Americans waste a lot of food. Much of it reflects our system’s high standards in terms of raw product quality. For example, produce is frequently immediately discarded at the agricultural site if blemishes or shape abnormalities occur, despite the absence of any true compromise to taste or health benefit. A large additional fraction of waste occurs in transit to, and during residence at, retail venues. Customers expect to see stocked shelves and wide varieties of food despite seasonal disparities in regional produce production. The biggest culprit in the waste breakdown is, perhaps not surprisingly, the consumer.
A recent study[i] showed that the avoidable food waste* in the US accounts for roughly 29% of annual production. Of this, the consumer is responsible for 60%. In fitting these numbers together, the consumer is thus ultimately responsible for wasting over 17% of food produced. Considering the staggering quantity of land, energy, labor, and other resources required to support US industrial food production, the implications of avoiding the creation of this food in the first place would be consequential. Included in the “consumer” category is waste generated in foodservice industries, with surplus servings from restaurants, cafeterias, or other similar venues contributing a large fraction.
Because most household or service provider food waste is transported to landfills, the trapped energy in discarded food stays largely untapped. Bio-degradables in landfills can remain intact for many years, leaving it to contribute mass to overflowing sites despite its capacity to decompose swiftly in other conditions. The sluggish decomposition of food particles typical for most US landfills is enacted by anaerobic microorganisms in a process that generates methane output. Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, the consequences of consumer food waste can thus be chalked up to unnecessary climate forcing from (1) the agricultural practices that created it, and (2) the breakdown processes in a dump that replace aerobic digestion.
While it’s hard to mobilize a movement towards commercial acceptance of crooked carrots and Siamese-twin cherries on the production end, the news about consumer waste can be taken as good news: there are happier endings available for the chunk of this fraction generated by the consumer himself. We can choose either to waste less food by making smarter purchasing and preparation choices, or to make more responsible choices in handling the unavoidable waste. To address the latter, home composting is an option for folks with outdoor space. But my new exploration into home vermicomposting is an easily replicated venture by anyone with a plastic tub, newspaper shreds, a dark closet, and some food scraps.
Vermicomposting provides a worm-fueled, efficient, and contained method for transforming food waste into energy-rich fertilizer. While standard composting employs a host of microorganisms with similar goals, worms accelerate the process to allow for decomposition of larger quantities of foodstuffs in shorter time periods. No longer do the lifecycles of my coffee grounds, eggshells, banana peels and cherry stems succumb to the cradle-to-grave fate that so much of human waste does. Instead, the bits and pieces unfit for my consumption can become the free fuel for my easy apartment pets, a small void in Santa Barbara’s Tajiguas landfill, and the future dinner for another generation of vegetables. Composting of any type is an easy and effective practice for anyone who hopes to close the door on a facet of one-way energy flow. And, saying goodbye to the long, wasted, death of unavoidable food scraps in this manner is a good way to mitigate some deleterious effects of food waste habits.
[i] Venkat, K. 2012. Comparison of Twelve Organic and Conventional Farming Systems: A Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture.
*Unavoidable food waste refers to the non-edible parts of foodstuffs (such as skins and shells) as well as any fat or moisture lost in cooking. Avoidable food waste makes up, well, anything that’s not unavoidable.