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We are what we DON’T eat: Environmental impact of food waste

Emily Dertz, a Zero Waste Arlington committee member, wrote this column about food waste.

food waste

Mounds of plastic waste and discarded fashion clothes are symbols of the disposable consumerism common in America. And while we should strive to reduce our plastic and clothing waste, food waste is actually the largest component of municipal landfills in the U.S. (24 percent in 2018), filling up a larger portion of the landfill than plastics (18 pecent) or textiles (8 percent). 

In the United States, between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is wasted, with the average household wasting 31.9 percent of the food it buys, translating to $1,866 per household per year. Wasting this much food causes pretty significant harm: 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food waste, due in part from the anaerobic conditions in the landfill, which do not allow for food waste to decompose properly, leading to the generation of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Fortunately, food waste is one of the few waste problems where individual actions can make a big impact, particularly because so much of the waste is generated by individual consumers.

Top three ways to reduce food waste 

1.) Buy Less

  • Shop your fridge and cabinets first. Use what you have before buying more. Commit to taking inventory of all the food in your kitchen twice a month. Bring forward the buried items and plan meals based on these ingredients.
  • Make a shopping list… and stick to it at the store to avoid impulse purchases.
  • When food does go bad, take stock: What are you buying too much of? What are you always throwing away? Change your shopping habits to eliminate this routine waste.
  • Plan your meals to avoid buying too much food. Try this nifty meal planner for parties

2.) Use What You Bought

  • Understand food labeling dates. The dates you see on food labels are not usually related to food spoilage. Instead, the dates tell you how long food maintains the best taste and texture. With proper food handling and storage, food can be safely eaten after its date.
  • Follow the “First In First Out” method by placing the oldest foods in the front, and plan meals around those ingredients first.
  • Keep leftovers in the front. Label the container with a piece of masking tape that lists an “eat by” date.

  • Store produce correctly. 

    1. Store produce on the “low humidity” setting of the crisper (i.e., vent open) for produce that is not sensitive to water loss and emits high levels of ethylene gas such as apples, avocado, melons, mangoes, pears, and peaches.

    2. Store produce on the “high humidity” setting of the crisper (i.e., vent closed) for produce that is sensitive to water loss and deteriorates quickly in the presence of ethylene gas such as leafy greens, herbs, cucumbers, carrots, strawberries, bell peppers, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

    3. Certain produce like potatoes, onions, tomatoes and winter squash should be stored in a cool and dry area like your basement.

  • Revive Food: 

    1. Wilted lettuce, sagging vegetables, and even herbs can be brought back to life by slicing the vegetables to allow greater surface area contact with water, then soaking them in a bowl filled with ice water for 15 to 20 minutes. Dry well before using. 

    2. Toast stale bread and place in a food processor to make breadcrumbs as a coating for fish or poultry, or as a filler in a vegetarian meatloaf. Or brush bread slices with olive oil, cut into cubes, sprinkle with garlic powder, and bake at 350°F for 15 minutes to make croutons.

    3. Turn expired milk into ricotta cheese

    4. Use vegetable scraps like carrot peels, celery leaves, parsley stems, mushroom stems, and onion skins to make a stock. Add the scraps to a large stock pot and cover with enough cold water until they float. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and simmer for 30-45 minutes. Using a colander, strain the stock into another large pot. Discard or compost the remaining solids.

    5. If fruits begin to brown or become mushy, add them to smoothies or baked goods. 

    6. Add sagging vegetables that can’t be revived to soups or casseroles.

    7. Browse Save the Food for recipe ideas and tips for using up the food you’ve got on hand.

  • Freeze- Freeze what you don’t use- follow these tips

3.) Don’t Throw It Out, Compost It! 

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Monday, 26 February 2024

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