Garbage can teach us a lot about food waste
Garbage can teach us a lot about food waste What's in here? A new study aims to find out. (Pixabay/AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)
Garbage can teach us a lot about food waste
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One man's trash is another man's data.
In a first-of-its-kind study, the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council will begin digging through the trash bins of residents and businesses 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 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?
The new, slightly gross research will help us to understand the truth behind our communal food waste habits. Researchers from the NRDC want to know not only how much food we throw away in a given week, but also how much of it could have been eaten if we had planned better or ignored an erroneous expiration date.
Starting 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 they'll return to dig through their trash bins - Hazmat suits and all. They will see if the diary matches the deeds.
The same work will begin in Denver, Colorado, a month later and 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 and 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, senior scientist and food waste guru at NRDC. Gunders' groundbreaking 2012 report 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 for Americans to cut food waste in half by 2030, which in turn would cut water use by 25 percent, save consumers $165 billion a year, and reduce methane emissions from landfills by 20 percent in the process. But many cities are still grappling 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" from companies like Kansas-based Engineering Solutions & Design. They sift through the city landfills. Then they tell them what could easily be diverted. Scientists at NRDC have done similar work. But those studies typically break the waste into several categories, one of which is "food."
"What we can't say from that is: What kind of food was it? Was it edible, or 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. We have vague notions about the food waste chain: Imperfect produce is left to rot in farm fields or discarded at the grocery store. Food that was once perfectly good goes bad in our refrigerators or is left uneaten on a restaurant plate. But we don't know how much of that could have been eaten, and how much was inevitable scraps and bits from processing.
When Gunders looks at residents' trash surveys and through their bins in the coming months, she'll be interested both 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, a problem legislation introduced to Congress this year aims to address. The other represents a series of more complicated problems: our ability to match cooking aspirations with reality and our propensity to over-order among them.
One hypothesis Gunders is confident making: 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, 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.
"It's like my favorite statistic," says Gunders. "Everything points to the fact that people don't know how much they're wasting and tend to think they're doing great."
On the commercial side, the project will work with several types of businesses. They include schools, sports arenas, restaurants and grocery stores, to estimate the food each sector tends to waste. Talking to businesses will help them discern whether those sandwiches in the dumpster were uneaten halves from customers, which they can't recover, or 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 or meeting their communities' needs with food that might have been tossed. 
"What we will have at the end is a decent estimate of residential waste, why and what. And a very preliminary look at commercial waste," Gunders says. "I expect it's a first step that people will build off of for years."

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Assigned 91 times
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

  • charliet-orv
    9/29/2016 - 10:53 a.m.

    To take exact measurements.

  • taylorstanton-dia
    9/29/2016 - 11:49 a.m.

    because it tell the researcher a more accurate reading

  • haydenc37-
    10/05/2016 - 11:15 a.m.

    They wanted to the people to write it down cause they wanted the exact food waste they did so they could find the exact numbers and they can look through the trash and see if they were correct.

  • carleyk-lew
    10/11/2016 - 03:08 p.m.

    People are asked to keep a diary because reporting plainly by memory is not always exact, and will most likely have faults.

  • ialexis-dav
    10/11/2016 - 04:40 p.m.

    In response to "Garbage can teach us a lot about food waste," I agree that our garbage can teach us a lot about food waste because of how much stuff we claim is garbage. One reason I agree is that this new research will help us to understand how much is actually wasted. Another reason is that people throw away food because they don't understand that the "best-by" dates are suggestions. It says in the article " what's just "past due"(and technically still fine to eat)and what should have been eaten days earlier before it spoiled". A third reason is that by not wasting all that food, we could give it to local shelters to fix up and give to all those people who are not sure where their next meal will be coming from. In 2012, studies showed that people through away 40% of their food(more than 20 pounds per person). Even though we are working to cut down on food waste, I think that we can still try work together a little more to make it happen.

  • cassidys-sto
    10/13/2016 - 11:41 a.m.

    We will also know how much food you waste. They can't remember everything.

  • zakkb-sto
    10/13/2016 - 11:48 a.m.

    They could forget. After all they are human. Besides, they could lie about it and we wouldn't know.

  • justinp1-sto
    10/13/2016 - 11:51 a.m.

    so they can report how much food they waste a year.

  • nryann-dav
    10/20/2016 - 10:26 p.m.

    I think that this is bad to leave trash on the side of the roads because that trash could go in to the drains and out into habitats killing animals.One reason I disagree is that the trash is also polluting our air and our citys where we live. Another reason is when the trash is in the ocean our animals think its food to eat and they end up dying because of it.So we should prevent this by leaving fines for littering.

  • ybailey-dav
    11/03/2016 - 10:15 p.m.

    In response to "Garbage can teach us a lot about food waste" I agree that knowing this information is important. one reason I think it's important is the fact that if you know how much eatable food your wasting than you'd probably try not to waste that much. Another reason is that you could save money if you did not waste food. In the passage it proves this "The average American household wastes about $2,000 worth of food each year, 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." A third reason is that since we are wasting so much food, other areas in the globe are starving, while we are living here spoiled. even though some statistics have unedible things like bones, I stand firm in my decision that we should limit how much food we wast.

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