How Our Food Choices Impact the Environment

Our lifestyles continuously impact our immediate surroundings and the world. These lifestyle choices include what car we drive, where we live, what activities and hobbies we partake in, and even if we decide to have children or not.

When multiplied by the millions, our diets determine our air, soil, water quality, pollution, and the climate. According to the United Nations, there’s no other lifestyle choice that could more influential to our environments than what we choose to put on our plates.

We consume food from all over the country, and the world, on a daily basis. It’s fair to say that when buying, cooking or ordering, and eating our food, we seldom reflect on the systems that supply food to 327 million Americans. Some of these systems are in operation twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week.

The foods we purchase and consume have a direct effect on the soil. Emissions are also released during the processing, packaging, and transportation of goods - not to mention the additional waste we produce during each stage of processing and selling food.

We can all make more informed choices about where and what we buy. This would cause domino effects in the supply and demand chain. When more people consciously make better food choices, it lessens environmental and climate impacts.

What We Really Need to Digest About Food Waste

Our food waste is accelerating climate change.

Aside from the food waste we naturally generate, it’s estimated that ⅓ of all food produced worldwide goes to waste before it can be consumed. The excess, along with the remains of our consumed or purchased food waste, creates an accelerant to climate change as it decomposes. As food waste decomposes, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, in particular, methane.

Methane is a greenhouse gas over five times more damaging to the climate when compared to carbon dioxide and is released into the atmosphere, largely, from decomposing material.

It’s estimated that halting our food waste would be the equivalent of removing 37 million cars from the road per year in America.

Food waste is energy waste. 

Every time we waste or throw out food, we hardly consider the energy that went into the production. Landfills contain more than just the remnants of our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; they are visual representations of every ounce of water, fuel, and electricity that went into each phase of a food’s life cycle.

The life cycle of food includes the growing, harvesting, transporting, and packaging phases of each product.

Most of us grew up hearing our parents say, “Clean your plate --- there are starving people out there who would be grateful for what you have.” There is a lot of truth behind this saying.

Wasting food is a direct disrespect to the labor, energy, and purpose that goes into making sure we are nutritionally sustained.

Our obsession with expiration dates is out of control. 

How often have you checked the expiration date on a food product and immediately tossed it into the garbage when you saw it was one day over? We’ve all been there.

Unfortunately, the expiration dates on our foods have been misinterpreted for years. These dates cause us to fear the quality and safety of our food based on a number that holds little to no weight.

The USDA has openly stated that even if your product has exceeded the expiration date, the quality and longevity of the product will surpass it and is safe to use until spoilage is absolutely noticeable and evident.

To decode our products, the “Best if Used By/Before” date is a suggestion to consume for the best flavor, and is not in any way a food safety posting. The “Sell By” date is only a guide for retailers to sell the product on their shelves and is also not related to the safety of the product. And lastly, the “Use-By” date is the recommended date to consume the product for the best experience and does not state that the food or product has spoiled.

This aspect of food waste remains understudied. But if Americans were more educated on the dates stamped to our products and what they mean, the reduction in food waste would be astronomical. 

Food Waste is a Humanitarian and Environmental Concern

On average, 39.7 million tons of food waste is generated each year in the United States, meaning our food makes up roughly 15% of all municipal solid waste, or MSW, that we create annually. These numbers are estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which includes food waste created by residential homes and facilities, and commercial and institutional sources; totally excluding the amount created from massive industrial sources.

What happens to the majority of that food waste? More often than not, it’s shipped to the nearest landfill and remains there with other components included in municipal solid waste: plastics, wood, metals, glass, textiles, and organic matter from yard trimmings. This makes up the additional 13%, 7%, 9%, 4%, 6%, and 13%, respectively, of MSW, on average.

Managing all the food waste from a population of 327 million Americans is a hefty responsibility. As years pass, the population is growing, the climate is changing, and the demand for food, agriculture, and manufacturing is increasing. It will be imperative in waste management to develop more comprehensive plans that address the mitigation of our waste.

It seems like the fight against plastic has taken over the waste world, and that’s important; but we can’t forget about food waste, which accounts for a large majority of our waste in total. Creating some waste is normal, but we must address the commonality in our society of being wasteful. Reducing food waste largely depends on us as consumers.

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