Wasting food has been called the “world’s dumbest environmental problem.” Every year, the average family of four in the U.S. tosses roughly $2,000 in food; 30 to 40 percent of food produced in this country ends up discarded.
At dinner, our parents urged us to finish everything on our plates. Beyond the moral and economic reasons to do so, it turns out there’s a significant environmental one, too. When food winds up in landfills it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than the poster child of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, which primarily comes from fossil fuel use.
In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the United States. Few people realize that when they shove some grapes into the bottom drawer of their refrigerator and forget about them, they are contributing to climate change.
Throwing out food at home is only part of the problem. As the Natural Resources Defense Council noted in a report last year, “We leave entire fields unharvested, reject produce solely for cosmetic reasons, throw out anything past or even close to its ‘sell by’ date, inundate restaurant patrons with massive portions, and let absurd amounts of food rot in the back of our fridges.”
When we toss food, we’re not just wasting calories; we’re also squandering the energy used to grow crops and raise cattle, as well as the energy required to ship, refrigerate and package food.
It’s time for people, restaurants, supermarkets, and farms to factor this cost to the environment when they over-order or carelessly discard edible food. The federal government has recognized the need to address this problem; in 2015 the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. It’s doable, and we all have a role to play.
In May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hosted a food waste roundtable in Washington.
“Our nation’s agricultural abundance should be used to nourish those in need, not fill the trash,” Perdue said. “So many people work on food waste issues in their own spheres, but it’s time to change the culture and adopt a holistic approach to get everyone working together and sharing ideas.”
Overseas, some governments are taking more aggressive actions to stem food waste. France, for example, bans grocery stores from tossing edible food. South Korea prohibits food waste from landfills and requires people to separate food waste from their regular trash.
While those mandates might prove politically unpalatable in the United States, some states are taking more modest steps, such as restricting how much food waste can be sent to landfills, and we should encourage those laudable efforts. But real progress will come when people and businesses step up to solve this problem. And many already are doing so.
The Food Waste Reduction Alliance—a collaborative effort of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association—is working to standardize the confusing panoply of labels that consumers use as cues to determine if food is still safe to eat.
There are also organizations like Food Cowboy, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine and Meal Connect, which bring technology to food donations—allowing farms, grocery stores, and restaurants to donate their excess food to food banks. Some supermarket chains are also taking steps to sync unused food to groups feeding the needy. Trader Joe’s has Donations Coordinators at its stores, who work to bring unsold food to nonprofit organizations.
Then there’s “ugly food”—produce that looks weird or misshapen but is identical in taste and quality to properly proportioned fruits and vegetables. Companies like The Misfits sell imperfect-looking produce at a discount. As the company says, “Crooked cucumbers, misshapen tomatoes or not-so-red Red Peppers are just as delicious and nutritious as ‘the other guys’—and less expensive!”
If we could take these solutions and scale them, the food we’d save could feed millions of hungry people, conserve resources, and make a big dent in one of the biggest sources of climate change.
It won’t take a rocket scientist to solve this dumb problem. We can do it ourselves.
This article was originally published by the Outrider Post and republished with permission as a part of a partnership between The Rising and the Outrider Foundation.
The Outrider Foundation is a non-profit organization focused on advancing science-based literacy on global risks that affect the well-being of the planet. Content posted on this column has been syndicated from the Outrider Post as a part of a partnership between The Rising and the Outrider Foundation.
The World’s Biggest Brands Commit To Tackling Plastic Pollution, But What Else Can Be Done?
After World War II, the world experienced a plastics boom, with production growing at an exponential rate thanks to the material’s versatility and durability. Plastic touches nearly every aspect of our lives, from the materials used to construct buildings and homes, vehicles, and technology, to household products, clothing, and shoes. It is estimated that we have produced more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic since this time, of which less than 10% is recycled. That’s where the plastic pollution problem comes in.
Many countries in the Global North turned to China to recycle their plastics, but ever since China changed its policy, the United States and many other countries are forced to find other avenues for taking care of their plastic waste and address the plastic pollution crisis back home.
Who is responsible for the crisis and what is being done?
Plastic pollution activists and coalitions have emphasized the responsibility that the world’s largest brands play in addressing this global crisis. Civil society members from more than 80 countries hosted brand audits through clean-ups during the #BrandAudit2019 initiative, calling on these brands to change their practices of manufacturing and selling products in single-use plastic packaging.
Some big brands have taken responsibility for their role in plastic pollution and have taken action. Coca-Cola announced its World Without Waste initiative with the goals to achieve 100% recycled packaging using 50% recycled materials, and by 2030 collect and recycle one bottle or can for every item sold. Unilever made a similar announcement, promising to cut its use of virgin plastics by 50%, and collecting and processing its plastic packaging.
One social enterprise is making it a little bit easier for big brands to shift their single-use plastic packaging practices. TerraCycle recently launched the Loop Store, a global circular shopping platform that allows customers to purchase products in zero waste packaging. Following the “milkman model”, products sold through the Loop Store are stored in reusable containers that are collected, washed, and reused again.
