Food Waste Detrimental to Environment

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For every two pieces of produce, one will be thrown away, uneaten. It’s a battle for perfection, from stem to store and all of the stops in between. But it isn’t limited to produce. Out of all food produced in the U.S., nearly 40 percent is thrown out. This equates to over 60 million tons — or $160 billion worth — of food tossed annually.

At UC Santa Cruz, we are comparatively doing a much better job than the nation as a whole. About 130 tons of waste go to landfills annually, while the vast majority is composted. Likewise, UCSC has committed to be a zero waste campus by 2020 — though this doesn’t actually mean zero, it means it will generate only 5 percent landfill waste.

Infographic by Owen Thomas
Infographic by Owen Thomas

Healthy food is a privilege and access to enough food isn’t always easy. The fact that we live in a society that can afford to throw this much food away because it’s imperfect, does not fit the standards of grocery stores or is simply excess, is the epitome of privilege. Especially considering that, at the same time, 12 percent of Americans struggle with some degree of food insecurity. At the UC, this statistic expands to 1 in 4, or nearly 60,000 students.

But being on a campus that is comparatively good at waste reduction doesn’t mean we can take a back seat on this issue. Outside of the dining halls, campus and city restaurants continue to contribute to food waste. Because of liability concerns, restaurants are reluctant to donate leftover food to those who need it. Likewise, many believe it devalues the product if they give it away at the end of the night.

But restaurants cannot be held liable for food donated to organizations under the Good Samaritan Act and there has yet to be a lawsuit filed against a restaurant that donated food. Still, many places give leftovers to animal farms or simply throw it away rather than repurpose it or donate it.

We are in a privileged position to be able to talk about issues of food, but also help those in need of support. The majority of us are not food insecure and it’s our obligation to not only provide food to others, but question those who put profit over health.

Beyond not going to those who need it, the majority of food waste ends up in landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the U.S., food waste is the second highest component of landfills. Landfills are the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing at least 30 metric tons or 66,000 pounds of methane to global emissions annually.

Our own food waste is spurring climate change. Ninety percent of wasted food winds up in landfills. When this food decays, it turns into methane, which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide and traps heat much more than carbon dioxide.

According to Drew Shindell, a former scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute in New York, methane emissions have gone up by 150 percent since the preindustrial period, while carbon dioxide emissions have gone up by around 30 percent. If the increase in methane does not slow, global temperatures will continue to rise increasingly faster than expected.

Reducing methane emissions starts with reducing food waste. There is no reason to be wasting as much food as we are while people around the country and around the world struggle to feed themselves and their families. Likewise, since food waste contributes so much to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, we must take every measure to continue not only reducing waste on campus, but encouraging others off campus and outside of Santa Cruz to do so too.