Dumpsters: Where Food Goes to Die, or Waits for Those Who Dive

Last week, Spend Matters introduced a new series on the food supply chain – specifically, how much of it goes to waste (up to 40%). You can read Part 1 here. Today, we continue this discussion.

A recent article I read on Seattle Globalist’s website caught my attention. (It has some vulgarities, so I won’t link to it. I’m sure you could find it if you wanted to.) It talked a lot about how on earth there could be so much food going to waste in some areas of the globe, while people are starving in other parts. But what it made me think about, too, is the amount of food wasted among my generation (my age puts me in that “Millennial” group). Yet, this is happening at the same time “dumpster diving” is so popular.

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Perhaps it is because so much unused food is sitting in dumpsters that these “hipsters” are on the prowl for it, and successfully sustaining a healthy (questionable?) diet on it. But how can there be such a severe juxtaposition among my age group – those who don’t think twice about tossing their groceries and those who dig for it in a dumpster as if it is buried treasure?

Here are some more interesting, and possibly disturbing, facts about America’s food supply chain (courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture and the NRDC):

  • The amount of wasted food in 2008 totaled nearly $390 per person in the US (more than the average person spends a month on groceries).
  • Food waste is the largest type of waste in America’s landfills.
  • Food is becoming more expensive: Americans spent $1.4 trillion on food and beverages at grocery stores and other retailers in 2012. Additionally, in the second quarter of 2014, grocery store food prices were up 2 percent from the same period in 2013.
  • Grocery stores alone toss out about $15 billion worth of produce that goes unsold each year.
  • The food industry throws away about $2,300 worth of food products every day because they have neared their expiration date. (More on this, and what businesses waste, later on in the series.)
  • On average, those who dine out at restaurants leave about 17 percent of their food on their plate uneaten.

Certainly, like most people, I have been around those who come from both sides of the spectrum – those who waste not, and those who care not. For instance, I was inspired by my good friend in Wyoming who would look in her fridge, see what food she had that was soon going to go bad and use it to create this delicious meal. It’s where I learned that potatoes and on-the-brink-of-wilting kale tasted good in enchiladas, or where just about anything taste good scrambled up with eggs in an omelet. And sure, I have always tossed my browning bananas in the freezer to use at a future date for banana bread, or transform my soon-to-be-soft strawberries into delicious jam.

I have also been around those who are a bit more extreme. A former coworker would eat people’s half eaten salads they were ready to toss, and be first in line on fridge clean out day at the office to collect the scraps of leftovers about to be discarded. That isn’t my style, but I suppose there is a positive in these types – they are not letting food go to waste.

And, while I am not about to go digging in dumpsters for my next meal, I suppose I am grateful for those who do. They prevent some food from reaching the landfill. And sure, we can laugh at them (I am thinking of Portlandia’s spoof on dumpster diving), call them hippies or hobos. But like I said, they are doing some good.

Similar to organizations that can help us drive scrap programs within our supply chain to recycle unused raw materials, these individuals are performing a service – it’s just a shame that we can’t get paid at least something (as we can with scrap programs) for contributing to their scavenging cause.

In my next installments of this food waste series, I’ll talk about the businesses side of food waste - how much grocery stores have to throw out and why.

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