A Food Waste State of Mind: How to Tackle a Systemic Problem as an Individual

America's food waste problem is a national issue, but small steps can make a difference.

broccoli stems that have been cut off
Vicky Wasik

“Everyone gets that it’s bad to waste food,” says Brian Lipinski of the Food Program at the World Resource Institute, a think tank that promotes economic and environmental sustainability. Yet he says it’s hard for individuals to get a handle on how much food they actually waste, not to mention the economic and environmental costs associated with that waste. Further, few people understand how the amount of food waste they produce compares with other sources of food waste, which makes it even more complicated for them to figure out how much time and energy they should devote to the issue in their day-to-day lives.

Yet the importance of trying to tackle this issue at the individual level is clear. Ample research has shown that individual consumers are responsible for producing not only a significant amount of food waste in the US, but also some of the most harmful forms of food waste. And while every researcher I’ve spoken to about the issue has stressed that much of that individual waste is actually generated in large part because of decisions made by food manufacturers, retailers, and other upstream actors, they still argue that individuals can play a pivotal role in reducing food waste. But because each of our relationships to food systems is unique, no one set of best practices will work for all, or even most of us, which means we each have to figure out our own approach to food waste reduction.

That may sound difficult, but there are a few simple tricks that can help you figure out how to best reduce food waste in ways that work for you and your lifestyle. Every little bit of waste reduction helps.

What Is “Food Waste”

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the roles individuals play in the issue of food waste, it’s worth defining what exactly that term means. This may seem obvious: We waste food when we discard it rather than use it. But is food only wasted if it ends up rotting in a landfill? Or does any food that goes uneaten count, even if it’s put to productive use as, for example, compost or biofuel? Is food wasted if blight, weather, or another disaster wipes it out while it’s still on a farm?

On a more fundamental level, what counts as food to begin with? Is it only the stuff that we raise and prepare for people to eat? Or does, say, the majority of corn that we could in theory eat but grow for use as animal feed, biofuel, or industrial processing agents count as well? If we’re only counting things grown for people to eat, do we count everything that is technically edible or only the parts that most people in a given area consider edible? And how do we even determine what one community sees as edible when you might look at an orange peel and see it as a byproduct fit only for a bin while someone else may look at it and see bitters, candy, and zest in potential?

There aren’t any definitive answers to these questions. Even experts debate where to draw lines around food waste, and individual institutions periodically change their methods and definitions; for example, the most recent US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on food waste, published in late 2020, acknowledged that it updated previously used methods and measures to better document the issue.

The EPA draws a line between food loss—anything that doesn’t make it off the farm or through the supply chain to a manufacturer or consumer, for whatever reason—and food waste. It defines food as anything “intended for human consumption,” including things like bones or pits, which some might see as inedible but nevertheless technically are. Officially, then, the definition of food waste in the US encompasses anything working its way through the supply chain technically classified for human consumption that doesn’t get, well, consumed. Depending on your point of view, this definition may lead to under- or over-counting of the amount of food wasted in the US.

Actually calculating food waste is even harder than defining the term because researchers typically look at individual strands or nodes of massive and complex supply chains, and do their best to estimate the flow of food through them and then stitch those diverse and fragmented estimates into snapshots of our food habits. More definitive measures, like those produced by researchers from Canada’s University of Guelph, who rooted around the trash of almost 100 local families every day for several weeks to get a handle on their food waste patterns, are expensive and time-consuming.

This is why you may see a wide range of food waste figures reported in the press. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates, for example, that in 2011, the last year for which it could make any reliable guesses, we lost or wasted one-third of all food produced for human consumption. But Jean Buzby, the lead food loss and waste expert at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that recent estimates “show 21% of the food available at the consumer level for consumption goes uneaten.”  Two different definitions; two different sets of data; two different figures. But no matter the divergence, they both paint a picture of massive food waste.

The Negative Effects of Food Waste

apples, garlic, onions, and other food waste and scraps

Getty Images

Food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. EPA figures suggest that food waste makes up almost a quarter of our municipal solid waste landfills in the US, and that this waste is the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country. For many people, that’s sufficient ecological reason to tackle food waste. 

And on top of that, even when the food we don’t eat ends up getting diverted into compost or some other productive, non-methane-releasing recycling process, activists note the cultivation, processing, and distribution logistics associated with that food still use up fertilizer, fuel, land, pesticides, water, and other resources. “Composting is certainly better than putting food waste in the trash. But food was meant to be eaten, not to become compost,” says Lipinski. 

Whether it ends up in a landfill, compost heap, or elsewhere, adds Anne-Marie Bonneau, the “Zero Waste Chef,” “food waste squanders the opportunity to feed those who are food insecure,” who number over 800 million worldwide.

