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The Effects of Food Waste on the Environment By: Junemy Pantig

Junemy Pantig is a recent Kinesiology graduate of CSUSM and outgoing Kinesiology Club President

ABSTRACT

In the United States, food waste is the second largest category of municipal solid waste

sent to landfills. About 40 percent of food goes uneaten and gets thrown away to landfills and

potentially contributes to greenhouse gas emissions especially with the production of methane, a

greenhouse gas that is twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide and one of the most

dangerous to the environment. Food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions by the

decomposition of food in landfills and the life cycle, which begins at the stage of production all

the way to consumption. Not many people realize that they are the biggest contributors to the

increase in methane emissions when they throw out their food as a producer, seller, or consumer.

The increased need to reduce food waste is likely to have a profound affect in the environment as

it reduces methane emissions and the effect it will have on climate change. Diverting food waste

will help reduce the occupancy it makes in landfills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With

the involvement of the government and businesses, being educated on handling food as a seller

and consumer and cutting back from throwing away surplus food will help raise awareness on

food waste. With Americans also suffering from food shortages, food insecurity can be reduced

along with greenhouse gas emissions when surplus food is donated to those in need rather than

being thrown into landfills. With the increase of these donations from commercial

establishments to organizations, there will be an improvement in the environment with climate

change especially with a decrease in methane emissions.

Keywords: Methane, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, food waste

INTRODUCTION

Food waste is a problem worldwide. Not only are Americans throwing away food but

they are also throwing away about $165 billion each year. In the United States, about 40 percent

of food goes uneaten and gets thrown away ending up in rotting landfills where it becomes the

second largest category of municipal solid waste at 14.1% and accounts for a big portion of

methane emissions (Levis & Barlaz, 2011). From an environmental aspect, food waste leads to a

chemical usage such as fertilizers and pesticides, more fuel gets used for transportation, and the

more food rots in landfills, the more methane gets created, which is one of the most harmful

greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming and climate change (UNEP, n.d.). Methane

is twenty-three times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2). There are two ways in which

food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions: Decomposition of food waste after being

dumped in landfills and the life cycle, which starts from production to consumption (distribution,

retail, and consumer waste) (Venkat, 2012). Food waste increases the level of greenhouse gas

emissions especially with the production of methane, one of the most potent gases. There is an

increased need to reduce food waste as it affects the environment in regards to global warming

and climate change.

METHODS

A literature review was used to search for information in relation to the effects of food

waste in the environment. Search engines, including Google Scholar, National University

Library System, and CSUSM Library, were used to seek information with using the terms “food

waste,” “climate change,” “environment,” “greenhouse gases,” “methane,” “rotting food,” sand

“landfills.” Articles were chosen based on the problems and solutions of wasted food in the

environment.

RESULTS

The introduction of methane emissions from food waste derive from the life cycle of

production to consumption. Americans throw away 1.3 pounds of food every day and 474.5

pounds per year (Miller, 2002). The landfill is generated at 25.9 million tons and 184.1 pounds

per person, the landfill volume is at 21.4 million cubic yards and density is at 2,000 pounds per

cubic yard (Miller, 2009). The food waste in distribution happens due to improper transporting

and handling of food especially when it’s perishable or kept at improper temperatures. Rejected

shipments can be thrown away especially when customers have no desire to take it. In 2008, the

food waste in retail estimated at 43 billion pounds (Gunders, 2012). Retailers view waste as part

of their business since customers select food based on cosmetic perfection. Some items are

damaged or unpopular to customers that they remain untouched until thrown out. Packages sent

to stores are too large for their expectant capacity and become overstocked, fresh and ready

made food often get thrown away, and they abide by the sell by date to be ready to stock up on

new items. Food waste in food services lose about 86 billion pounds of food (Gunders, 2012).

Plate waste is the biggest contributor due to large portions and undesired accompaniments.

Diners leave 17% of meal uneaten and 55% of leftovers aren’t taken home (Gunders, 2012).

