Every day, the average person throws away about 4.5 pounds of waste, including food, drink bottles, plastic and paper packaging, and more. 4.5 pounds is also the weight of a small Yorkshire Terrier, which may seem irrelevant. Consider however that by the end of January 2020, the average American family of four will have accumulated 558 pounds, or about 124 Yorkies’ worth of trash, which is maybe a little easier to visualize taking up a lot of space in your home.. and a lot of space in the landfill. Depending on the material and conditions of the landfill, our trash can take hundreds or years to decompose, or in the case of some items like polystyrene cups, never break down at all.
When we think of ways that we can help our planet (aside from transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy), reducing our waste is a big one. Landfills are a major source of methane gas, which is far more effective than CO2 in the short term at trapping heat in our atmosphere and damaging our planet, although landfills also produce just as much CO2 as they do methane. Reducing our waste also means being more thoughtful about what we use and lowering our demand, thereby reducing our dependence on fossil fuels to make, grow, and transport everything.
In the spirit of New Years’ resolutions, we wanted to look into ways we can all make a difference every day for the sake of the planet, and put together an easy, helpful guide. We hope you’ll join us in implementing some simple changes in 2020, starting with ways we can all try not to waste so much.
What’s in our landfills?
More than 50% of the things we dispose of every day end up in a landfill totaling over 139 million tons in 2017 (which weighs more than 62 billion Yorkies by the way). Meanwhile, only 35% of our household waste as a country is recycled or composted.
Because there’s so much to consider, we’ll focus on the source where the largest portion of our waste comes from. Shockingly, more than 21% of waste in our landfills is wasted food – even when the vast majority of all food waste is compostable, and very preventable.
How much food do we waste?
The NRDC estimates that we in the USA waste about 40% of all food produced annually. So what can we do about it? A good way to start is to be more conscious about what we’re actually throwing away. If you don’t know how much food you’re potentially wasting in a week, here’s a way to find out:
- Set aside a separate bin for food waste for a week. Put all non-edible items in one, and everything that was once edible into the other.
- Weigh the amount you’ve accumulated at the end of the week – though you don’t have to measure in Yorkies if you don’t want to.
- If you’re shocked by the amount, read on for some ideas to cut down on your waste for the next week, and compost your food waste afterwards!
Buy Less, Waste Less
One easy way to reduce the amount of food in your house that goes to waste, is to have less food in your house to begin with. Start by buying less – avoid buying more food than you will use at one time by planning your meals before you do your shopping for the week, and then buying only what you need to make those meals.
Once the food is in your home, however, it’s up to you to make good use of it. Use these ideas to avoid letting your food go to waste:
- Keep track of what’s in your fridge so things don’t get pushed to the back and mutate unseen into something horrifying, pungent, and moldy to be discovered at a later date. Keeping a list or whiteboard on the door to track your food will also help avoid rebuying things you already have. Or when you put new food in, move older things to the front so you know what needs to be used first.
- Preserve foods before they go by. Freeze foods like meats, fruits and bread to prolong their freshness until you’re going to eat them. You can also prepare meals in advance with food that needs to be used, separate into portions and freeze for eating later. Even dairy products that have gone slightly sour can still be used for cooking.
- Eat all of your leftovers (even if you don’t like them). If you don’t eat them for lunch or dinner the next day, plan one night every week where you use up leftovers. If it wasn’t your best success in cooking, see if you can make some additions to make it more palatable.
- If you have food sitting in your pantry that you know you’re not going to eat ever, donate it (as long as it’s still good). You can donate non-perishable and even sometimes non-spoiled fresh foods to local food banks.
Pay Attention to Packaging
One of the reasons we waste so much is that the way we produce, transport, and buy things makes it really difficult to avoid. Behind food itself, the next most common things in our landfill are plastic and paper products, plenty of which comes from food packaging. Here are some ways to minimize the excess packaging on the food we buy:
- Avoid beverages in plastic bottles. Opt for infinitely recyclable glass, or avoid bottled beverages entirely. Aluminum is also infinitely recyclable and lighter weight than glass for shipping, but very detrimental to the environment to produce in the first place.
- Buy more non-processed food than processed food. Eat more fruits and veggies, which is a good way to start eating more healthfully too if that was one of your resolutions for 2020. You’ll cut out a lot of plastic bags and boxes. Shop in places where you know you can get fruits and veggies that aren’t wrapped in packaging.
- On a related note… shop locally! Check out farmers markets (you can find them even in the winter, see resources here for Maine, New Hampshire & Massachusetts). You’ll be shopping what’s in season and fresh from the ground, thereby eliminating energy expenditures that go into storing food that has to keep for a long time to travel to you from warmer climates. Additionally, you’ll be cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the transportation needed to bring your food to you.
- And obviously… bring reusable grocery bags. Avoid single use plastic bags like they are pure evil (because they are). Think of them as the ankle-biters of all the Waste Yorkies out there. If you get to the store and realize you forgot your bag, use the shopping cart to transport your groceries to you car and then try letting them free-range the floor of the car until you get home. You may need to wash your veggies before eating (though you probably do anyway) but you’ll be doing the planet a favor with relatively minor inconvenience. In the future, keep reusable bags in your car or by the door where you can remember them.
- If you can buy non-perishable foods in bulk (like rice, beans, etc.) you can often bring your own jars to fill in the store, and avoid individual packaging.
- Once you get your food home, store it right. Use glass storage containers, rather than plastic bags. Save and use mason jars and tomato sauce jars, or any kind of jars. (If you don’t save your glass jars, be sure to recycle them.) Instead of plastic wrap, stick with containers that have reusable covers. You could also try beeswax fabric food wraps or if necessary 100% recycled aluminum foil – but be sure to recycle it afterward.
- If you do wind up with waste packaging, recycle everything you can. Even those evil plastic bags can be recycled, but you have to bring them to a plastic film recycling pickup location, which you can often find at your local grocery store. If you don’t already know where you can find one, take a look here.
Plan ahead when you are away from your home. It can be easy to pick up things like disposable cups, napkins and more when you eat out. Here are some ways to avoid it:
- Bring your own carry-out container to restaurants so you don’t have to waste your leftovers or take a single-use carry-out container. If you don’t know if the restaurant will allow it, call ahead and find out.
- Ask your server before they take your drink order to please not bring you a straw.
- When you’re out and about, bring some supplies with you so you don’t have to take disposable utensils, cups or napkins. Many people suggest an “emergency” kit containing a mason jar (food storage or beverage glass), reusable cloth napkins, and reusable utensils.
- If you’re having a dinner party and don’t have enough dishes for everyone, ask people to bring their own rather than buying disposable ones. Also, you avoid doing all the washing!
- If you buy coffee, bring your own mug/tumbler to refill.
What to Do When Waste Happens
Even with our best efforts, some will still be wasted. When it does, there’s a solution that doesn’t involve landfills and methane. It’s called compost! There are abundant online resources for starting your own easy compost – or if you don’t have the space or capability to compost, look into a composting service like OffBeet Compost in MA, or see if you have friends who compost and wants your table scraps. If we could eliminate our food waste, we could take a good 12 billion of those Yorkies back out of the landfill and put them to work replenishing our earth with good nutritious soil, so we can continue to produce the food we need to live healthfully, all while reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use. Waste not, want not for a healthy planet.
Do you have ideas for us on how we can reduce food or other waste? We’d love to have you share with us with us on social media!