“Unfortunately, the drivers of food waste tend to be complicated and specific to each food item, node, and stakeholder” in global or regional supply chains, explains Edward Spang, a University of California, Davis food systems researcher. So instead of pinning down one big culprit or issue, activists, researchers, and policy makers have to come up with distinct answers for, say, the key causes of mango versus chicken waste in Haiti, versus the key causes of each of these types of waste in America, and craft unique solutions for each of them. Notably, most research suggests that food loss due to bad transportation and storage infrastructure is the biggest reason that food does not end up getting consumed in many developing countries, whereas the amount of food loss due to transportation and storage in the US is comparatively negligible. However, this can shift from year to year. Logistics and market disruptions caused by efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, for example, led to higher levels of food loss on farms for some products in America, like milk and chickens, than is usual, radically shifting the equation of who drives loss and waste for these products and, consequently, complicating efforts to determine how best to tackle the issue.

Overall, researchers consistently find that individual consumers create tens of billions of pounds of food waste every year in America, second only to industrial food processors and manufacturers. But the vast majority of industrial food waste gets diverted to animal feed and other productive uses, while the vast majority of household food waste ends up in landfills, sewers, and incinerators. A 2020 report by the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine actually estimates that each of us wastes an average of one pound of food per day either at home or when we eat out at restaurants and don’t finish their huge servings.

“Once food is in the hands of consumers, it is at its highest economic cost,” adds Spang. By then, it has not only been grown, processed, packed, and shipped, but also bought, often refrigerated, and cooked. Wasting food at that point is indisputably worse than letting it rot in a field.

What the Call for Reducing Food Waste Misses

The individual American consumer’s major role in food waste generation doesn’t reflect some unique predilection for profligacy, says Meghan Stasz of the Consumer Brand Association’s Food Waste Reduction Alliance. It just reflects the fact that there are a lot of households in America, and most food is being funneled right to them.

Over the last decade, numerous activists and entrepreneurs have focused on trying to curb individual food waste by changing people’s behavior—often by trying to convince us to give up on our particularly American obsession with picture-perfect foods. Campaigns within this “ugly food” movement often argue consumers should use foods that seem just a bit off, like limp carrots or heavily bruised pears, rather than tossing them out, or even just composting them.

Smaller yet similar initiatives also push people to stop overstocking fridges and pantries with things that they might not use; making small shopping trips when we need food drastically reduces the chance of leaving something forgotten to spoil into waste, they argue. Some academics point out that thanks to America’s access to cheap, bountiful food—we spend less of our salaries on comestibles on average than any other country in the world—we view it as an easily disposable commodity, and have argued that changing that mindset might push consumers to spend a little more time and effort thinking about how to put their food to good use. Bonneau even argues that we need more and better home economics education, because our culture does not value or teach baking and cooking, and that “this loss of basic skills leads to kitchen inefficiency and waste.” 

But as Austin Bryniarski, a food justice writer, noted in The Outline just over a year ago, these sorts of calls may “miss the forest of structural change for the trees of lifestyle tweaking.

The Problem With "Simple" Recommendations

With the exception of those placed on baby formula, “best by,” “sell by,” and “expires on” labels aren’t federally-mandated notices about food safety, explains Buzby of the USDA. They’re best guesses made by manufacturers about how long their products will stay optimally fresh, or picture-perfect. The way these labels have proliferated and been presented to consumers without context works hand-in-hand with food marketing—glossy photos that promote an image of what your perfect plump tomatoes should look like—to foster and reinforce our aversion to, if not outright fear of, even slightly bruised or wilted produce, slightly stale bread, or slightly brown meat.

Marketing and retail tactics are designed to push consumers into making aspirational and impulse (over-)purchases. What’s more, the very shape of American towns and cities, and the density of markets within them, not to mention the space (or lack thereof) for safe community gardens, urban farms, and other local food sources, heavily incentivize many people to make a small number of big stock-up-for-a-few-weeks shopping trips that often don’t align with their household’s actual day-to-day food usage, thus creating more waste. Manufacturers and retailers also put food in packaging that doesn’t match consumer needs. Wendy Gosliner of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources program (UCANR) notes specifically that “we know we have smaller households in America and that people eat out more, so they’re not going to go through the same portions of food that they did 30 years ago… But we still have many of the same serving sizes available to shoppers in stores as we did decades ago.”

On an even larger, and more systemic, scale, Massive subsidy programs created to protect American farmers and food security help to distort our sense of the value of food; American work culture convinces us, as Bonneau puts it, “that we should always use our time to be more productive, to work and earn more money.” And the massive inequality in our economic system means that far too many people “have to work long hours, or two jobs at once, just to get by,” notes Bonneau. “This leaves many consumers no time to cook efficiently—or to cook at all.”  

“All sorts of things can make it a rational response for consumers to throw away some food,” says Lipinski, even if they recognize the value of reducing food waste in theory. 

While activists and media outlets often offer supposedly simple recommendations for reducing personal food waste—meal-planning based on what you have in your kitchen, learning to be a flexible or inventive cook, recycling waste through composting or other methods, etc.—most calls for individuals to change their behavior are really asking people to swim upstream against wasteful food systems created for, rather than by, them. And in many cases, an individual's ability to successfully adopt these sorts of practices hinges on circumstances beyond their control. “I can make a choice to do these things,” explains Gosliner, “but my ability to act on a choice depends on the existence of infrastructure, resources, and other things that allow me to do so.”

