How to Reduce Food Waste for the Holidays

The holidays are coming up, and as many see it as the most wonderful time of the year for giving thanks and celebrating with family, it is also the most wasteful time of year in America. We love food, so in order to maximize the holiday spirit of joy and appreciation, let’s learn about the ways we can reduce food waste together!

Wait, but what is food waste? Food waste is simply food that is not eaten or fully used. Here are a couple quick food waste statistics about the average American’s food waste:

Food waste is not only an economic issue, but is also one of the biggest contributors to food insecurity and injustice (after systemic inequities in employment), and the largest burden to our landfills.

Reducing our food waste isn’t only our responsibility though, as restaurants, farms, and other businesses need to be held accountable for throwing away food that otherwise can be eaten. Current federal laws include the USDA and EPA setting a goal to cut our waste in half by 2030. The EPA has also established a Food Recovery Hierarchy, which illustrates the priorities we will be discussing in this blog when it comes to working together to reduce food waste (shown below).

Reduce Food Waste
Although large social gatherings may be on the decline this year, the good news is that holiday celebrations at home will be easier than ever to reduce our waste! Here are some preventative food waste solutions and healthy food habits:

  • Taking a moment to understand expiration labels
  • Reducing the impulse to buy more than we need
  • Appreciating the food we have
  • Eating all of our leftovers

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, most expiration date labels refer only to changes in flavor or quality, not safety. Because of this, a lot of food that is still safe to eat gets thrown out unnecessarily. However, expiration dates are not an exact science, so using caution is important when making the final decision whether to eat it.

One of many initiatives we can take to expand our healthy relationships with our food supply chains is to support local farms by purchasing from CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions. CSAs are unique subscription boxes of seasonal organic foods from local farms — whether it’s produce, meats, or dairy, CSAs offer residents an option to shop locally without doing all the guesswork of knowing whether our food got to us on the right foot. Although CSAs often require the cost upfront, they tend to be cheaper per week due to the reduction in transportation and packaging costs. It also gives us an opportunity to appreciate the impermanence of seasonal food, inclining us to use all of it and save money while doing so. Find your local CSA here!

CSA subscription contents from Stoneledge Farms (Credit: Charles Smith)

On the topic of giving thanks this November, practicing gratitude for the food we have, whether the moment of thought is religious or secular before a meal, is a great way to practice mindfulness when it comes to our food usage and remind ourselves to be thankful for our farmworkers who put their lives on the line daily and work tirelessly to put food on our tables, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires this year in the western United States.

We know, we know… telling you to eat your leftovers sounds patronizing, but it really is such a large component of food waste! In a 2017 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientists perused through people’s trash cans to sort the types of food they were throwing out. Prepared foods and leftovers ranked at the second highest type of food waste, weighing in around 23%. This only came second to inedible food parts, like the rind of a watermelon or banana peel, which can be composted (more on this later).

The first step to preventing produce from going bad is to properly store it. Food containers like these can really help control the humidity of produce throughout the seasons, making them less likely to wilt before you can get to them at the end of the week.

The way we think about and present our leftovers (even to ourselves) can really make a difference in how we excite ourselves for our next planned meal. Not only do leftovers save time, money and energy, but they also mean you get to re-experience a great meal again! Instead of wasteful styrofoam boxes and ziplock bags, why not try some charmingly sustainable beeswax food saver wraps and reusable cutlery for your leftovers on the go? When you’re done preparing your leftovers, these produce huggers can help to efficiently store onions, lemons and other cut ingredients halfway through your cooking week.

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Food storage containers from Uncommon Goods

With attention to those with food sensitivities, disabilities and immuno-compromised folks: it’s okay to make the choice to not use leftovers if that is what works for your body! There are other ways to prevent it going to waste, and as long as we take the steps we can, we are doing our part.

Donate Excess Food
This year has seen a growing demand for community fridges, where people can donate surplus food on their own time, and those in need can put it to good use. However, with Covid-19 making us extra cautious about the way we handle food, some food banks are preferring monetary donations over food to ensure safer giving. It’s a good idea to check with your local food bank here to see what regulations are in place.

