The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author.
The United States’ supply chains are, in general, pretty wasteful. Some of this waste isn’t truly avoidable — for example, there’s no viable replacement for single-use medical gloves and masks. However, one of the biggest sources is something we can change.
Even in ordinary times, America wastes significant amounts of food. Now, the current crisis is making our food waste problem even more severe. We’ve started regularly seeing headlines about milk dumped, eggs smashed and food left to rot as the food supply chain struggles to keep up with the rapid fluctuations in consumer demand.
It doesn’t need to be like this. It’s possible to reorganise our supply chains and our lives to cut back on the waste we generate. By doing this, we can work toward zero waste. This crisis may even be the best time to act.
How and Why Our Supply Chains Generate So Much Waste
On average, around 30% to 40% of our food goes to waste every year. Waste is created at just about every step of the supply chain — from farm, table and everywhere in between. Consumers prefer to buy more aesthetically appealing food, leaving grocery stores to toss ugly produce when people don’t purchase these goods. Farms also tend to overproduce — and when demand isn’t there to make food profitable, it gets left to rot in the fields.
This food supply chain also struggles to respond to fluctuations in supply and demand caused by big crises — like the coronavirus outbreak. When there are major shifts — like when most restaurants in the country close and everyone cooks at home for every meal — the supply chain creates even more waste. It becomes less successful at meeting customer needs.
The perishability of most food items creates additional challenges. Even if you can find buyers in the consumer market for produce that was destined for restaurants, it may not be possible to deliver the goods before the items begin to spoil.
At the same time, consumers who are worried about supply shortages have started to bulk-buy products — including food items like fresh produce and dairy that can spoil within a few weeks. This practice creates additional food waste.
The current crisis is creating other waste issues, as well. Some stores and businesses have banned reusable bags and cups as a way of preventing the spread of the virus.
How Consumers and Businesses Can Cut Back on Waste
If you’re worried about the amount of food waste produced every year, you can take some steps to reduce this excess. If you’re working from home, take advantage of the greater control over your workspace that you have. Find ways you may be wasting energy or water and try to cut back. Now is one of the best times to start building eco-friendly habits.
Bulk-buying food items — especially non-perishables or products that can keep for several weeks or longer — is a good way to decrease plastic waste, so long as you plan to use up all the food. If you regularly eat rice, for example, you’ll generate a lot less waste by buying 10 or 20 pounds of it at a time rather than several smaller bags over several weeks.
However, you should avoid bulk-buying cases or boxed goods in single-use packages, especially if you don’t need them. Unless you need distilled or low-fluoride water for something like baby formula or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, buying cases of bottled water isn’t likely to make you any more prepared.
It will, however, generate a lot of waste plastic and make it harder for those in need to stock up. You should also skip out on single-use plastic cutlery and plates.
If you don’t know the best procedures already, take this time to learn how long items will keep and build a plan for if you’re unable to use food before it goes bad.
If you buy dozens of eggs, for example, you should have a few recipes or preservation techniques to count on if you end up with a large number left over. You can also consider shopping from online food marketplaces that specialise in selling ugly food and produce that would otherwise go to waste.
Continue to recycle — this can also help you decrease your waste production. If possible, avoid trashing single-use goods like plastic grocery bags. Use them around the house or repurpose them into new items.
How You Can Prioritise Waste Reduction
The current crisis is exposing just how wasteful our supply chains can be. Food for restaurants is now being ploughed over or dumped, even as grocery stores and food banks struggle to keep their shelves stocked with goods.
There are also steps you can take as an individual to diminish your waste output. Recycling, developing a plan to avoid food waste and managing your home’s use of water and electricity can help you reduce the amount of refuse you put into the environment.
Jenna Tsui is an environmental and tech journalist who co-owns The Byte Beat blog. She writes about the latest news in sustainability, disruptive tech, environmental science and more. Check out her work on TBB or follow her on Twitter @jenna_tsui