Composting is crucial—after we have exhausted all other efforts to reduce wasted food. But we sometimes view the compost bin as a free pass to waste food. In this study, “Among people who reported composting, 41% indicated that because they compost, discarding food does not bother them.” This study found that almost “three-quarters (71.8%) feel less guilty about throwing out food that is composted.”
If an apple, for example, goes uneaten, whether it rots in a landfill where it emits potent methane gas or transforms into carbon-sequestering, soil-enhancing, water-retaining black gold in a compost bin, that wasted apple represents a lost opportunity to nourish someone. It also squanders the resources that produced it and brought it to market—water, energy, labor, land, seeds, capital, packaging and so on.
Of course, we would rather send wasted food to a compost bin than a landfill—if we had only those two choices. According to the UN, reducing methane this decade is crucial in slowing global heating. Here in the US, food accounts for over 24 percent of landfill material by volume—the number one item. Cut that waste and we cut methane emissions.
The food recovery hierarchy
Below, I slightly adjusted the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy by removing the lowest level from the original—landfill. Here in California, we no longer have landfill as an option for food disposal (more on that below). And what happens in California never stays in California. Many other states follow suit. So I gave the hierarchy a little update.
Preventing food from going to waste has no downside. I’m (still) on Twitter and if keeping food out of landfill presented a downside, someone would have pointed the disadvantages out to me long ago in a detailed barrage of tweets.
My top three tips to reduce wasted food
One. Cooking meals with what you have on hand rather than heading out to the store to buy more food will absolutely slash wasted food. You’ll also reduce packaging waste because at least some of the food you have on hand (or will replace at the store) likely came in a single-use plastic package.
If nothing else, you can always cook soup. Every week or two, I make a big pot of soup with what I find in the refrigerator. I add vegetables, leftover cooked grains and beans, cheese rinds for flavor if I have them, herbs, a bit of homemade wine vinegar… It always tastes delicious. (Go here for the clear-the-fridge soup formula.)
Two. Related to number one, learn how to cook a few simple, versatile dishes that you can make with random ingredients—frittata, pizza, savory or sweet galettes, fried rice, stir fry, pasta salad, shepherd’s pie and so on. Make sure you taste as you go as the flavor of non-recipe recipes may need tweaking.
Three. Use your senses.
According to ReFed, US consumers send 400 million pounds of edible food—7 percent of the country’s wasted food—to the waste stream yearly due to confusion over best-before dates. Generally unregulated, these dates do not indicate food safety. Rather, these suggested dates from a food manufacturer indicate the company’s opinion of peak quality. And sometimes these dates serve simply as a marketing gimmick. After all, Lays potato chips and Pepsi, despite the best-before dates stamped onto their packages, do not rot. Real food rots.
If you worry your past-its-date food has gone south, give it a sniff and take a look at it. If it smells okay and looks okay, it probably is okay. (Use the sniff test on foods without dates as well.)
Some grocery stores in the UK have begun to remove best-before dates from packages of fresh fruit and vegetables in order to reduce wasted food. Hopefully the US will import the idea.
Bonus tip! Always take a container to the restaurant when you eat out. Do that and you won’t have to choose between wasting food you couldn’t finish or bringing that food home in a single-use, toxin-leaching plastic, foam or cardboard container.
Feeding hungry people
In the US, retailers, restaurants, caterers, farmers’ market vendors or event planners can donate surplus edible food to organizations that feed those who need it, without fear of liability thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. Search Sustainable America’s Food Rescue Locator for an organization near you.
Individuals can share surplus food with friends, neighbors or in a community fridge. Search for a community fridge near you on the Freedge website or through social media using the hashtag #communityfridge. You can also post surplus food on an app like OLIO. All of these options offer the additional perk of building community.
Check out this list of 19+ organizations that divert perfectly edible food from going to waste by sharing it.
My daughter MK took the picture below while she worked on a farm in 2020. A mishap in the farm kitchen resulted in a pile of spoiled tomatoes. The chickens loved them though and turned the rotten tomatoes into eggs.
You may be able to feed some scraps to your dog as well. While you don’t want to feed Fido just any type of human food, a recent study in the journal Scientific Reports found that “Puppies that ate table scraps—as well as human meal leftovers and raw foods—experienced fewer gastrointestinal issues later in life compared to those that ate dry dog food.”
These uses turn uneaten food into energy. For example, the excellent documentary Wasted: The Story of Food Waste features a yogurt factory that converts whey from Greek yogurt production into energy. Cut off of oxygen in an anaerobic digester, the anaerobic bacteria that break down the whey produce methane gas as a byproduct. The closed digester captures this methane and coverts it to energy. In the yogurt plant, this energy powers the filling and packaging machinery and saves the company $2.4 million a year.
If you have a yard, you can compost in a bin, directly on the soil or by burying food scraps. If you don’t have access to a yard, your city may pick up organic waste curbside or you may want to try vermicomposting indoors (composting with worms). Your farmers’ market or community garden may also accept food waste and scraps. Or you might find a neighbor through ShareWaste or MakeSoil who will take your waste. These Tinder-esque apps match people who’d like to recycle their organic waste with people who have eligible compost bins. Go here for more details on composting indoors or out.
If you live in California as I do, you no longer have the option of disposing of food in the garbage bin (in most cases).
California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy, also known as Senate Bill 1383, which went into effect in 2022, requires businesses, institutions and residents (i.e., all of us) to divert organic matter, such as food, from landfill. My daughter MK works in waste management and the bulk of her job consists of assisting businesses to comply with SB 1383. She helps divert literal tons of organic matter from the waste stream! Regarding residential food disposal under SB 1383, MK explains:
Cities and counties need to provide residents with curbside composting with limited exceptions that only exist for rural areas and high elevation areas of the state. Once the resident has the bin, they are required to keep food scraps out of the garbage. The state will penalize cities, not residents, although cities can choose to penalize residents.
The law also aims to recover 20 percent of edible food statewide from landfill or composting and distribute that food to those who need it most. This will help address two related and preventable crises—hunger and wasted food.
Check out my award-winning cookbook for more ideas to cook all your food!
- Taste Canada silver for single-subject cookbooks
- Second-place Gourmand cookbook award in the category of food waste
- Shortlisted for an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals