As I sat in the restaurant - mind you, one that professes to support sustainability - waiters carried off plates with chunks of bread, mounds of greens, and other odds and ends of a half-eaten meal. While large portions and the standard food safety practices in restaurants yield considerable waste, there is a larger system-wide problem with food loss and waste. This is not a new issue, and it has definitely come up in My Musings before. And yet if we think about how our society can possibly stand the test of time, with such a large population and extravagant lifestyles (if you compare to the rest of the animal kingdom), a more efficient use of all resources is critical. No, tossing your leftovers does not mean a family in India will go without food for a week, but it does mean you are contributing to the growth of garbage, economic and natural resource losses, and inefficient use of energy.
A new report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (go figure...?), Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not, now estimates that as much as 50% of is wasted along the supply chain. Even crazier, in my mind, is that 40% of landfill content comes from food. Why does this astound me? Well, unlike much of what we call "trash," food scraps decompose and return nutrients back to the soil, and so I can't see the reason for it ever to be "trash". Food scraps, etc. can play an essential role in building soil health, and can easily disappear from the municipal waste stream. In a landfill there is not enough oxygen for this process to take place, and therefore food scraps just languish in a state of limbo.
So we have some numbers and we understand the problem, but where is the system breaking down. In developing countries this waste occurs during the stages between harvest and market, storage and transportation being the main culprits. While that requires infrastructure development, in the developed world, most waste necessitates a larger shift in policy and practice around sale of food and serious behavior change on the part of the consumer. For those of us in the U.S., it does not seem too far-fetched for people to automatically throw away food in the fridge after a week or by the sell by date.
Some changes can take place at the level of consumer behavior: only buy for the week; store leftovers properly and actually eat them instead of cooking or buying more food; trust your senses not the sell by date; and compost! At the same time, local, regional, and national policies need to support the processing and selling of food in a way the doesn't support unnecessary loss of edibles. After working in Whole Foods for a few months and seeing how much perfectly good food can't be sold after a certain date, I think this latter is particularly important in changing what consumers have less direct control over and even influencing their behavior. Policy needs to do this! Comments, questions, thoughts, desires - discuss away!