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A week in the life of a big-time food waster

A typical U.S. citizen keeps a diary of his food mindlessness — and tries to change his ways.

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Inverse

Illustration by Lais Borges/Inverse; Getty Images

I am an expert on wasting food, if only because I do it so much. For me, there’s a sense of profound shame in this profligacy, because I’m acting in ways that I know are destructive to mother earth, squandering the generous gifts she gives us from her soil.

What, then, have I done to change my ways?  Almost nothing — except for this week, when I committed to tracking my food and what becomes of it.

Let’s start with the three squares. At breakfast, I throw out about six ounces of leftover eggs scrambled with peppers and feta and goat cheese. The trouble, as I soon discover, is that my cooked portions are out of kilter with my appetite — the old eyes-bigger-than-stomach conundrum.

Lunch is a salad of fresh spinach and croutons, dressed in a lemon vinaigrette.  I have, again, made too much, and so the dressed spinach that’s uneaten, wilting fast, goes into the garbage.

I start a clean-out of the recesses of the fridge. That’s where things get ugly.

By the end of day one, I have become conscious enough of the portion problem that I cook a whole lot less food at dinner — and even then, there’s waste. I pan-fry two chicken thighs, one each for myself and my girlfriend, and boil potatoes for mashing and prepare a green-leaf salad.  The leftover potatoes, about 12 ounces, get fridged — and will be thrown out two weeks later, forgotten, uneaten, and gone bad.

On day two, I start a clean-out of the recesses of the fridge. That’s where things get ugly.

First, there’s a tub of Miyoko’s plant-milk cream cheese, barely eaten, and adorned with a furry jade topping of mold. The cream cheese is in an eight-ounce container, and because I’m too lazy to scrub out its bacterial load, it doesn’t get recycled — waste compounding waste.

I steel myself to indignities yet unseen with a deep dive into the cheese and “other things” drawer, from which strange and lurid creatures emerge. Anchovies bought fresh now rot in their seven-ounce package. Am I imagining that I can hear them say “why didn’t you cook me? How hard would it have been?” A 16-ounce block of tempeh, once a desert tan, has turned black as coal and stinks like … well, I don’t know what it stinks like, but it isn’t good.

There’s too much to take on in one day, so I stop. But the following day, I continue the purge. Out goes a pot of moldy old basmati rice, leftovers from a meal cooked a week ago. Then another three-ounce container of more old rice. An eight-ounce hunk of cheddar cheese transformed into something more sci-fi than agricultural. A barely consumed 32-ounce brick of tomato-basil soup, the container swollen like a distended belly – gone, too.

Next, there’s a tub of homemade hummus, eight ounces, also developing a busy city of little green creatures — into the garbage it goes. I sniff at a 20-ounce container of Siggy‘s yogurt, half eaten, going bad, but for some reason I let it remain in the fridge. Ditto a five-ounce piece of duck pate, which I know will sicken us if eaten – but, again, I refuse to throw it out.  Days later, both will be tossed without ceremony.

The typical household in the U.S. drops into the garbage some 325 pounds of food per year, almost a pound a day.

I don’t think my refrigerator could fairly be called unusual. In fact, the problem with my waste is how common it actually is. Americans throw away more food than any other people on earth, about 60 million tons annually. (The world population is estimated to waste roughly 2.5 billion tons). The typical household in the U.S. drops into the garbage some 325 pounds of food per year, almost a pound a day. Approximately 40 percent of all food in the U.S. is either lost or wasted, equivalent to an annual loss of $165 billion.

My refrigerator is not the main culprit, either. Of the total waste, food service operations – commercial and non-commercial – are estimated to account for about $86 billion of the losses. A 2021 report in the International Journal of Hospitality Management concluded that “a significant proportion of food waste occurs at the customer level.” In other words, when we eat out, we throw out more.

Most of the tossed food ends up in landfills, making up 24 percent of municipal solid waste. This is just wonderful for greenhouse gas emissions. According to the EPA, 58 percent of methane in landfills comes from rotting food – and methane, measured over decadal time spans, has more than 80 times the warming effect as CO2.

About 2.4 billion people – 30 percent of the global population – live in conditions of food insecurity, which is defined as not having access to “enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated 740 million people are going hungry as I write this. To those in food precarity, the waste in my household must seem deranged or even obscene.

Annotating every meal and all the stuff that goes into the garbage is driving me a little nuts.

I have a sit-down with my girlfriend to confide that this food diary has put me into a funk. Annotating every meal and all the stuff that goes into the garbage is driving me a little nuts. There’s got to be a better way.

We come up with three measures to start controlling our food waste. We won’t implement these measures overnight. It will take time.

First, buy less food in any one purchase and stagger purchases so that food is consumed in its freshest state. A great deal of the food detritus in our household is because it’s in excess of what we need for nutrition on any given day. When we buy enormous volumes of food in a single purchase, as many Americans do, we are committing ourselves to the loss of that food, as there’s no way we can eat it all in the time that it’s still fresh.

Second, as already mentioned, cook smaller portions. Remember: you can always cook more if you’re still hungry, but cooking more in the first place leads to the state of nasty uneaten leftovers that characterizes a fridge full of weird green spores.

The third measure — and this is easiest — is to compost. Today only 5 percent of food in the U.S. is composted. Much more can be done, as the reporting from the U.S. Composting Council has shown. Hundreds of U.S. cities now have composting programs. Our household is in rural New York state, and we are lucky to have land with good soil where we can dump our compost. (It’s ten miles from our apartment, so we make the compost run once a week.)

Into the compost go coffee grinds, coffee filters, lemon rinds, asparagus stalks, crushed eggshells, pistachio nutshells, avocado skins, sweet potato skins, potato skins, carrot skins, onion layers, shavings of garlic and ginger, stale bread, ancient oyster crackers, fragments of French toast soaked in butter and maple syrup, used tea bags (chamomile and Sleepytime), flowers bought for my girlfriend for Valentine’s Day but now wilted, and on and on. Human hair and animal fur are good too.

When business school researchers in Malaysia published a study this year for hoteliers to develop “successful methods to mitigate food waste in the hotel industry,” they singled out the “role of mindfulness and frugality.” It’s not hard to come to that commonsense realization. On the fourth day of this diary, we eat gnocchi and angel hair pasta with boiled kale and broccoli and a homemade pesto sauce. We finish every bit in the pot, wasting nothing — because we have been mindful of our portions.

This article was produced in collaboration with Inverse. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected].

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