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Waste Not, Rot Not

Story and Photos by Alaina Van Slooten

In the past year, Boston has seen a disposable straw boycott and a city-wide ban on plastic shopping bags. These events reveal American consumers’ trend towards increased awareness of their plastic usage and concern over where their trash ends up.  But awareness of other forms of waste—such as food—has been slow to catch up. Many consumers don’t pay much attention to their food waste or where it goes after their kitchen trash can.

A sense of ecological doom has been attached to plastics, illustrated by  images of choking sea turtles and beaches smothered with brightly-colored detritus. Compared to plastics that will last for hundreds or thousands of years, it hardly seems wrong to throw away a few past-their-prime vegetables that will decompose in just a matter of weeks. But do we really know what happens to the food we throw away?

A commonly cited fact is that a banana peel decomposes in 2-3 weeks. Yet in a 20-year excavational study of America’s landfills, archeologist William Rathje discovered a disturbing truth about biodegradation—it “simply doesn’t happen”. In what became known as “The Garbage Project”, his team uncovered fascinating remnants of decades-old meals: 25-year-old heads of lettuce, 20-year-old steaks with meat on the bones, and a disturbingly pristine bowl of 1967 guacamole. Entombed in garbage bags and buried under a mountain of other waste, foods were deprived of the oxygen and moisture needed to facilitate the process of decomposition. Instead, they were mummified and left to accumulate.

Rathje’s work was done in the later part of the 20th century, and while landfill systems have changed and progressed since then, it still reveals the fundamental truth of modern waste management: that consumers have no understanding of what happens to their trash.  

A 2017 survey of German consumers indicated that the majority agreed with the statement “Food waste is not an environmental problem, because it is natural and biodegradable.” This could not be further from the truth.

Even when food decomposes properly in landfills, in doing so it releases huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Throwing food away also squanders the resources already used to grow, produce, process, store, and transport those goods. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if global food waste were a nation, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions (after China and the United States).

In addition to misunderstanding the environmental impacts of their food waste, consumers also misperceive how much they throw away. An Australian survey found that while community members considered packaging to be the largest component of their trash and 61% of consumers claimed they threw away “very little food”, food waste still accounted for the majority of the community’s garbage.

In the United States, an estimated 30-40 percent of all food produced is wasted. While losses occur at every point in the supply chain, from produce left in fields to products spoiled in transit, two thirds of this waste is estimated to occur at the consumer level. Wilted greens and forgotten leftovers add up quickly, costing the average family of four between $1,350 and $2,275 per year.

Although the problem of food waste can seem large-scale and systematic, there are solutions to it in every person’s day-to-day life. Being a bit more mindful of what we buy and what we have in the back of the fridge can go a long way. In the United States, many of us take cheap and abundant food for granted without considering the systems and resources that go into it, or what happens when we decide we no longer want it. It’s on each one of us to be aware of the costs and consequences of throwing food away and to, quite simply, do it less.

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