One of the biggest sources of waste in the United States is food. A recent study found that the average American wastes about one pound of food per day.
Based on how much we eat, this means that one quarter of our available daily food ends up in the garbage. This isn’t just bad for our bank accounts. It’s also bad for our planet.
Food waste is contributing to the deteriorating state of the environment. Our thrown-away meals end up in landfills, and the greenhouse gas emissions from rotting food contribute to global warming.
The World Wildlife Fund reports that in the U.S. the amount of wasted food generates the equivalent of 43 million cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s also the issue of resources that get wasted when food is trashed, as agriculture requires lots of water, cropland and fertilizers.
“Adopting more sustainable practices, in general, is a necessary step in preserving our world today,” says Michelle Genttner, co-owner of Unboxed Market, a Toronto-based zero-waste grocery store. “If we don’t make changes fast, we might not have a world left for much longer.”
Genttner built her grocery store on green practices. These include reusable containers and bags for shopping, refillable household items like dish soap, and BYOB milk on tap.
Genttner says that regardless if you have a zero-waste store like hers near you, there are easy ways to consider food sustainability at any grocery store.
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Here are her tips on how to shop greener and cut waste in your kitchen.
When we do large shopping trips, we often overbuy things that we cannot actually finish before their expiration dates. Non-perishable items, like pastas and canned lentils, are fine to buy in large quantities (and are great to always have on hand).
However, it’s safer to err on the side of caution with produce. This means that you should only buy the food you actually need and know that you will eat, Genttner says.
“Most food waste is caused from people buying a package of something when they only need one or two of that thing,” she explains.
Shopping smarter may also mean shopping more frequently. If you live alone, it often doesn’t make sense to buy a bag of avocados at once (they go brown so fast!).
Instead, you may need to get two single avocados to last you for a couple days, then pick-up a few more later in the week. That way, you can prevent produce from going off before you have a chance to eat it.
If you do end up buying more than you can eat, Genttner says that there are ways to make your fresh food last longer.
“Wilting herbs? Freeze them in ice cube trays so they can be added to dishes later,” she said.
Learn how to compost and recycle
Genttner says that many things get thrown into the recycling—even if they’re not recyclable. This does not benefit anyone, and often causes more work for recycling plants. Look up your city’s bylaws on recycling and make sure that you sort your waste accordingly.
Another mistake people make? Throwing dirty packaging into recycling bins. “Rinse your recycling!” Genttner says.
“You can contaminate an entire truck of recyclables—and therefore send it to the landfill—by putting dirty recycling in your bin.”
It’s also great for the environment to compost, Genttner says. Getting a small compost bin that lives under your sink gives food waste a place to go that’s not your garbage.
Composting helps our planet in many ways, including helping plants grow and reducing the use of pesticides.
Another perk? Fertilizers—which can pollute water—bind to compost in the soil, and this binding helps prevent them from ending up in waterways. Composting is a win-win, really.
Bring your own bags and containers
When you hit up the fresh food aisles of your grocery store, think about sustainable ways to carry produce. Those rolls of plastic bags do more harm than good. People often only use them once and throw them in the garbage as soon as they get home.
“Jars, bags, boxes, pillowcases, soup pots…they can all be used to carry and transport things in the store to your home,” Genttner says.
“Sometimes you don’t need anything except that reusable bag. Grab a basket and carry your apples loose. Same with your potatoes. Head[s] of lettuce, grapes—none of these things need their own bags.”
Farmers markets will often allow (or encourage) you to bring your own containers. Even if things like strawberries are sold in plastic crates, asking to take the food home in your own reusable container means the crate gets a second life at the market.
Think about size and packaging
While it may seem more convenient to buy individually packaged foods, like yogurt or oatmeal packets, it’s better for the environment if you buy bulk bags or tubs.
With yogurt, for example, you can easily buy one larger container over a six-pack, and portion out the snack at home.
By using small mason jars or glass storage containers, you can easily reduce waste while also being able to wash and reuse the larger plastic yogurt container later.
Another area where you can cut down on packaging is by buying bulk. In many grocery stores, there are bulk bins where you can fill up things like quinoa and nuts on your own. Bring a reusable bag for these bulk purchases.
Genttner says that it’s also important to talk to your local stores and tell them what greener practices you’d like to see.
“Let them know that you would like to see things packaged differently,” she says. “Often, stores will listen to their customers—particularly if there are repeated requests for the same thing.”
At the end of the day, even the changes that may seem small have a big impact. Genttner says that by adopting greener practices on an individual basis, we are working towards reducing food waste on a meaningful level.
“Choosing to purchase things in quantities that we need—as opposed to quantities that we are told that we need and then waste—purchasing things without excess packaging, avoiding single-use plastics…these are all things that [we can] do make an immediate difference,” she says.
“Each individual has the power to see their own changes.”
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