According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in North America and the World Resources Institute (WRI), one-third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. The total cost for this lost food is about $1 trillion (UNEP). Another way to think about this statistic is in calories, which are needed for human beings to function and survive – according to UNEP, “1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten.” The people of the world must conserve more food, and avoid wasting it due to laziness or convenience in order to preserve natural resources and ensure that as many people are fed as possible with existing foodstuffs.
UNEP noted that industrialized countries waste as much food annually as the entire sub-Saharan region of Africa produces – 222 million tons are wasted, and the African sub-Saharan region produces 230 million tons. In 2009-2010, 2.3 billion tons of food was lost or wasted, which is equal to half of cereal crops in the world (UNEP). The United States is one of the main offenders in food waste, and organic food waste is the second highest component of landfills in this country, which in turn produce the most methane emissions; 30-40 percent of food in the United States is wasted, or about 20 pounds of food per person each month (UNEP).
Think, Eat, Save. In order to prevent food waste, UNEP recommends that we think, eat, and save. Thinking involves considering what we are buying and when it will be eaten; becoming aware of how much food is thrown away; planning meals and using shopping lists at the market or grocery store; and bringing leftovers home from restaurants in reusable containers to enjoy again (UNEP). Eating in a conscious way can save food, money, and the environment; UNEP recommends donating to local food banks if food is not consumed in a timely manner – and of course if it is still good. This requires thinking ahead of time and considering the food purchased. These techniques will result in saved money, food, and environmental resources (UNEP). World Food Day is October 16th in the United States and Canada (UNEP).
Reducing Food Waste at Home. The most important place to reduce food waste is at home – although commercial food operations, grocery stores, and restaurants are other good places to employ food saving techniques. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 95 percent of the food people throw away ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. In 2013 alone, 35 million tons of food waste contributed to methane production, a major source of greenhouse gases that cause climate change (EPA). The EPA provides benefits of reducing food waste and ways to reduce it, ranging from planning, storage, prep, and thriftiness tips as well as a toolkit for homes and communities; it also suggests diverting food waste from landfills to prevent methane emissions into the atmosphere of the planet. Reducing food waste conserves energy and resources used for the growing, manufacturing, transporting, and selling of foodstuffs, and supports the community when you donate unused food (EPA). The EPA’s suggestions are detailed below.
Planning Tips. The EPA recommends making a weekly list of the meals a family will consume, thereby choosing ingredients that have been previously enjoyed. The shopping list should be based on how many meals the family is expected to eat, and should account for eating out (EPA). Include quantities for each part of the meals to avoid overpurchasing, and look in the refrigerator and cupboards before shopping to avoid duplicate buying (EPA). Most importantly, buy only what the family will use (EPA).
Storage Tips. The EPA stresses the ease of overbuying or forgetting about fresh fruit and vegetables; some are packaged in a manner that often causes waste. Find out the best storage methods for each type of fruit or vegetable and keep them fresh longer. Whenever possible, freeze, preserve, or can extra fruits or vegetables, especially when they are in season; seasonal fruit, nut, seafood, and vegetable charts are available for download from the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). While these charts do not detail food storage, a simple search on the Internet will return the information needed to keep fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seafood usable for extended periods of time (EPA). Fruits like bananas, apples, and tomatoes cause other nearby produce to spoil faster, so storing them by themselves is essential to keeping them good until they can be eaten (EPA). Waiting to wash berries until they are ready to be eaten prevents mold, and keep all fruit in the refrigerator, taking what you want to eat the next day out the night before (EPA).
Prep Tips. Preparing perishable foods just after shopping allows quick meals to be put together during the week, when limited time might cause food waste to occur (EPA). Drying, chopping, dicing, slicing, and putting fresh food into clear storage containers makes them easy to access for snacks, meals, and cooking (EPA). Foods that can easily be frozen are breads, sliced fruits, and meats; another excellent way to prepare for the week’s cooking is to prepare meals on the weekends and freeze them (EPA). Perishable items like fruits and vegetables can be prepared, cooked, and frozen for use over several months (good examples are marinated chicken breasts and seasoned taco meat) (EPA).
Thriftiness Tips. One of the best ways to keep food waste to a minimum is to always be aware of which ingredients or leftovers need to be used up; as the EPA says, “Shop in your refrigerator first! Cook or eat what you already have at home before buying more.” Many foods that are past their prime can still be used in soups, casseroles, sauces, stir fries, baked goods, frittatas, smoothies, or pancakes (learning the difference between “sell-by,” “use-by,” and expiration dates can keep your food safe) (EPA). To avoid over-ordering at restaurants, ask about portion sizes and make sure that you take home your leftovers for consumption later (EPA).
Composting. Composting is a traditional way to recycle uneaten food, but home composting systems have their limits. For instance, things like vegetable peels, fruit peels and waste, teabags, plants prunings, coffee grounds and coffee filters, spent bedding plants and flowers, young annual weeds, and grass clipping can be composted easily because they rot rapidly and provide nitrogen and moisture for gardens (Get Composting). These are called “greens,” and must be mixed with “browns” for the composting mixture to work. Browns include crushed eggshells, egg and cereal containers, corrugated cardboard and paper scrunched up, toilet and kitchen roll tubes, garden prunings, twigs and hedge clippings, straw and hay, vegetarian pet bedding, ashes from wood, paper, or lumpwood charcoal, sawdust and wood chippings, wool, woody clippings, cotton threads and string (no synthetic materials), feathers, vacuum bag contents, old natural fiber clothes cut into small pieces, tissues and paper towels, shredded documents, and corn cobs and stalks (Get Composting). Essentially, the compost should not give off an odor or be too wet; if it is, more browns needs to be added. If the compost is too dry and so is not rotting, greens should be added. Since air is a requirement to the process, mixing the material up as the bin is filled will create air pockets to keep the compost working (Get Composting).