“Honestly, the evidence is not solid for the efficacy of any of these approaches,” adds Gosliner. They seem intuitive, but research into what actually happens when people adopt some of these recommendations—what they get relative to the time and energy they put in—is fragmented, minimal, and weak. This is changing fast, Buzby stresses, as more researchers and resources turn towards food waste. For now though, Gosliner doesn’t think there’s enough hard data out there for her or her colleagues to throw their weight behind any common individual food waste fixes.

How You Can Start to Reduce Food Waste

ultra ripe bananas

Vicky Wasik

It’s easy to get discouraged by—and to get angry at—our wasteful system. It’s tempting to just shift the focus of food waste conversations entirely onto what manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, and the state can do to make it easier for us to use food efficiently. For example, manufacturers need to meet consumers midway in their packaging; retailers need to change their marketing so as not to encourage over-consumption; restaurants need to serve portions that don’t actively abet waste; the state needs to change rules around food labeling—and an overhaul of America’s entire economic, educational, and infrastructure systems would be helpful, too. “A living wage would be a great start” argues Bonneau, as it would help people to become conscious, efficient consumers.

But Buzby stresses that it’s still useful for people to try to take individual actions to cut back on their personal food waste, both because even a few minor actions spread across many households can add up to major collective benefits, and because we all stand to benefit directly from doing so. On a financial level, Spang notes that most estimates suggest the average American family of four loses $125 per month to food waste. Saving that much cash can make an immediate and perceptible difference in many people’s lives, and it can add up to something substantial over time for many more. On a more abstract level, Bonneau believes that attempting to tackle food waste can encourage creativity in the kitchen, “and that makes cooking more fun” for those who can cook.

Every expert I’ve spoken to has stressed that at least starting to reduce our individual food waste doesn’t require much time and energy. The trick isn’t to overhaul your life to accomodate a few supposedly universal best practices. Instead, try to set aside a little time to figure out how you currently use and waste food—maybe by spending a couple of minutes every day for a few weeks just writing down what you’ve bought and what you’ve thrown away and then spending one evening reviewing it all. “The thing that’s the clearest in the research as it stands is that if you’re paying attention—if you think food waste is important to pay attention to—then you’re already not going to just throw things away casually anymore,” explains Gosliner.

Beyond the core behavioral changes that come with awareness and monitoring, a personal audit will likely give you the information you need to come up with one or two simple first steps to cut back on food waste. “If you realize that you throw out a lot of bananas, you can just stop buying so many bananas, or start baking banana bread” if you have the time and resources for that, suggests Bonneau. If these steps go with the grain of how we already live our lives and yield benefits—“saving $4 on bananas or enjoying the banana bread” in Bonneau’s example—then behavioral research suggests we’re especially likely to stick with them, and to seek out other low-hanging life tweaks that yield similar easy returns. Ideally, things will snowball from there until, step-by-step, you transform your habits in low-cost, high-benefit ways that really add up.

“Once you’re taking action in your own life, you can also start to think more about what at the systemic level is causing you to waste food,” adds Gosliner. And those insights can translate to activism, which can be as simple as having conversations with people that raise awareness about America’s food system and how it affects your community, or voting with your dollars by supporting companies and organizations that take meaningful actions to address upstream causes of individual food waste. You can go even further by getting involved with local or national activist groups or government initiatives pushing for higher-level changes to food ecosystems that would benefit you, if you have the time and resources to do so.

Gosliner acknowledges that it’s not entirely clear what forms of activism are most effective; this likely varies for every particular food waste context. But Lipinski says we do know that “actions at any one point in the food chain can have ramifications up and down the stream.” For example, consumer buying patterns affect stores’ aesthetic decisions about the produce they buy from wholesalers, which in turn affects farmers’ decisions to leave some imperfect fruits and vegetables rotting in the field rather than send them into the food system. There’s real reason to believe that enough activism over time can have an impact on the decisions big food system players make, and, eventually, on individual food waste.

Small Actions Make a Difference

Individual actions will almost certainly never be optimally efficient, honing in on the biggest or costliest source of waste in a given home. They certainly won’t get us anywhere near reducing individuals’ food waste to zero. But as Stasz puts it, “there’s so much opportunity for improvement now that I don’t think we should start these conversations by worrying about the last scraps.”

“We have so many ways in which we, as a society, make people feel bad about how they engage with food when we’re not really creating a lot of structural opportunities for them to do things all that differently,” adds Gosliner. We don’t need to heap pressure on people to try to completely eliminate their food waste immediately, as even small changes in behavior add up to real progress, and that progress will likely echo out into something more substantial and systematic given enough time and encouragement. 

“Just aim to do the best you can,” says Spang. Because your best, no matter how small, may mean more for you and the world than you suspect.