Two years ago, when I was working at an anaerobic digestion company in Raleigh, North Carolina, an odd sight stopped me in my tracks as I walked across the parking lot one morning: an abandoned orange. In an otherwise immaculate strip of asphalt - because it was one of those places that contracted landscapers to leaf-blow the parking lot weekly - it was not hard to spot. I was transfixed. I returned to my car and got my camera to take pictures of this forsaken fruit. I couldn’t imagine who would throw out what appeared to be a perfectly good orange. The exterior was a little dirty, but that’s why oranges have skin. And I guessed that the spot of grime came courtesy of the asphalt. So what did I do? What would anyone who was blogging about food waste do? I ate it. And it was fine.
In addition to wondering who would discard a perfectly good orange, I couldn’t imagine who would drop it onto the ground. Because, with the exception of cigarette butts, we just don’t see people leave their trash behind as much these days as we did, say, twenty years ago. Collectively, we decided it was an unpleasant behavior and directly and indirectly set about to curtail it. Putting a name on the behavior - “littering” - helped. The Pennsylvania Resources Council created the “litterbug” idea in the early 1950s and allowed others to use it, and publicity campaigns followed. States made it worth our while to turn in bottles and cans, and eventually counties and municipalities made it much, much easier to recycle through curbside collection.
Today, seeing someone drop a can on the ground or even in the regular trash is rare, but few passersby would bat an eyelash if you threw away half of a banana. A common misconception is that food automatically returns to the soil. But although it does not seem as harmful as inorganic trash, food waste, in truth, is more harmful than most litter. Organic materials (such as foods) are the ones that release greenhouse gases into the environment as they decompose.
Food waste isn’t considered problematic because, for the most part, it isn’t considered at all. It’s easy to ignore because it’s both common and customary. William Rathje, director of the erstwhile Garbage Project, a University of Arizona study that examined America’s trash habits for more than thirty years, told me that food waste and its consequences go largely unnoticed. Why? Because it doesn’t pile up like old newspapers; it just goes away, either down the disposal or into the trash. Yet, once you start looking for it, you can’t miss the abandoned appetizers and squandered sandwiches.
Whenever the topic of food waste comes up in a conversation I’m having - after the awkwardness passes, if there’s eating involved - most everyone has an intense reaction. Regardless of their take on the subject, each person has a strategy, an anecdote, or a question. I have yet to meet somebody who is pro–food waste, but many aren’t convinced that it’s important. And a good number of people, regardless of how they respond, don’t behave as if it matters much.
But food waste matters. A lot. Wasting food has harmful environmental, economic, and ethical consequences. That’s why we can’t afford to ignore it anymore. You may see that orange and think that it’s just one piece of fruit. True. But what if all 130 million households in America tossed out that amount or more of food each day? We’d need a pretty big bowl to contain all that squandered food. Something about the size of the Rose Bowl.
In the coming pages, I’ll take you to abandoned harvests, pristine supermarket produce sections, and restaurants where abundance is always on the menu. We’ll end up close to home, well, actually, in your home. Because, as we’ll see, wasted food occurs there, and all around us. Still, we remain blissfully unaware of it.
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