Garbage can teach us a lot about food waste
One man's trash is another man's data.
The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council is going to dig through trash bins. The trash will belong to both residents and businesses. It will be done in three American cities. Why? Because it turns out we don't actually know that much about food waste.
We know that Americans waste about 36 million tons of food a year. But we don't know the nitty-gritty details. We don't know about individual behavior. How much of that "waste" is bones and peels that can't be reused? And how much is food that could have been eaten? And how could not wasting some of that food help communities provide for the 48 million Americans who aren't sure where they'll get their next meal?
It is new, slightly gross research. But it will help us to understand the truth behind our communal food waste habits. Researchers from the NRDC want to know how much food we throw away in a given week. They also want to know how much of it could have been eaten if we had planned better. They want to know if we could have ignored an expiration date that wasn't needed.
The research will start in Nashville, Tennessee. The team will ask hundreds of volunteers to keep a weekly kitchen diary. It will list what they throw away. And why. Then the researchers will return. They will dig through the trash bins. They will see if the diary matches the deeds.
The same work will begin in Denver, Colorado a month later. And it will start in New York City in January. This is to get a sense of how these behaviors vary across the country. Altogether, researchers will survey about 1,000 residents. They also will survey 100 businesses.
"This is the first time anyone's trying to really track and get a better understanding of food waste in U.S. cities," says Dana Gunders. She is a senior scientist and food waste guru. Gunders works at the NRDC. Gunders' wrote a groundbreaking 2012 report. It found Americans waste 40 percent of their food. That's more than 20 pounds per person each month.
The Rockefeller Foundation has given nearly $1 million to fund the project. The foundation hopes that it will give cities and citizens tools to chip away at their piece of the food waste pie. The Environmental Protection Agency set a goal last year. It wants Americans to cut food waste in half by 2030. That, in turn, would cut water use by 25 percent. It would save consumers $165 billion a year. And it would reduce methane emissions from landfills by 20 percent in the process. But many cities are still struggling with how to reach that goal.
After funding the agricultural Green Revolution that helped feed a billion people, the foundation sees too much of those production gains being wasted today.
Cities have also hired "solid waste experts." They come from companies like Kansas-based Engineering Solutions & Design. They sift through the city landfills. Then they report what could easily be diverted. Scientists at NRDC have done similar work. But those studies typically break the waste into categories. One of them is "food."
"What kind of food was it? Was it edible? Or was it just bones and peels? Why did it happen? And it doesn't give you any information on how to address it," Gunders says.
"The geek in me is actually strangely jealous that I'm not getting to be elbow deep in food waste in Nashville."
Gunders hopes this study will fill in some of those gaps. Most of us have vague notions about the food waste chain. One is that imperfect produce is left to rot in farm fields. Another is that it is discarded at the grocery store. Food that was once perfectly good goes bad in our refrigerators. Or, it is left uneaten on a restaurant plate. But we don't know how much of that could have been eaten. Nor do we know how much was inevitable scraps and bits from processing.
Gunders will look at residents' trash surveys and through their bins in the coming months. She will be interested in what's just "past due" (and technically still fine to eat). And, what should have been eaten days earlier before it spoiled. One reason people throw away food is that they might not understand that best-by dates on packages are suggestions. It is a problem that legislation introduced to Congress this year aims to address. The other represents a series of more complicated problems. One is our ability to match cooking goals with reality. Another is our tendency to over-order.
Gunders is confident making one hypothesis. It is that people tend to underestimate how much food they're really throwing away. The average American household wastes about $2,000 worth of food each year. This is according to Jonathan Bloom's book, American Wasteland. But a survey conducted last year by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that 75 percent of Americans still think they waste less than the average American.
"Everything points to the fact that people don't know how much they're wasting," says Gunders.
On the commercial side, the project will work with several types of businesses. They include schools, sports arenas, restaurants and grocery stores. The project wants to estimate the food each sector tends to waste. Talking to businesses will help them decide whether those sandwiches in the dumpster were uneaten halves from customers. Those sandwiched can't be recovered. It could be that the sandwiches were shrink-wrapped extras from the refrigerator. Those could have been donated to a food bank.
Each city will get a report. It will detail how much food wasted by businesses could instead be recovered to feed the hungry. And all this data will be made available for other cities interested in trimming their trash bills. Cities could use the data if they are interested in meeting their communities' needs with food that might have been tossed.
"I expect," Gunders says, "it's a first step that people will build off of for years."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are people asked to keep a kitchen diary, instead of merely reporting how they used food from memory?
Write your answers in the comments section below