rotten apples on the ground

Food Waste

Minimize food waste with these simple strategies

Is food waste really that big of a deal? Food is organic, so it is fine going into the landfill where it will just naturally break down, right?

Think again.

Say you add a head of lettuce to a home compost pile, occasionally turning the pile to ensure the contents have access to oxygen, which is required for decomposition. It might take about two to six weeks for the lettuce to decompose, emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during this natural process.

Take that same head of lettuce, only this time toss it in your garbage can. From there it goes into the landfill and is quickly buried by subsequent loads of trash. It no longer has access to oxygen, so its breakdown will be much slower. So slow, in fact, that its full decomposition can take up to 25 years. In addition, the byproduct of this anaerobic process is now methane, which can hold up to 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide, contributing much more to global warming in both intensity and duration. Ammonia is also released which can have negative effects on air quality, such as contributing to Salt Lake City’s winter inversions.

Food waste in America

Aerial photo of the Rose Bowl.

Now back to the head of lettuce. Let’s say it weighs one pound. Can you imagine a pile…no, a mountain…of 133 billion green leafy spheres? That’s how much food is wasted in the U.S. every year. This is enough to fill the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA (which seats around 90,000 people and occupies 10 acres) to the brim EVERY SINGLE DAY.

It is estimated that nearly 40% of all food produced is thrown away, making it the largest category of waste in landfills, at 25% of all waste. Food waste also accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The UN states that if global food waste was a country, it would be the third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world, after the US and China.

Other resources wasted

Many resources are wasted along with discarded food. 22% of U.S. freshwater and 16% of cropland is utilized for landfilled food; labor, chemicals, and energy that went into producing, processing, transporting, storing, and preparing it are wasted too. And of course, the financial waste is significant: 2% of our nation’s GDP goes towards food that is unsold or uneaten, a dollar amount bigger than many country’s entire GDP. As much of the world has seen significant drought, water conservation is particularly important. Throwing away one pound of bananas is like running water for a 42 minute shower; one pound of beef wasted is 370 minutes of shower water down the drain.

Where does most of this waste coming from? The answer may surprise you. The primary source is not farmers or other food producers, manufacturers, businesses, or restaurants. The majority of food waste comes from households, from people like you and me. One survey found that one person averages about $1500 per year spent on discarded food.

For more information, read this article by Fortune.

How to reduce food waste

EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy.

As with any waste stream, reduction is the first and most important step. Source reduction is at the top of the EPA’s list for how to decrease food waste. Furthermore, Project Drawdown rates reducing food waste as the single most impactful climate action that households can do. Read on for ideas on what you can do to decrease your own food waste.

Reduce food waste with mindful purchases

  • The most obvious: try not to buy more than you need. Meal planning helps to avoid unnecessary purchases. has some great planning tools, as well as other helpful resources.
  • If you’re ready to use an ingredient soon, don’t be afraid to buy the discounted items at the store that are close to their expiration dates. You save that item from being wasted and save money doing it.
  • Shop from your fridge and pantry first, and plan meals accordingly. For example, if you have a head of lettuce that needs to get used, maybe you can plan tacos for dinner one night, lettuce wraps the next, and a salad for lunch the next day.

Reducing food waste at home

Understand food product dating, i.e. Best if Used By/Before, Sell-By, Use-By, and Freeze-By. Treat these more as guidelines and not hard and fast rules. We tend to live and die by these labels, but in reality most items are still good beyond these dates. The dates are meant to indicate quality, not safety. Use your senses—if it looks, smells, and tastes ok, it is most likely just fine to eat.

There are simple tests for items like eggs to tell if they are still good, regardless of what the expiration date says. It’s easy to forget how long you’ve had certain things in your fridge, so I try to write the date I opened a jar or carton with a Sharpie. The USDA has a Foodkeeper app where you can look up storage dates of specific items.

Check out my blog post on food expiration dates for more details.

For busy households, try out a meal kit delivery service. Check for any local companies in your area, or a national one such as Hello Fresh or Blue Apron. One study found using meal kits decreases food waste by 38%.

Get creative. Recently I discovered a plethora of soft apples in the produce drawer that I had forgotten about, and instead of throwing them away, I used them to try out this delicious apple butter. Many overripe fruits are great in a baked treat, smoothie or sauces. Use an app or website like AllRecipes that you can search by ingredient to use up whatever you have on hand.

