My previous blog was about the how the ultimate success of recycling programs with the long-range objective of achieving “zero waste” will depend not on incentives, but on instilling in the public a sense of respect for the intrinsic value of the things we now casually discard. No matter what physical assets we put in place, it is only a change in attitude toward what we now consider “waste” that will really make a difference in our ability to halt the trashing of the planet with materials that are actually precious resources. While this is particularly true of things like plastic packaging, the large-scale disposal of which I’ve spent years attempting to mitigate, there’s another waste stream that has lately begun ‘eating at me’ — the tossing out of approximately 40 percent of our food supply here in the U.S. It is only when you factor in the energy, water, land, organisms, seeds, fertilizers, and manpower that it takes to produce all this food that the enormity of this profligate disrespect for nature’s bounty becomes apparent.
Recently I was talking with a major tomato grower about what can be done to reverse this senseless situation. Now, because of the demand for fresh salsa, it might seem like tomatoes are less likely to end up as food waste than other commodities. But even today, once a shipment of tomatoes is in the supply chain for a customer, and that customer can’t use it, nobody wants to touch it because of potential contamination. The fact is, there’s no real system in place to make optimal use of those excess tomatoes, bananas, melons, strawberries, etc. – all perfectly good products that the industry would call “long” or “over-ordered” – other than waiting until they’ve spoiled, then dispatching them to the landfill. The complexities involved in this issue, in fact, may be one reason why most food manufacturers and retailers really don’t want to talk about it in a public forum. It’s one of those things they would either rather not discuss or simply don’t know how to address. From fast food operations to your home kitchen to supermarkets and institutional feed operations, the scrapping of vast quantities of perfectly edible and nutritious food has become a virtual epidemic – but one with multiple causes that can’t be so easily eradicated within the framework of a complex supply chain.
That’s why it will require nothing short of outrage expressed many times over to achieve transformative change – a process I believe has gotten underway with Dana Gunders’ report for the Natural Resources Defense Council which she did an impressive job of putting together despite the difficulty of acquiring this information, and which I urge you to read and forward to others.
Just think about 64 billion pounds of food being thrown in a hole in the ground and covered with dirt every year. If the $11.4 billion worth of recyclables lost to landfills last year is enough to get our dander up, what about $75 to $100 billion in food at a time in the U.S. when an estimated 47 million Americans suffer from what has been politely termed “food insecurity”?
As you may know from previous blogs, last year we assembled a group of experts to look for ways to prevent all this food from going to waste – for example, pulling any food items that are about to go out of code from store shelves and selling them at a specific, advertised time, or creating an exchange for expiring products like tomatoes, canned chili or salsa that would be available on a 24-hour basis to manufacturers and shippers, permitting them to use idle trucks at their convenience to deliver such items to soup kitchens and other charities. Unfortunately, we were unable to get sufficient traction to keep the team together due largely to the complexity of the factors involved. But thanks to Dana’s timely report, I am once again feeling greatly encouraged, because it has finally gotten people talking about this challenge, and asking the kinds of questions that need to be asked. And that’s the first step toward making the American public begin thinking of excess food as a valuable resource we cannot afford to waste.