Innovations in tackling plastic pollution
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup, an ambitious project that aimed to collect the massive volume of plastic found in the oceans globally. At 2,000 feet in length, this plastic collection device has successfully collected plastic since its initial trials. Other entrepreneurs are developing products made from plant-based materials, such as utensils made from avocado seeds and creating faux leather using nopal, or producing products that do not require plastic packaging, in efforts to reduce our reliance on products made with plastic.
Consumers, recognizing the power they hold by their purchasing behaviors, are also raising their concerns with companies to change their practices. In a recent petition to Trader Joe’s, customers called on grocery chain to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging, garnering over 120,000 signatures. The company acknowledged this grassroots call for change, providing a status update since their announcement in late 2018.
Conclusions and the future for tackling plastic pollution
While there is hope hearing the world’s biggest brands acknowledge the role they play in and their plans for curbing plastic pollution, it is evident that is not enough. It takes more than a few companies to set green goals in order to move the needle forward. We need to continue holding big brands accountable, foster and support new ideas that open new horizons for plastic packaging and waste, and change our own behaviors to start addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.
Belinda C. Chiu is a public health professional and contributing writer at The Rising. She studied Social and Behavioral Interventions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and is passionate about climate advocacy, sustainable development, and zero waste. She is the founder of A Healthy Blueprint, a resource for individuals looking to reduce their environmental footprint. She serves as Associate on the Youth Engagement team at Women Deliver, a leading global advocacy organization for gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women.
Opinion | Americans care less about the environment than the rest of the world
In the past five years, the world has become increasingly concerned with the environment. According to a study published by Glocalities, the global percentage of people “worried about the damage that humans cause to the planet” rose from 71% in 2014 to 77% in 2019 — a 6 percent increase. Despite this increase in global environmental concern, however, the United States still lags almost 10% behind.
Only 68% of Americans show concern for human-created environmental damage. So why do Americans have more environmental apathy than the rest of the world?
Environmental concern is on the rise everywhere
Although fewer Americans care about environmental damage than the rest of the world, it’s important to note that both populations are showing an upward trend. Since 2014, about 7% more Americans show concern for the environment. This rise in concern among Americans parallels the global rise.
This is good news. Maybe now the world will focus more on its environmental footprint. And with eco-consciousness gaining traction at the global level, the world may be able to unite on this front.
Indeed, the rise in environmental concern seems to transcend typical social boundaries. The trend appears in economies both big and small, advanced and upcoming. It spans across age, gender, education levels, and political ideology. It seems to be a war not on culture but on “greed, ignorance and reckless exploitation” according to the trend report. This rise in momentum is an opportunity to unite against the damages we inflict on our environment.
U.S. politics may explain environmental apathy
Although on average American voters worry less about environmental damage than the rest of the world, American Democrats actually care more than the global average. This year, a whopping 83% of Democrats expressed environmental concern. This is 6% more than the global average.
But there’s a steep division drawn on U.S. party lines. Where 83% of Democrats demonstrate environmental concern, only roughly 58% of Republicans share the sentiment. So why does the percentage drop a whole 25%?
In short, we’re not too sure. The news we consume, our socio-economic statuses, and educations may all play a role. Another factor could be the divide between urban and rural communities — the effects of climate change are most exacerbated in cities.
But one thing is certain. Although Republicans and Democrats are strongly divided on the environment, the younger generation has shown far more concern across the political spectrum.
In fact, young Republicans have shown the highest increase in environmental concern. 67% of Republicans aged 18 to 34 said they are worried about environmental damage. That’s nearly equal to the national average. It very well may be that age is as large of a factor as politics in determining eco-consciousness.
So with environmental concern among America’s youth on the rise, the U.S. may soon catch up with the rest of the world. When it does, it will have a lot of work to do.
Energy storage is paving the way for new economic models
As the world moves towards the mass adoption of renewable energy, some questions come to mind. Which energy sources are most practical for the future? How do we rebuild an energy infrastructure and economy that works? What economic models are best for this new energy economy? Energy storage can answer some of these questions.
Energy storage is picking up speed
At the moment, the installation rate of solar panels is rapidly accelerating. And partially, massive reductions in price are facilitating this growth trend. Energy storage is beginning to follow a similar trend line. Specifically, we are rapidly nearing a time when we’ll be able to store excess energy to cover the energy needs of energy customers.
But does a centralized energy infrastructure make sense for our future? Well, provided there will always be some element of interconnection, some entity should maintain a functional level of grid-based energy transmission. On the other hand, as energy storage becomes more accessible, an interesting future opportunity presents itself.
An interesting market opportunity arises
Imagine a future where every building functions as an autonomous energy unit. While this may stay grid-connected, each building could have the ability to both generate and store its own electricity. Once each building has generated and stored enough electricity for its own needs, there’s an opportunity to sell the excess energy on the market.
There is a similar opportunity with vehicle-to-grid energy transactions too. Since there will be so many vehicles that are stagnant overnight, they can also leverage energy storage in a peer-to-peer energy transaction.
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