Smarter Food Storage

Proper handling and storage are the best ways to maximize the shelf life of food. Take time to learn the best way to store foods, as there are many factors to consider. Produce is the most wasted type of food, so proper storage is especially key.

  • Not all vegetables need to be refrigerated: potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, and bananas should be stored at room temperature. Tomatoes used to be a no, but now depends on who you ask.
  • Fruits, in general, produce ethylene gas, which fosters natural ripening, but it also can cause most vegetables and a few non-ethylene producing fruits to ripen and go bad more quickly. Ideally, ethylene-producing fruits should be stored in the refrigerator away from ethylene-sensitive fruits and vegetables. Learn which foods produce ethylene and which are ethylene-sensitive.
Utilize your freezer

Freezing extra food is a great preservation tool. Many items freeze well: produce, meats, leftovers, even cheese. If you’re not going to be able to get to leftovers before they’re a week-old, pop them in the freezer. Then on nights when you need a quick, easy meal, just defrost and voila! Same goes for veggies; you can even dice them so they’re ready to throw into a soup later. Frozen bananas and berries are perfect for smoothies. Most foods last a very long time, even indefinitely in the freezer, and old food usually develops a quality problem (texture, taste) rather than a safety issue.

  • I love this FoodSaver Vacuum Sealing System. The vacuum seal prevents freezer burn, making for long lasting foods. I just came across these compostable vacuum bags, but I haven’t tried them yet so I can’t vouch that they are compatible with the FoodSaver system as claimed.

Tip: do an occasional inventory; it’s very easy for stuff to get buried and forgotten. Hang a list of contents on the freezer door to help you remember what’s in there and mark items off as you take them out.

Food preservation

Learn other food preservation techniques, such as canning, dehydrating, or freeze drying. Your local state university extension service is a great source of information and offer free/inexpensive courses such as these from Utah State University.

Minimizing food packaging can be difficult, especially plastic packaging. The best solution is to cook more meals using fresh ingredients rather than processed or pre-prepared foods. Learn how to bake bread or make your own granola and yogurt. The added bonus is this is a healthier option too since you have control over the ingredients, free of preservatives.

If cooking isn’t your jam, there are still numerous other ways to reduce food packaging.

  • Buy in bulk. Some smaller stores may specialize in bulk, and most grocery chains have a bulk food section. WinCo has the largest selection of foods, coffee, candy, and pet food that I know of. Take your own reusable bags, like these ones I purchased from Etsy.
  • Don’t forget reusable produce and shopping bags. Keep them in your car so you always have them.
  • The convenience of single packages of snacks like chips, pretzels, cheese, and Lunchable-type snacks or meals is very appealing—especially when you have kids, but try to stay away from purchasing them. Instead, buy a large bag of chips and portion them into reusable bags like Stashers for lunches. Do some prep on the weekends and slice up cheese or veggie sticks for the week. There are a lot of great options for Bento box-type lunchboxes out there, like these made from stainless steel or BPA-free recycled plastic. As a bonus, here are some awesome lunch ideas to fill them that I have found helpful.
  • Learn how to properly recycle plastic and paper packaging.

Other sustainable actions

  • Buy food locally and buy in season. Find local grocers, farmers markets, and farm produce stands to shop at. This reduces transportations, storage, and ultimately cost to you. You also benefit from fresher, more nutritious foods while you support your local economy.
  • Eat more plant-based foods. Note this does NOT necessarily mean becoming a vegetarian. But it is important to decrease your meat intake. Maybe in your household this simply means starting by instituting Meatless Mondays. However you choose to reduce your meat and dairy intake, know that this is the second-most impactful climate action you can take, next to decreasing your food waste. Raising livestock is responsible for 15% of greenhouse gases, as well as 41% of deforestation—far more than any other industry, including palm oil and paper.
EPA Wasted Food Scale infographic

Food donation

One word: Gleaning. This is collecting excess food from events, farmer’s markets, grocery stores, and your home garden and donating it to people in need. Feeding the hungry is the second preferred stop on the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. In the U.S. there are 34 million people, including 9 million children, who are food insecure, indicating that food waste is not an overproduction problem but rather one with distribution. For every 600,000 pounds of food, 400,000 people could be given three meals a day for 18 months. Think about how many people could be fed from our country’s annual 133 billion pounds of food waste.

