A former housemate of mine liked to keep the apartment we shared in a shipshape condition, always ensuring she emptied the garbage can even before it was quite full.
Like her, I too, have good housekeeping skills, I’m told. But where I appear to diverge from her is on how we define refuse.
Often times, packed among the regular trash of empty soda cans, beer bottles, greasy wrappers, rotting uneaten veggies, and moldy bread slices, there’d be an unspoiled box of grape tomatoes, an unsealed packet of bagels, unopened cans of soups, and the like.
After days of watching her throwaway perfectly edible food, I took the liberty of asking her, “Are you going to throw all that away?”
With a nonchalant shrug, she replied, “I forgot to eat them and now they’ve gone past the expiration date.”
She had a point, of course. Better to be safe than to be sorry. Why drink coagulated milk only to find yourself lying on a hospital bed later?
But then, not all the foodstuff she discarded was unfit for consumption. Worse yet, half of it didn’t even fall under the category of perishable products. But stale or not, they were all meted the same treatment. They were all banished to the backyard dumpster.
America is a “throwaway society,” where disposal is virtually a national obsession. Just about everything under the Sun is considered disposable in the “land of plenty”—furniture, clothes, kitchen appliances, electronic gadgets, phones.
Last but not least, food.
Back in 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted research to determine the scale of food wastage in the U.S.
It found that 27 percent of the 356 billion pounds of edible food available for human consumption was lost—that is, an eye-popping 96 billion pounds were wasted.
Food loss occurs at every level of the food system: first, on the farms; second, during storage, processing, and handling; and lastly, in grocery stores, cafeterias, caterers, restaurants, convenience stores, and homes.
Food lost in the pre-harvest stage is on account of either extreme weather or pest infestations. More wastage takes place as the crops leave the fields and make their way into the food marketing industry because of storage at uncongenial temperatures, careless transportation, or rough handling.
Big supermarkets add to the wastage by removing post-holiday or seasonal items such as Halloween cookies.
Also, a sizable portion of stock is cleared from the shelves because they reach their “sell-by” date. A lot of fresh fruits, veggies, dairy, and bakery products are lost this way.
Nonperishable packaged goods are chucked primarily for cosmetic reasons. Canned goods, breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers, and pre-cooked food are thrown away because their containers are crushed or dented and don’t make for attractive displays.
Food ordered by customers in restaurants, but left untouched, results in what’s known as “plate waste.” A colossal wastage takes place via this route. Dining establishments also dump surplus food that’s not sold.
Consumers aggravate the situation by being deliberately careless. People buy truckloads of grocery, tuck them away in the refrigerator, but often forget to eat them.
A fairly recent study undertaken by anthropologist Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona at Tuscan, revealed some startling facts.
On an average, households waste 14 percent of all their food purchases, 15 percent of which are still within their expiration dates, but never opened. Nationwide, household food waste alone adds up to $43 billion, making it a serious economic problem.
This is the dark side of extravagance.
But there’s another, and perhaps an even darker side, that which we fail to notice, blinded as we are by the glare of plenitude.
Lately, two diametrically opposite trends have been sweeping the globe. While Americans are doing everything they can to battle their bulges, millions in Africa are fighting to eat one square meal a day.
In 1994, the daily per capita calorie intake of an average American was an estimated 3,800—enough to supply him or her with more than one and a half times his or her daily energy needs.
While women in the western hemisphere are obsessing over body image, the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on one dollar a day or less are women.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of hungry people in poor countries has increased by 109 million since 2004. The UNICEF estimates that each day, 300 million children go to bed hungry.
It’s deplorable that one of world’s richest nations has to waste so much food, when countless others go hungry. Instead of focusing our energies on fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why can we not devote ourselves to constructive causes like giving away food that we don’t require to those dying of starvation? Why throw away a day-old loaf, a bruised apple, or a nicked can of tuna?
Even if the U.S. donated a modest five percent of all the food that it wastes, it’d be enough to feed 10 million famished people for a day.