From Your Trash Can to Our Atmosphere

Food waste has more to do with climate change than you think


As humans, one of the main things that we can’t stop thinking about, no matter how hard we try, is food. Though, once it hits the bottom of our trash can and the lid shuts, it’s likely that we won’t think about it again. We are acutely aware of our food when it has to do with our hungry bellies, but when it has to do with our planet, we could all use a little more knowledge. Are you familiar with the impact that tossing out your once-perfectly-edible-but-now-forgotten leftovers can have on our atmosphere?

Most of us are aware that human-caused greenhouse gases are the most significant source of climate change. Aside from well-known gases like carbon dioxide, however, not everyone keeps tabs on the other gases listed as harmful to the air we breathe and the planet we live on. That being said, methane is one to keep an eye on.

In regards to climate change, methane is up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If released into our atmosphere before proper utilization, this greenhouse gas has a way of absorbing the sun’s heat and in turn, warming our planet. Methane is released in many ways, such as a pipe leakage, but it has another approach that can be as commonly overlooked as the week-old spaghetti in the back of your fridge. When our uneaten food items reach the landfill and begin to rot, methane is released and contributes to the ever-worsening warming of our planet.

Rotting food is one of the most common ways that methane is released into the air. According to a report released by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 2012a fifth of U.S. landfill waste is completely consumed by rotting food. This fraction alone is now responsible for a decent-sized chunk of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a lot of emissions for a country as large as ours, and not to mention a lot of space taken up by rotten food. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the big picture.

America’s landfills are not the only ones that fall victim to food waste and these harmful greenhouse gases. A study done by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that approximately one-third of the planet’s food supply goes to waste. Not only this, but the World Resources Institute states that if the global amount of food loss and waste made up one country, it would be the world’s third-largest contributor to climate change after the U.S. and China. These are both notably large countries that are not meant to be sized up by our neglected food.

With all of the damage that food waste has caused something as critical as our atmosphere, it’s only fitting that it would take a toll on our precious resources as well. Not only is our uneaten food polluting our atmosphere, it’s wasting water, energy and nonrenewable resources.

In the U.S., 21 percent of our agricultural freshwater is used to grow food that never gets eaten. As stated in ReFED’s A Roadmap To Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent“Put another way, if all of our country’s wasted food was grown in one place…[it] would consume all the water used in California, Texas, and Ohio combined.” As I mentioned before, wasting water is coupled with wasting the energy and resources required to grow, harvest, transport and package the food as well. Thus, on a global scale, the problem is compounded as we waste large amounts of energy used to prepare the heaps of Planet Earth’s food supply that never makes it to a mouth. Let us not forget that by wasting these resources, they are furthermore contributing to our warming climate.

If we look at things on an agricultural level, ReFED’s Roadmap shows us that annually, America spends over $200 million on producing food that isn’t eaten and sends 52 million tons to landfill. “Meanwhile, one in seven Americans are food insecure,” ReFED reminds us.

Now, with all of these strenuous truths wedged in the front of our mind, it’s important to grab ahold of the power that we each have in this fight.

The good news is that there are food rescue organizations, such as Replate, that are set out to reduce food waste and hunger. Since 2016, Replate has recovered 1.7 million pounds of food to create 1.41 million meals in the U.S., which has saved 465 million gallons of water and diverted an astounding 23 million pounds of CO2 from the environment.

But wait, there’s more! There are steps that businesses and new policies can take to help reduce food waste as a method of climate change. ReFED points out that on a larger scale, solutions such as centralized composting, food donations, donation tax incentives and centralized anaerobic digestion each have profound benefits that outweigh the costs.

Additionally, there are an endless amount of smaller-scale actions that can be easily adopted by all, such as shopping realistically, saving (and remembering to eat!) your leftovers, meal planning and taking note of what you throw away each week.

And so, now that we are informed, let us all try to be more cognizant of the impact that our veggies can have on the planet before pushing them to the edge of our plates.