The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Spring 2015

"Who Can Counter the Food Waste Problem?" by Jeremy Chang


France made international headlines recently when the government passed legislation requiring supermarkets to donate unsold food to charities or to production facilities for animal feed.[1] The United Kingdom supermarket chain Tesco has also announced an expansion plan for its stores to donate unsold food to charities, including women’s refuges and children’s clubs.[2] These acts are widely seen as part of an emerging movement to counter the issue of food waste. 

Food waste has increasingly been viewed by environmental and food security organizations as an aspect of modern life bordering on the absurd. About one-third of all food produced worldwide is currently lost or wasted in food distribution and consumption systems.[3] This is happening in a world where 1 out of 9 people are still chronically hungry.[4] 

Developed countries deserve much of the blame as consumers in these nations throw away almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (222 million vs. 230 million tons). Concomitant with this prodigious amount of food waste are increased emissions of methane—a greenhouse gas—when left in traditional landfills.[3,5] 

The food waste issue tends to be overlooked in United States even though the average American is responsible for 20 pounds of wasted food per month.[6] This problem is not going to be fixed through ignorance or negligence, but rather through awareness and cooperation. Luckily, efforts on multiple levels of society are coming together to address the problem of food waste through innovative and exciting ways. 

Command and Control…and Publicly Shame?

Governments must play a key role in shaping food waste practices, which the French government demonstrated last month. The European Union has emerged as an international leader with its goal for member states to reduce food waste by at least 30% by 2025.[7] In the United States, most policy actions for combating food waste occur at the state or municipal level. 

The state of Massachusetts enforced legislation last year that prohibited organizations that produce a ton or more food waste a month from throwing their food waste into landfills. Instead, organizations must ship their waste to anaerobic digesters or to composting facilities.[8] Anaerobic digesters decompose food waste quickly through a combination of mechanical and organic processes, leading to the safe collection of methane that can be used to generate electricity. 

Around 1,700 organizations including businesses, colleges, and hospitals must participate in the ban. The food waste ban has started off robustly with little opposition, and now places such as Vermont, Connecticut, and New York City are also looking for policies to reduce food waste in landfills.[8] 

Across the country to the city of Seattle, Washington, the city government is attempting a more unorthodox method for reducing food waste in landfills. A new law requires residents and commercial establishments to compost food waste themselves or to enlist services to send food waste to composting facilities.[9] For half of this year, the city will promulgate the failures of residents who do not obey the new law. Any trashcan that contains more than 10% food waste by volume receives a red tag for the neighborhood to see. For those individuals who are impervious to peer pressure, the city will enact monetary fines for each infraction later in the year: $1 for households and $50 for apartment complexes.[9] The effectiveness of those red tags of shame may be up in the air, but the approach is definitely novel.

The March of the Ugly Produce

While food waste manifests as leftover scraps in most of our minds, large amounts of food are thrown away even before supermarkets restock their shelves. People in developed countries have come to expect perfect produce when shopping, resulting in the disposal of edible fruits and vegetables that simply are not up-to-par aesthetically. 

At the institutional level, businesses are beginning to embrace the sale of misfit produce. France’s third largest supermarket chain, Intermarche, kicked off the trend last year with an advertisement campaign that trumpeted “the grotesque apple,” and the “unfortunate clementine” among other cheeky titles.[10] In October 2014, Intermarche opened aisles in all 1,800 of its stores for ugly produce discounted at 30% off.[10] Competing French supermarket brands have launched similar ventures, and this march of ugly produce is gathering traction in other developed countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada.[11] 

Yet even with the energy behind this movement, businesses including Intermarche have admitted that these boon times for ugly produce are transitory; the market for these fruits and vegetables is still limited. Nevertheless, these business initiatives help chip away at the notion that stores must stock only the most beautiful produce and throw away less-than-perfect produce. 

The Power of People

Grassroots movements and action at the individual level represent the most important sources for reforming food practices. It is up to people to elect government officials who recognize the social and environmental consequences of food waste. It is up to people to vote with their wallets as consumers to encourage businesses to reduce food waste. Most importantly, it is up to people to become informed of the issue and to make conscious efforts to mollify the food waste problem. 

Sometimes the most effective ways are the simplest ways for decreasing food waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends people to buy only food portions that they can finish, to preserves leftovers for future meals, and to donate unused food.[12] The benefits of these practices are smaller financial expenditures for food, the reduction of methane emissions, the conservation of resources, and the growth of a more steady food supply.[12] Multiple areas of society at the governmental, institutional, and grassroots levels are beginning to combat the food waste issue, and it is only through constant cooperation among these groups that the problem of food waste will be successfully addressed.


[1] Chrisafis, Angelique. "France to Force Big Supermarkets to Give Unsold Food to Charities." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 22 May 2015. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[2] "Tesco Expands Charity Food Scheme - BBC News." BBC News. 2015 BBC, 4 June 2015. Web. 11 June 2015. 
[3] United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Office of North America. "Food Waste: The Facts." World Food Day. United States Committee for FAO, n.d. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[4] Ferdman, Roberto A. "One in Every Nine People in the World Is Still Chronically Hungry." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[5] Ferdman, Roberto A. "Americans Throw out More Food than Plastic, Paper, Metal, and Glass." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[6] Buzby J, Hyman J. “Total and per capita value of food loss in the United States”, Food Policy, 37(2012):561­570. 
[7] "EU Actions against Food Waste." EU Actions Against Food Waste. European Commission, Last Modified: 3 Dec. 2014. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[8] Kaplan, Susan. "Not In Our Landfill: Massachusetts’ Ban On Food Waste." News. New England Public Radio, 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[9] Radil, Any. "Tossing Out Food In The Trash? In Seattle, You'll Be Fined For That." NPR. NPR, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[10] "Intermarché - Inglorious Fruits & Vegetable." Intermarché - Inglorious Fruits & Vegetable. Intermarché, n.d. Web. 29 May 2015. . 
[11] Godoy, Maria. "In Europe, Ugly Sells In The Produce Aisle." NPR. NPR, 9 Dec. 2014. Web. 29 May 2015. 
[12] "Reducing Wasted Food Basics." EPA. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Last Updated 4 February 2015. Web. 11 June 2015.

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