Food waste management is not only a challenge at the household level, but at the agricultural level as well. You may have heard about the 2 million surplus potatoes in Idaho that were given away due to changes in demand during Covid-19. Luckily, the farm was able to attract the public into picking them up, but this outcome is not always possible for smaller farmers who often have to bear the expenses of harvesting and storing donations. Tax breaks to make it work are sometimes available, but are often hard to get. Sometimes, even food banks have to reject these surplus shipments from farms due to lack of infrastructure or space to hold it. For these reasons, we cannot solely rely on last-minute and large-scale donations as a solution.

Community Fridges are showing up all over the world to help others while cutting down on waste (Chris Ochoa/Overtown Community Fridge)

Feed to Animals
Did you know that some farms accept donated food scraps to feed their animals? Repurposed food scraps from restaurants and households can divert around 49,000 Tonnes of greenhouse gases in the animal agriculture industry by replacing commercial feed. This Chicago-based restaurant Sandwich Me In donates their food scraps to be recycled into chicken feed, which feeds the chickens who lay the eggs this restaurant later uses.

On a household level, some foods can be shared with pets depending on the animal. The FDA has this helpful list of foods to avoid when passing along leftovers to your pets, and this one is a helpful feeding guide to those with goats (spoiler alert: goats cannot actually eat everything contrary to popular belief!)

Industrial Uses
Many types of food waste can be rendered into new products: biodiesel, renewable energies like biogas, and even cosmetics or soaps just to name a few! These are made by sending food scraps, sewage and manure through wastewater treatment plants and anaerobic (oxygen-lacking) processes to create renewable energy while also managing waste.

Worker processes food waste to manufacture oil (Wikimedia Commons)

So what can we do with those leftover banana peels and watermelon rinds? Composting! This is the most effective way to recycle food after having taken other precautions. A food compost container uses a type of food recycling process that allows the food to breakdown naturally with other organic Carbon-based material such as leaves and other plant matter. The end result can be used to fertilize the plants in your garden as a healthy alternative to toxic conventional fertilizers. Don’t have space for a compost bin in the yard? Try this countertop composter for your food scraps! For those who don’t have a compost collection service on your street, check for local community programs that will collect your compost for you. Having a food waste container could be quite handy this year when you try your hand at a new recipe (like that Thanksgiving stuffing you can’t rely on someone else to potluck this year) and end up burning it!

Composting food waste is preferable to disposing it because of the differences in chemical reactions that create two different products:

  • Composting uses an aerobic (oxygen-involving) process that decomposes the scraps into carbon dioxide, or CO2, a greenhouse gas that breaks the waste down into something useful and healthy for plants. The CO2 is made partly from the oxygen present, and although it’s a greenhouse gas, it is more productive in the ground (a process called carbon sequestration) and less polluting per molecule than what is made in the landfill.
  • Landfill food waste, however, causes an anaerobic (non-oxygen) process that turns the food scraps into methane, a greenhouse gas compound that can hold 25x the amount of heat of carbon dioxide. Methane’s chemical formula is CH4 (notice there’s no “O” for oxygen!). Since landfills are not well ventilated and lack oxygen, they cannot use any to make CO2 instead.
Compost pile of collected food waste (Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes there is no other way around it — our apartment complexes don’t always provide compost options, we live on the third floor with no patio pooch or garden goat to be found, or we just don’t have the ability to drive to the local food banks or share food with friends during a global pandemic. We tried everything we could, and the food item was inevitably sent to the landfill.

So what now? Moments like these are a poignant time to reflect on how our society can improve our access to resources that help us reduce food waste. Waste management technologies are advancing by the day though; in just the last two years, over 50 new plastic-eating species of fungi were found as potential solutions in managing landfill waste.

In Conclusion
We at Ethicli hope you enjoyed learning about how you can reduce food waste!

For more help with being sustainable, download Ethicli’s browser extension so you can see the environmental impact of the companies you shop from. The extension also suggests ethical product alternatives, including some to help manage food waste.

Let us know in the comments or on social media what new steps you are taking to reduce your food waste this year, and share what food waste programs and services you know about to spread the word!

We hope you have a wonderful holiday full of gratitude and joy, and that this guide can help maximize the joy we get out of taking care of our planet, and each other!

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