Many things cannot be placed in a compost bin, including cooked vegetables, meat, or dairy products; diseased plants; dog, cat, or human excrement or kitty litter; perennial weeds like dandelions and thistles; or glass, plastic, or metals (Get composting). Compost should be dark brown, and smell earthy with a slightly moist or crumbly texture; sifting out pieces of twigs or eggshells before use will provide excellent material for flowerbeds, gardens, mulch, trees, potted plants, lawn feedings, and patio containers (Get Composting).
Anaerobic Digestion. Anaerobic digestion consists of biological processes which allow microorganisms to break organic matter down without the oxygen required for composting (American Biogas Council). The end product of anaerobic digestion is biogas which can be used again for renewable natural gas and transportation fuels (American Biogas Council). There are many different types of anaerobic digestion technologies being used today, including covered anaerobic lagoon digesters, plug flow digesters, complete mix digesters, and dry digesters. Among the matter being digested today are livestock manures; municipal wastewater solids; food waste; high strength industrial wastewater and its residuals; fats, oils, and grease (FOG); and other organic waste streams (American Biogas Council). Captured biogas is transported via a pipe from the digester in questions, and pumped into a gas use device or a gas treatment system. If the gas needs to be purer, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and oxygen can be removed for an injection into a pipeline or a biomethane-powered vehicle for fuel (American Biogas Council).
An Israel-based company called HomeBiogas® has created a biogas system that converts food and organic waste into clean cooking gas, with its byproduct to be used as liquid plant fertilizer (Wanshel). Homebiogas® claims to be “The most advanced, compact, and cost-effective Biogas system that converts kitchen waste and animal manure into cooking gas and liquid fertilizer, while maintaining the highest safety and health standards” (Homebiogas). Homebiogas recycles organic waste at the source in an eco-friendly and effective way, and kits allow for easy transport and quick set up (Homebiogas). By using Homebiogas, methane emissions are reduced, which in turn reduce global warming and groundwater pollution – the system is also “off-the-grid” for rural and urban consumers and is not electrically-powered. The entire setup costs $995 and the system accepts meat, fish, fats, oils, dairy, kitty litter, and any other type of organic waste; the bacteria in the digester decomposes the organic material and releases biogas which is equal to about 6 kilowatt-hours of energy, or “enough gas for about three hours of cooking time” (Wanshel, para 4). These types of food waste are not treatable in traditional composting systems, so the HomeBiogas is performing a service that other systems do not. Assembly and disassembly is very simple, and 40 of the systems were recently used in a project in the central West Bank’s Jordan Valley, and area without electricity. It should be noted that the system is most effective when the temperature is above 66 degrees Fahrenheit or 17 degrees Celsius – which means that it is particularly effective in desert regions such as Israel (Homebiogas).
If these options do not work for a certain family, one of the best ways to prevent food waste, methane, and greenhouse gas emissions is to divert food waste from landfills – any nutritious, safe, and untouched foods can be donated to a local food bank. Conducting a quick internet search for food banks in the area a family lives in can return several options. There are many regions in the world where food is scarce, and where production causes more waste than not – conserving our food, food resources, and energy by shopping locally and organically is one of the best ways to prevent food waste. The techniques listed on the EPA’s website are concise and to the point, easy to follow, and can be undertaken to a limited or unlimited extent by most families, couples, or communities – these techniques can help save land from deforestation, communities from starvation and malnutrition, and essentially preserve more of the planet and its resources for future generations.
American Biogas Council. “What is Anaerobic Digestion?” American Biogas Council. American Biogas Council, n.d. Web. 15 June 2016. << https://www.americanbiogascouncil.org/biogas_what.asp>>
Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. “Seasonality Charts.” CUESA. CUESA, 2016. Web. 15 June 2016. << http://www.cuesa.org/eat-seasonally/charts>>
Environmental Protection Agency. “Reducing Food Waste at Home.” EPA. EPA, n.d. Web. 15 June 2016. << https://www.epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-home>>
Get Composting. “How to Compost at Home.” Get Composting.com. Straight Ltd, 2014. Web. 15 June 2016. <<http://www.getcomposting.com/composting_guide.html >>
Homebiogas. “The Company.” Homebiogas. HBG Ltd., 2015. 15 June 2016. <<http://www.homebiogas.com/about.html>>
United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Office of North America. “Food Waste: The Facts.” United Nations Environment Programme. United Nations Environment Programme, 2015. Web. 15 June 2016. <<http://www.worldfooddayusa.org/food_waste_the_facts>>
Wanshel, Elyse. “This Machine Turns Your Food Waste into Gas For Cooking.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 2016. Web. 15 June 2016. <<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/homebiogas-home-biogas-system-clean-energy-turns-food-waste-into-gas_us_575b1a50e4b0e39a28ad9e9b>>
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