Two Facts and a Fiction: Waste Not

December 19, 2023

RECIPES fellow Kristine Beran weighs in on wasted food, which reaches a peak during the holiday season.

By Jack Frederick

The holidays mark the most wasteful time of the year in the United States.

Each December, Americans generate 23 percent more tons of waste, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Wasted food—the single most common material found in landfills—is a big part of the problem.

Since 2021, AU has led the Multiscale Resilient, Equitable, and Circular Innovations with Partnership and Education Synergies (RECIPES) for Sustainable Food Systems. Funded by a historic, five-year, $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the network of 40 researchers from 16 institutions aims to build a food system that is more sustainable, equitable, and resilient.

Here, CAS senior professorial lecturer and RECIPES fellow Kristine Beran, who this fall taught a first-year seminar on wasted food funded by RECIPES, explains how we can keep more of our holiday treats out of the trash and take a bite out of food waste all year long.

Fact: Nearly 40 percent of food in the US is never consumed—that figure increases between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

This semester, our students have researched the sources of food waste in their communities, including right here on campus. Food waste is a problem from production to consumption, but lack of portion control and throwing out leftovers and imperfect produce are significant problems on the back end.

You can reduce food waste by composting, freezing leftovers, and planning meals so you buy only what you intend to consume. You can also donate uneaten food to your local food pantry. Several apps and websites also feature recipes based on ingredients users have on hand.

Fact: Food waste contributes to about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Food waste is a cyclical problem. On the front end, food production zaps our natural resources like freshwater and land, along with fertilizer and labor. In all, food production eats up about 20 percent of the national energy budget.

Food production is also highly vulnerable to changing climactic conditions. That means when uneaten food and scraps go to landfill and generate more methane gases, it exacerbates the existing problem.

Fiction: Individual efforts won’t make a dent in the systemic food waste problem.

Educating individuals is key to reducing food waste. Much of the time, uneaten food goes unseen, but the three apples that we throw away because they’ve gone bad has a huge multiplier effect. Through education, we can ignite empathy and activism by helping people understand the problem and inspiring them to do something about it.

Individuals can make a difference when they take the next step to scale up their efforts. It’s not just keeping those three apples out of the landfill—it’s about sharing the impact of food waste on the household level, then making changes on the neighborhood and city level, like encouraging community composting. That process of scaling up can start with reading about resources from ReFED or RECIPES then having conversations at the dinner table over the holidays.