As I clean out the fridge after a weekend away and begin to make a grocery list, I find myself looking at the sad, forgotten food. A red onion slowly dries out, a bunch of celery goes limp, half of an avocado turns brown, cilantro starts to wilt, and a few forgotten, bruised pears sit in the corner of the produce drawer. The food isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not at its freshest.
Whether it’s wilted herbs, mushy greens, or leftover chicken, I find myself throwing away more food than I’d like to admit. I’m not alone – each year 130 BILLION pounds of food is wasted, nearly 40 percent of ALL food.
That’s a lot, and apparently, household consumers are the biggest problem. Americans are getting better, but we have a long way to go in reducing food waste. Going “zero waste” can seem overwhelming, and is a massive lifestyle change. Let’s start with baby steps instead. Being smarter about our food consumption is not only better for the environment, but it can also help you spend less on your grocery bills. It’s a win-win.
Cassie Bartholomew is a Program Manager at StopWaste, a government agency in California working to reduce how much waste products their county sends to landfills. They’ve recently started Stop Food Waste, a campaign to educate residents on ways to reduce food waste by reusing, donating and composting food, something she says there’s a lot of shame around.
“I think the first step is just to acknowledge that in some way we all are wasting food,” Bartholomew says. “We need to acknowledge that and move on, and figure out ways to reduce it.”
Start with Stop Food Waste’s “10 Minute Fridge Reality Check” and take inventory. I tried the challenge and was embarrassed to find quite a few items I’d forgotten about. (I’m looking at you, spoiled ricotta cheese and slimy lemon wedges.)
Bartholomew says education is one of the easiest ways to start reducing food waste. Learn how to store fruits and vegetables properly, and familiarize yourself with what product dates really mean.
“There’s a lot of food that gets tossed simply because there’s misconceptions around whether that food is good to eat based on the confusion around date labels,” Bartholomew says.
The National Defense Resource Council estimates that a family of four spends between $1,365-$2,275 each year on food they’ll throw out. I can think of a TON of ways I would rather spend that kind of money.
Make a plan
Before you shop, take inventory, and look at what you have on hand and try to incorporate that into your meals. Try to adopt a “first in, first out” mentality, and “shop” your fridge. Bartholomew says meal planning, even once a week, really makes a difference.
On your list, identify how much you need, and try to buy that exact amount. My local grocery store (Publix) will break up produce packages, so I can buy only what I need. You can also look for a Zero Waste Grocery Store. Bring containers, and you can control how much you purchase.
If you can’t use something before it spoils, consider the freezer. (Check out our Freezer Guide here!) Chop carrots, onions, or celery and freeze for soups and pasta sauces. Freeze fruit for smoothies or chicken bones for stock – the possibilities are endless. Just don’t freeze it and forget it!
“Freezing food is a food saving strategy, but we also know through research that it alleviates guilt with wasting food,” says Bartholomew. “So often we put food in the freezer but then we never eat it, so it eventually goes to waste.”
While researching, I was overwhelmed (in the best way possible!) with the number of recipes dedicated to using food scraps or leftover bits. (Think carrot and strawberry tops, brown bananas, and bruised pears.) Websites like Save the Food, and Food Waste Feast allow you to browse by category. Using leftovers doesn’t have to feel like a chore with inventive recipes.
It really inspired me to think about different ways to use what I had in the pantry. I’d love to try Avocado Chocolate Mousse, Bruised Pear Pandowdy, and Fettuccini Carbonara with Yesterday’s Charcuterie.
A few of my new favorite ways to use food scraps:
- Use citrus peels to make all-purpose (or yoga mat!) cleaner
- Use veggie ends/scraps to make stock
- Use stale bread to make bread crumbs
I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize decomposing food and organic waste are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. (Reminder, greenhouse gasses are bad! They remain in the atmosphere, warming the earth and contributing to climate change.)
Composting the food waste you do generate can help reduce the amount of organic waste that goes to landfills. Companies like Urban Canopy and CompostNow make it easy – they give customers a compost bin and pick up the waste. Less mess and less waste!
aSweatLife Ambassador Amanda Simmons found that composting help changed her approach to food and waste in general.
“Composting has made me feel significantly better about the impact I have on the environment,” Simmons says. “I might not be able to affect larger change, but it makes me feel good knowing that I’m doing my part to decrease my own footprint. Since I started composting, I barely have to take my trash out as often because about 70% of my waste can be composted and 25% can be recycled.”
Do your best
I worry about the environment and the negative impact our consumer-driven culture is having on it. I think about all the things I could be doing better—using clean beauty products, eliminating plastic, buying sustainable clothing—and I feel like I can’t make a difference or such drastic lifestyle changes. I’m far from perfect, and for Bartholomew, that’s okay.
“Sometimes I think with climate change, it’s really overwhelming for individuals to wrap their head around how they can really make an impact,” she says. “But we know with food waste reduction, food going into landfills emits greenhouse gasses that are much more potent than CO2, so you know you can tell someone to drive less, but it’s much easier just to waste less food and it’s actually more impactful in some ways.”
Start with small changes, and you might find yourself inspiring others to live a less wasteful life. Share tips and tricks with friends, families, and coworkers, and ask for their suggestions. Together, we can all do our part to leave the planet a little better than we found it.
This quote from Ann Marie Bonneau, Zero Waste Chef, has stuck with me: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”