we’re not thinking about it. We’ve become really accustomed to it in our culture, and quite numb.”

As in most of the country, throwing food into the garbage in Ohio is perfectly legal. So, in an attempt to extend its landfill’s life span, the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, or SWACO, has had to try a different tactic: persuasion. While it is not the only agency in the country nudging people to waste less food, it is one of the few that has measured the effectiveness of its public awareness campaign. An early study shows promise, as does the fact that, in 2021, 51 percent of the region’s waste was diverted from the landfill through recycling and composting. It is a record for the agency and much better than the national diversion rate of 32 percent.

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