Food waste

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Food waste is one of the inefficiencies that get in the way of feeding the world.

Globally, about 25% of food goes to waste. In rich countries such as USA and Canada, it's over 50%. About half of food waste comes from businesses, and the other half comes from individual people.

Business food waste

Much of the food that businesses waste, would be perfectly safe to eat. This may include:

  • Day-old donuts, muffins, and other baked goods.
  • Fruits and vegetables with a few bad spots that could be easily cut off.
  • Damaged packages - for example if a dozen eggs has 1 broken, they often throw out the other 11 because the store isn't set up to sell individual eggs.

Businesses waste food that can't be sold.

Unpredictability of demand

Suppose you own a bakery. During the hours that you're open, you need to have fresh food available at all times. You don't know exactly when the next customer will walk in, or what they will order. You don't know exactly how many customers you'll have that day. So you err on the side of baking more than what you typically sell - just in case you get a lot of customers that day. You'll probably lose some money by not selling everything. But it's less money than you would have lost by not baking enough and then selling out of things.

So at the end of the day, you only sold half of the things you baked. You can sell some of the leftovers at a discount tomorrow. But there just aren't as many people buying day-olds compared to the number of people buying fresh stuff that you will bake tomorrow. So ultimately, most of your day-old goods end up in the trash.

Some lessons learned from here:

Food waste could be reduced if:

  • If goods had a longer shelf life
  • If more people were willing to buy day-olds
  • If customers had a lot of free time, and could order something and wait for it to bake
  • If there was some sort of weird subscription service so the bakery would know exactly how many customers to serve, ahead of time


Personal food waste

Sometimes, when food gets dried out or stale, people mistakenly think that it is rotten or moldy when it is not.

Dried-out food examples:

  • Day-old french fries
  • Corn chips in a package that wasn't closed properly
  • Rice that was in an open container in the fridge
  • Freezer-burned vegetables

These can be recovered fairly easily by putting them in a bowl, covering them with water, and microwaving for a few minutes. Basically this makes a porridge or a soup (might need some seasonings).

This is similar to instant rice, or instant mashed potatoes, or instant soups food is cooked in the factory, then dried out, then packaged, then re-boiled at home.

Disclaimer: Before you do this, make sure there isn't actually any mold.

Another food that people often waste is spices, as they get old. In richer countries, it's common for people to throw out more spices than they actually use. Things to keep in mind:

  • Spices lose flavor as they get old, but are still safe to eat (even when they are clumpy), and still contain some nutrients.
  • If a spice has half the flavor, just use twice as much. It's easier to finish up old packages that way.

Then there are people who seem to just not care - people who eat half of what's on their plate, and then throw the rest out. Some possible motivations for this behavior:

  • Misjudging how much food one plans to eat.
  • Cultural norms - treating food waste like it's not a big deal.
  • Being afraid of "looking weird" by caring when other people don't.
  • Not wanting to get fat by finishing the whole meal this is likely to backfire by being more hungry later (unless one is genuinely full - in which case, food could be saved for later - but perhaps social norms get in the way of that, as mentioned above)
  • At restaurants:
    • Not wanting to be the "slow one" who is still eating when everyone else is done
    • Avoiding the awkwardness of carrying the food to whatever activity is planned for after the restaurant
    • Thinking that the 'to go' packaging is worse for the environment than the food waste
  • At events:
    • Not wanting to carry around the same plate of food everywhere
    • De-valuing the refreshments because they're "free"
  • On lunch breaks at work:
    • Breaks too short, not enough time to finish food, and nowhere to store it.


Actions to take

As mentioned above:

  • Asking restaurants for discounted day-old goods
  • Learning how to really make use of foods at home
  • Campaigning for long-enough lunch breaks

Dumpster diving

If businesses fail to reduce food waste, you can take matters into your own hands.

Disclaimer: Make sure this is legal in your country. It generally is. We should expand this page by listing the countries where dumpster diving is legal/illegal.

See also

Other food inefficiencies include:

See the main food page for the general overview.

External links