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The Footprint of Food Waste

Vegetable food waste

How do we adapt our lives to reduce our carbon footprint? In Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, Lloyd Alter reveals the carbon costs of everything we do and provides practical tips for making significant reductions and not sweating the small stuff. Today on the blog, we take an excerpt from Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, where Lloyd explains how various forms of food waste impact our carbon footprint.

Excerpt from Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

The Footprint of Food Waste

Between 40 and 50% of all food produced in North America is wasted, so every number in that carbon footprint of food can really be increased by half to account for it. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are two kinds of wasted food: food loss, which happens in the chain from field to fridge, whether it is left in the field, bycatch thrown overboard, losses in processing, or spoiled in transit. It’s kind of the cost of doing business, and much of it is beyond our control (although again, we can choose a short food chain and reduce it). Food waste (about half of total waste) is more conscious: prepared food and baked goods that are thrown out, vegetables that aren’t pretty, oversized portions in restaurants (on average, diners leave 17% of their meal on the plate), composting vegetables at the back of the fridge, stuff thrown out because it somehow magically changed on its best-by date. According to a study by the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), about two thirds of home food waste comes from food thrown out without being used due to improper storage or “lack of visibility in refrigerators.” The other third comes from overpreparing, making too much food and not eating the leftovers.

Garbage filled with edible whole foods

This all has a number of different carbon impacts: the straight-forward losses during production, the methane from food rotting in landfill sites, and the energy of preparation. According to a McKinsey study quoted by FoodPrint, “household food losses are responsible for eight times the energy waste of farm-level food losses due to the energy used along the food supply chain and in preparation.”

How Much Do We Actually Need to Eat?

But there is another type of food waste that doesn’t get discussed enough, and that is how much more food we eat than we actually need. Everything is bigger than it used to be; according to the NRDC, “The Cornell Food and Brand Lab reports that serving sizes in the Joy of Cooking cookbook have increased 33.2% since 1996. A recipe that used to ‘serve 10’ now ‘serves 7’ or the ingredient amounts are greater for the same number of servings.” According to a British report with the wonderful name Portion Distortion, “In 1993 an average portion of American muffins was 85 g—today, these portion sizes vary from 72 g to 130 g.” Everything has been supersized. Even healthy foods like bagels are 24% larger than they were 30 years ago. And as Marion Nestle wrote in her book What to Eat, “It is human nature to eat when presented with food, and to eat more when presented with more food.”

Homemade double cheeseburger and fries

Superficially, one can say that eating portions that are a third larger means that the CO2 emissions from making the food are a third more. But it is much worse than that because, around the world, it has led to a massive obesity crisis with a carbon footprint all of its own. One study on the carbon footprint of obesity found that “a population with an abnormally high mean body mass index (BMI) and 40% obesity requires 19% more food energy for maintenance than one with a normal mean BMI,” and that the marginal greenhouse gas emissions from food production and car travel totalled between 0.4 and 1 gigatonne of carbon per year per billion people, or 2.5% of global emissions. The authors tell the Guardian that “the heavier our bodies become the harder it is to move about in them and the more dependent we become on cars.” A more recent study determined that the impact of obesity was slightly less at 1.6% of man-made emissions but provides more detailed data.

Compared with an individual with normal weight, researchers found an individual with obesity produces an extra 81 kg/y of carbon dioxide emissions from higher metabolism, an extra 593 kg/y of carbon dioxide emissions from greater food and drink consumption and an extra 476 kg/y of carbon dioxide emissions from car and air transportation. Overall, obesity is associated with approximately 20 percent greater greenhouse gas emissions when compared to people with normal weight. That’s 1,150 kg total, equivalent to 46% of our annual carbon budget. Eating food we don’t need from portions that are too big turns out to be one of the biggest sources of CO2; talk about portion distortion!

In the end, it is clear that the amount that we eat can be as important as the amount that we waste. It’s a demonstration again of sufficiency: how much do we really need? Perhaps it’s time to downsize our dishware as well as our houses and cars and dig out Grandma’s china.

Bee Wilson wrote in the Guardian:

If you want to see how inflated our portion sizes have become, don’t go to the supermarket—head to an antique shop. You spot a tiny goblet clearly designed for a doll, only to be told it is a “wine glass.” What look like side plates turn out to be dinner plates. The real side plates resemble saucers.

Fancy table setting
author Lloyd Alter

Author Lloyd Alter

Lloyd Alter is a writer, public speaker, and former architect, developer, and inventor. He has published over 14,000 articles on Treehugger. He has become convinced that we just use too much of everything — too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, too much money — and that the key to sustainability is to simply use less, what he calls Radical Sufficiency. He teaches sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design and when not writing can often be found in his running shoes, on his bike, or in his 1989 Hudson single scull in Toronto, Canada.

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