Over the winter, my husband was looking for a project to fight his cabin fever and decided to defrost our iced-over freezer. When he emptied out the freezer, we discovered more than three dozen bags of frozen vegetables hidden in the ice that I had obviously overbought.
Not only was it a reminder that I need to eat more vegetables, it also got me thinking about ways to reduce food waste at home.
Food waste is a growing problem not just in homes, but all along the food-production chain. About 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in a landfill, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That’s about $165 billion worth of food that never gets eaten in the United States, a nation where 17.2 million households were food insecure in 2010.
Here in Iowa, food has become the number one most prevalent disposed material in the state’s municipal landfills, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s 2011 statewide waste characterization study.
About 13.3 percent of all landfilled waste is food. Even more startling, food waste in Iowa landfills has increased 62 percent in the last 13 years, the DNR reports.
“It’s a problem, and it’s a growing problem for multiple reasons,” says Joe Bolick, communications and public relations manager for the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa.
For one, many people don’t realize that the food we throw away doesn’t decompose quickly in a landfill, Bolick explains.
Take, for example, a banana peel. If you throw a banana peel in your backyard, the peel will decompose within a few weeks. But landfills are designed to minimize any exposure to the air to prevent contaminants leaching into the environment, Bolick says.
“So if you throw a banana peel in a landfill, 20 years later, there are probably at least some remnants of the banana peel there,” he says.
And when the landfilled banana peel does decompose, it breaks down slowly, releasing methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps in 20 to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, Bolick says.
In addition to environmental concerns, food waste is costly. Families are, in essence, throwing money away whenever they toss purchased food in the trash, says Jennifer Jordan, recycling coordinator for the City of Iowa City.
A typical American throws away 20 pounds of food each month, which is worth about $28 to $43 per person, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“If you are spending a couple hundred dollars a month on groceries, and you are throwing away a quarter of it, you just wasted $50 a month. That’s hundreds of dollars a year,” Jordan says.
There are many strategies that Iowans can practice at home to reduce food waste. First, take a closer look at what you are purchasing at the grocery store and try to avoid overbuying.
If you do have leftovers, place them in the front of the fridge, where they are visible.
“We hand out small signs for your fridge at various (educational) events that literally say, ‘Eat me first,’” Jordan says. “It sounds really simple, because it is that simple.”
And as many gardeners already know, backyard composting is also an easy solution for keeping food waste out of landfills.
“It can be as simple as going out and buying a compost bin that turns itself, or a pitchfork and a pile,” Bolick says.
The Iowa Waste Reduction Center offers a residential composting toolkit online (http://iwrc.uni.edu/services/food-waste/residential-food-waste-reduction/).
The City of Iowa City also offers tips and strategies for reducing food waste at home on its website (http://www.icgov.org/?id=2376).
By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau’s senior features writer.