Portion sizes have become bigger and can be two to eight times larger than a USDA or FDA

standard serving size. Of all restaurants, buffets waste the most food due to health regulations

and some restaurants abide by time limits. With food waste in households, families throw away

about 25% of food and drinks that they buy, with fresh fruits and vegetables being their biggest

waste (Gunders, 2012). Since products are cheap, families tend to purchase more than they need

resulting in a lot of spoilage and not enough utilization, they get confused with label dates, and

they increase their cooking portions. Foods thrown away are categorized as avoidable, possibly

avoidable, and unavoidable. People have a choice to eat food or they don’t. Avoidable food is

food and drinks thrown away that could still be eaten (Kelleher & Robins, 2013). Possibly

avoidable is food and drinks that are a preference for people’s eating habits (Kelleher & Robins,

2013). Unavoidable is food and drinks that have been contaminated or cannot be edible such as

bones (Kelleher & Robins, 2013). Food waste during disposal decomposes uneaten food

resulting in 23 percent of all U.S. methane emissions. Food scraps decay more than organics.

Beef is the single largest contributor and accounts for 16% of total emissions (Venkat, 2012).

Animal products have a huge impact to climate change since their emission footprint is really

high and contribute to 57% of the emissions compared to fruits, vegetables and grains with a low

emission footprint contributing to 31% of emissions (Venkat, 2012).

With the realization of food waste going to landfills, diverting this waste will help

conserve the limited space and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Gunders

(2012), it is suggested that the U.S. government should conduct a food waste study and establish

national goals to reduce the waste. They should also explain the actual meaning of date labels on

food since consumers tend to misinterpret and assume that it’s expired, otherwise they wouldn’t

be throwing away good food. State and local governments should implement prevention

campaigns for food waste in their jurisdictions and operations (Gunders, 2012). Even though

retailers view waste as a part of their business, they should start to reconsider how it affects not

only their store but the environment. Americans can help reduce waste by being educated about

it and learning about their portions, when food starts to rot, and improving their grocery

shopping list.

DISCUSSION

This review provides evidence for an increased need to reduce food waste as it affects the

environment in various ways from the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, all

the way to global warming. When wasted food ends up in a landfill, it decomposes to form a the

greenhouse gas methane, which has global warming potential twenty-five times greater than

carbon dioxide (Levis & Barlaz, 2011). Food waste also accounts for more than one quarter of

total freshwater used in food and four percent of petroleum oil consumption, which all go to

waste (Venkat, 2012). Landfills that also contain organic materials are broken down by bacteria

to produce methane (EPA, n.d.), and adding rotting food increases these emissions. In the United

States, over thirty million metric tons of food waste is generated.

Worldwide, many people also experience food shortages. Forty-seven million Americans

suffer from food insecurity and are unsure when or where their next meal will be (FoodStar

Partners, n.d.). Over seventeen million children go to bed hungry, while senior citizens and

military personnel and their families are the greatest to suffer from food shortages (Donate Don’t

Dump, n.d.). Reducing food waste by fifteen percent would suffice to feed more than twenty-five

million Americans every year (Gunders, 2012). Many organizations collect surplus food from

commercial establishments and ensure that it goes to those in need and not to landfills. FoodStar

Partners have created an app that connects consumers to retailers who sell cosmetically

imperfect and surplus food at low prices (Kelleher & Robins, 2013). In 2012, California enacted

Bill 152, which gives farmers a 10 percent tax credit which is equivalent to 10 percent of the cost

of fresh fruits or fresh vegetables donated to a food bank (Kelleher & Robins, 2013). In addition,

food waste in landfills and the impact on climate change, could be avoided if the food portions or

food had been minimized and eaten by humans (Hall et al., 2009). Further research is needed to

account the life cycle and landfill waste generated at the global level.

CONCLUSION

Food waste has many economical and environmental impacts. Food waste should be set

to a minimum in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the change of climate. Within the

life cycle, producers, sellers, and consumers can all find ways to reduce waste by considering

various options of improving distribution and consumption. And with many Americans

experiencing food insecurity, this waste can be reduced when surplus food is donated to those in

need rather than thrown to rot in landfills. With the increase of food donations from commercial

establishments to organizations, there will be a huge improvement in the environment as far as

greenhouse gas emissions affecting the climate. There are many ways to help this problem and

it’s a matter of effort and learning to fix it. As we try to combat global climate change, we need

to put into perspective on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our environment from the

food we eat whether it be at the governmental, retail, or consumer level.

By Intern Junemy PantigDSCN6094

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