This is how much water you waste when you throw away food
This is how much water you waste when you throw away food (Thinkstock)
This is how much water you waste when you throw away food
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Food waste is a staggering problem. In 2010, close to 133 billion pounds, or a little over $160 billion worth of food, wound up in U.S. landfills.
"There's no benefit to wasting food," says Kai Olson-Sawyer, a senior research and policy analyst at GRACE Communications Foundation, an organization that highlights the relationship between food, water and energy resources. "The fact is that food waste is truly a waste to all humanity of every kind."
That's because when you toss a rotten apple or a moldy container of leftovers, you're not just throwing away the food, but all the resources that went into producing it. "It's really important to understand where and how things are grown," says Ruth Mathews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, an organization founded in 2008 to advance sustainable water use.
Water plays a major role in food production, and as a result, food waste translates to an enormous amount of water wastage. All foods have a water footprint, the direct and indirect water that goes into producing a certain food, although some footprints are larger than others.
In general, meats tend to need the most water for production, primarily because of the amount of food the animal needs. So for instance, the water footprint of beef includes water that's used to grow the animal's feed and to maintain the farm, as well as drinking water for the animal.
Also, larger animals aren't as efficient in terms of meat production as smaller animals like chickens or turkeys, and the bigger beasts therefore have a larger water footprint. Consider this: The water footprint of beef adds up to 1,800 gallons per pound -- think 35 standard-size bathtubs -- while a chicken's water footprint is roughly 519 gallons per pound.
Almonds, too, have a massive water footprint. It takes more than 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of almonds.  They have been in the news lately for their water-guzzling ways. But it isn't as simple as that when you account for the amount of food wasted.
"When food is wasted, it's often because of how we prepare it or how perishable it is," Olson-Sawyer says. "For instance, almonds tend not to spoil as quickly as milk, so less is wasted."
In 2010, Americans wasted 23 percent of every pound of beef. It accounted for 400 gallons of water that, quite literally, went down the drain. In general, fruit, vegetables and dairy account for the most consumer waste. Also in 2010, consumers wasted 25 percent of every pound of apples. It ultimately translated to 25 gallons of wasted water.
Similarly, it takes roughly 620 gallons of water to produce a dozen eggs. It means that each time we dump an unused egg in the trash, we waste about 50 gallons of water.
Food waste has other environmental impacts, too. "If you put all the food waste into one country, it would be the world's third largest greenhouse gas emitter," says Brian Lipinski, an associate in the World Resource Institute's Food Program. Decomposing food that makes its way into landfills releases methane, which is significantly more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.
All is not lost, however. There are numerous efforts underway to cut food loss at every level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency recently called for a 50-percent reduction in food waste by 2030. Meanwhile, Portland launched a citywide composting program a few years ago. And at the retail level, the former president of Trader Joe's recently opened a store near Boston that sells surplus food donated by grocery stores, at rock-bottom prices.
Even simple changes can have big effects. A few years ago, college cafeterias began to go trayless. Carrying two plates at most rather than trays piled high with all-you-can-serve and all-you-can-eat daredevilry forced students to think about what they really wanted to eat. The seemingly simple move, which more than 120 colleges chose to adopt, helped reduce food consumption and waste by 25 to 30 percent in some colleges.
Still, waste is inevitable. "There's never going to be some ideal or perfect way to eliminate it all, but it's pretty egregious right now," Olson-Sawyer says. More so, perhaps, because according to the United Nations World Food Program, "there's enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life."
Fortunately, change at any level -- whether it's as a supplier, retailer or consumer -- will help ease the impact of food waste on natural resources. Simply put, "it does matter how much you consume," Mathews says. "It does matter what you consume, especially when you get down to the details of where this is produced and how sustainable is that production."


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How can you measure the water footprint of food?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • helenm-joh
    8/30/2016 - 03:08 p.m.

    I feel like this article will make a big impact on water wasted. A lot of kids throw away their vegetables, or what they don't want to eat. Because this is a website for kids, this might make a BIG difference on the world.

  • monicas-ste
    9/01/2016 - 02:10 p.m.

    Pretty crazy how much gets thrown out. I didn't know we wasted food so much. That's a shame.

  • noahr-ste
    9/14/2016 - 01:41 p.m.

    We need to stop wasting food as much as we do its hard to realize as much as we do it how much food and water we are wasting. And there are people all over the world that are in need of food and water and we waste it. It sucks this has been happening and hopefully things change.

  • jashvid-lam
    10/28/2016 - 11:59 a.m.

    Food wastage is horrible because while Americans are wasting all these resources, this is not only bad for the Earth, but all the poor people who could be fed through this won't be. People just take advantage of their resources sometimes.

  • zakrym-ste
    11/11/2016 - 01:18 p.m.

    i never thought about it this way. People need to stop wasting food so much. This article was a cool in formative on waste and food

  • Deadwiley,Cheryl-cas
    12/10/2018 - 09:28 a.m.

    There's direct and indirect water that goes into the production of foods, that's called the water footprint. How you measure the intake of the water is through environmental and production effects. Examples like meat, the animal we get this meat from has intakes of daily water in their food and nutrition to live, also the food they eat has water intake and we take all that into consideration with their lifespan, when we measure the produced meat we then eat from them. So, based off the said factors of how the food item is created, we incorporate into the water footprint to get a accurate measure.

  • Fripp,Amir-cas
    12/10/2018 - 10:16 a.m.

    We as humans can measure the water footprint of food by learning how much water the animal or plant takes in and, what it takes to maintain the animal. Also, take in the products that takes a water input. Once you add those two up you would get the water footprint of that food.

  • Carati,Justin-cas
    12/10/2018 - 10:17 a.m.

    To calculate the water footprint we must first choose a particular food to measure it on.You need to add up the sum of water it takes to grow the food (total) through out its whole life. Its basically a calculation about how much water a type of food consumes.

  • Salvaggio,Isabella-cas
    12/10/2018 - 10:29 a.m.

    This article informed me that when you are wasting food, you are also wasting everything that is put into the food, such as the water. You can measure the amount of water that is put into the food is by the type of food it is. Meats, dairy, and crops are very water intensive, because of the amount of water that is used to feed the animals and water the crops.

  • Briceno,Jovanny-cas
    12/10/2018 - 12:06 p.m.

    meats tend to need the most water for production, primarily because of the amount of food the animal needs. so for instance, the water footprint of beef includes water thats used to grow the animals feed and to maintain the farm, as well as drinking water for the animal.

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