Where to donate food

  • Donate to a local food bank or pantry. They might accept cans up to one year past sell-by or best-buy date.
  • If you have a home garden, there are many options for donating excess produce. Check for locations on Ample Harvest.
  • For those with fruit trees, unless you use all the harvest, search for a gleaning program in your area. These groups send volunteers to your house to pick the fruit and donate to those in need.
  • Check whether you area has any community fridges, or “freedges”, where anyone can place excess food for others experiencing food insecurity to take what they need.
  • Donate food to, or volunteer for, a food rescue program. These organizations arrange for excess food that might otherwise be disposed of to be picked up by volunteer “rescuers” and taken to non-profits that can use it, such as the YWCA, Boys & Girls Club, or homeless shelters. Check the Food Rescue Locator for options near you.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask your favorite restaurants what they do with their food waste, and let them know about food rescue programs in your area. You can also utilize these organizations yourself if you have any excess food from a party, wedding, corporate gathering, etc. If you work at a school, event or sports venue, or other business, talk to the appropriate people about getting set up to donate your excess food.
  • To donate food scraps to animals, the EPA recommends contacting your local solid waste, county agricultural extension office or public health agency for information.


Using food waste to create energy is the fourth choice on the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. Anaerobic digestion is a fascinating process that takes food waste into a facility that acts similarly to a large stomach and “digests” the material, resulting in rich compost. The biogas that is created provides fuel for heating and electricity.

Wasatch Resource Recovery is a facility in North Salt Lake. The city recently expanded curbside service to my neighborhood. They’ve made a great video explaining the biodigestion process.

Check to see if there is an anerobic digesting facility in your area. Like Wasatch Resource Recovery, it may allow people to drop off their food waste for free. Or your city might have a curbside food waste collection program for residential, businesses, or both.

The benefit of this type of processing is that you can literally scrape your plate for collection. Just about any food item is acceptable, including foods that cannot normally be composted like meat and bones, dairy products, and fats/oils. Some people freeze their food waste until it can be collected, in order to cut down on odors and pests.

I realize the previous option is currently very limited since anaerobic digesters are few. Composting is the last preferred choice for food waste before the landfill. You have a few options.

Indoor composting

The most comprehensive, easy (and expensive) option is to purchase a countertop composting machine like Lomi. The advantage of this versus traditional composting is that you can put items in it that you cannot normally compost, like meat scraps, leftovers, approved bioplastics.

The other choice is vermicomposting, which is composting with worms. They can be kept in a container in a garage or closet. The compost can be added to soil, houseplants, or used to make worm tea.

Outdoor composting

Backyard composting has numerous benefits for the quality of your garden soil, including improving nutrient levels, texture, and water retention capabilities. If you want to try composting on your own, there are many great options to learn the different methods and how to go about it. Check with your local community gardens or state university extension service for classes. Learn the basics of composting here.

If you aren’t interested in composting or don’t have the space, use your city green waste can. In addition to the typical yard waste, you can add certain types of food scraps. However, the accepted items are much more strict than the ‘scrape your plate’ option of food waste digesters or even what you can compost on your own.

Infographic: what can you compost?

In general, you should be safe to add tea bags & coffee grounds, fruits & vegetables, and eggshells to any green waste bin. Honestly, I think you would be fine adding any more, but check with your waste collection service.

If you don’t have a yard or green waste can, click here to find a composting location near you.

Things that Cannot be Composted

Some of these materials attract pests, while others contain pathogens that are not likely to be killed as traditional composting does not reach the heat levels necessary to kill them.

  • Dairy products
  • Meat or fish
  • Bones
  • Cooked foods
  • Fats, oils, or grease
  • Produce stickers
  • Pet (cat/dog) or human waste
  • Cat litter
  • Construction material/lumber
  • Painted or treated wood
  • Herbicide-treated plants and grass
  • Diseased and pest-infested plants
  • Weeds (the heat will likely not reach high enough temperatures to kill the seeds and prevent spread)
  • Synthetic products like plastic

Learn more ways to utilize green waste in your yard and other ways to create a sustainable garden here.

Helpful Hint

Whichever method you choose, I recommend purchasing a countertop composter to collect your kitchen scraps. It’s simple to place it next to your cutting board as you prepare a meal. I had an older version of this OXO compost bin for a long time, and now I use this Simple Human Compost Caddy that hooks onto the side of my trash can. If I’m doing a lot of cooking or preserving, I’ll use a large bowl instead to collect all the cores/stems/peels, etc., and if I have a brown paper grocery bag I will use that and then toss the entire thing in my green waste can since those bags are also compostable.

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