Rob Greenfield isn’t the sort of person you’d expect to see head-down, feet-up in the dumpster. He’s entirely literate, for one. He’s an athlete, a vegetarian and webmaster who lives in San Diego. But if you lived in one of America’s iconic big cities during summer 2014, you might have spied him rooting about in a downtown dumpster, snacking on deformed apples and chip crumbles just to prove a point: There’s enough food for everyone, guys!
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy group, America wastes 40 percent of its food. More than half of that food is wasted at “final consumption” – at restaurant buffets, in moldy leftovers, at the scrape, scrape, scrape of a dinner plate. That’s about $165 billion sucked down the garbage disposal every year.
Now, this might trouble you. So much, in fact, that you might get an app like Fridge Pal, which helps you plan meals based on your foods nearing their expiration dates, or Home Compost, available on Android, which teaches you what food scraps are best for backyard composting.This is evidence that technology has the potential to help, not hurt, our mission to live greener, despite some beliefs.
Good for you! But imagine you live in Kenya, which also wastes about 40 percent of its food, but there, waste occurs before the plate. Lydia Omuko, a regional expert in Africa environmentalism, says that European Cosmetic Standards, made-up aesthetic rules for picture-perfect produce, account for up to 30 percent of African food waste.
Now, there are many places worldwide where the soil is moist and the workers are willing – but then what? If you grow three million bananas, how do you ship them from southern India to Canada? Simply put, you don’t, and poor subsistence farmers pay the price. India is the world’s largest banana producer, but it holds only 0.3 percent of the global banana market. Less than four percent of its produce is refrigerated during transportation. Compare that to rates of 90 percent in Europe and North America. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers thinks that up to 25 percent of food waste in developing countries could be eliminated through commercial refrigeration.
But refrigeration has long been a North American toy, and for good reasons: It’s expensive. It requires constant maintenance. And it shows millions of tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, where it reaps climate change and global warming. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that food waste accounts for 3.3 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent every year, a number Direct Energy has compared to the exhaust from some 20 million SUVs. Would large-scale commercial refrigeration merely be moving us from frying pan to fire?
Sustainable refrigeration requires innovative technologies like emissions-free heat engines, chlorofluorocarbon-free refrigerants, and a legal climate that encourages innovation. Take the ol’ restaurant excuse, for instance. “We can’t give this [insert food here]. We might be sued!” That might have been in true in 1995, but then Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which freed food vendors from legal liability when donating food to non-profits assisting needy individuals.
Whatever food not fit for man could go to beasts. At one point, sloppin’ the hogs was the usual way of recycling food scraps. Man eats dinner; hog eats leftovers; man eats hog. Unfortunately, more than 95 percent of American food waste now goes to landfills or incinerators, when it could go somewhere it would be more appreciated: the bellies of farm animals. There are challenges, to be sure. How do you move stale bread and moldy spaghetti from Los Angeles or Atlanta, from the coasts, to the wide-open cattle ranches and hog farms of the Midwest?
Then again, if America could put a man on the moon, surely it can move a stinky banana peel a few hundred miles.
In the meantime, here’s an idea: Try Using a smaller plate!