Foodprints for the Future

Where’s all the food waste? Just look in your fridge

Americans waste about a third of their food. In other words, we have a food waste problem.

A big part of that problem starts in the fridge, according to a study published last week in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

“The refrigerator is a great invention,” says Brian Roe, professor at The Ohio State University and senior author of the study, in an interview with Earth Day Network. “It helps you store food and extend its shelf life and should help us prevent food waste, but yet we have really no idea what the average American does with their refrigerator.”

The study peeked inside an American fridge, and the results weren’t pretty. Roe and his researchers polled hundreds of people about what goes in and out of their refrigerators and found a huge gap between expectation and reality.

Roe’s research showed that while consumers planned to eat nearly all the meat and vegetables in their refrigerators, they really finished only about half. For fruits and vegetables, the results weren’t much better: Expecting to about 71 percent of the fruit and 84 percent of the dairy, people ate just 40 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

What’s the root of this problem? Roe points to several culprits, including our own food-related habits and our misconceptions about food labels.

Our purchasing habits might be driven by sales, suggests Roe. If there’s a buy-one-get-one sale on zucchini, for instance, you’re probably going to grab that extra gourd, whether you need it or not.

Fridges also can serve as a “guilt-alleviation mechanism,” says Roe. “Our lives are hectic and difficult to organize so best laid plans don’t come to fruition.” So you toss leftovers in the fridge and hope for the best (hmm, sounds familiar… ahem, wishcycling).

Food labels also drive confusion.

“A date is a very specific and verifiable piece of information; however, it doesn’t apply nearly what most people think it does,” says Roe.

Most people think these “best by” labels have to do with safety, but the labels would be better thought of as a food industry recommendation for peak quality. The problem is that many people throw out perfectly good yogurt or milk just from looking at a label. There’s a bill before Congress that addresses labeling foods to provide more clarity and perhaps lead to less confusion around what’s safe to eat and what’s just a quality recommendation.

And then, as with so many environmental problems, there’s the “lack of financial salience,” says Roe. “When we throw food out, [we] don’t get the bill handed to us.”

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that American consumers waste about one pound of food every day. That lost food has an enormous carbon footprint, accounting for 8 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. A widely touted fact points out that if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, after China and the U.S.

To cut back on our food waste, Roe recommends several individual changes of behavior. Starting in your fridge, Roe suggests “When in doubt, use your snout,” an infinitely less-wasteful variation of the traditional slogan, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

And next time at your grocery store, pre-plan and shop your list, rather than being swayed by sales of perishables that you don’t need and, ultimately, won’t eat.

“There’s good intentions,” says Roe. “Very few of us would buy food and dump it directly into the garbage can.” But still, our food ends up there.

Earth Day Network recently launched its Foodprints for the Future campaign, a campaign focused on low-impact, healthy, accessible and affordable food for all. Learn more about how animal agriculture and our food choices influence the environment at Foodprints for the Future.