BY OLIVIA ALNES
Food waste is a major problem in the United States. Americans throw away 150,000 tons of food per day. That’s one pound per person. It’s a daunting number and there’s a statistic that makes me cringe: the healthiest Americans are the most wasteful.
This is because people who are eating healthy diets tend to buy fresh, whole foods. Produce often spoils faster than we can eat it. Cooking from scratch leads to having extra scraps and peelings needing to be thrown away. All these factors all up to contribute to an excess of food waste.
As someone who eats gluten and dairy-free due to food intolerances, I eat a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes when grocery shopping, my eyes are bigger than my appetite and it’s a scramble to eat our produce before it goes bad. Other times, I’m simply creating food waste while cooking due to chopping and peeling vegetables for recipes. It’s not an intentional attempt at being wasteful, but when I reflect on food waste I see that I’ve been part of the problem.
Up to 40% of food in the United States is wasted and at the same time, according to the USDA, there are still 35 million people who had difficulty obtaining or affording food in 2019. This is before COVID-19 and the additional effects on our economy and the poorest among us.
If we have more than we need, we are truly in a position of privilege and it’s up to us to be good stewards of the abundance we have. The money we waste on thrown-out food has the power to impact our communities for the better while also protecting the environment.
When thrown away, our food isn’t breaking down the way it is meant to do. To prevent leaking, landfills cap or cover our waste, which protects it from the elements. This means that it takes decades longer for food waste to break down than it would in nature.
All these statistics were startling to me. It gave me a new perspective on the problem of food waste and challenged me to get creative in solving this problem in my kitchen. We all play a part in the big impacts made on our planet. From buying sustainable fashion to remembering to freeze food to preserve it, all our baby steps truly add up.
One practical way to reduce consumer food waste is composting.
Composting sounds scary and intimidating - how the heck am I going to create dirt from my food waste? Yet the more I researched it, the more I found that I don’t need to spend a ton of money or overhaul my whole life to try composting. It’s simpler than I made it out to be in my head. As a bonus, the process of composting creates high-quality soil that can be used in my first-time garden and to support my houseplants. This is the kind of win-win situation that makes being eco-friendly beneficial for not just the planet, but my own lifestyle.
I’m taking you along on my composting journey and sharing how you can get started too in 5 simple steps!
Step 1: Decide what kind of compost you want to have.
You don’t need to have a pile of garbage in your backyard to be able to reuse your food waste. You don’t even need a yard! You can make this as simple or as extra as you desire. You can do it outside or inside. For more information on the different types, you can read more in-depth here.
In my yard, I have a patch of tall grass that’s covered by trees and makes a great little spot for composting. Originally, I was going to make a simple pile, but upon reflecting realized I needed something to guard against wind and garbage blowing through my pile. I’m keeping my process very simple and affordable, so I’m using a rubber tub until I have time to build a wooden box.
You can simplify your process even more and get started with a system that is more aesthetically pleasing. There are many options available at various price points, starting at less than $100. From systems that can be outdoors or in your garage to indoor composters and worm factories that are apartment friendly. If any of these options gross you out or seem like too much hassle, you have other options.
You can also directly put some of your food scraps into the ground beneath your garden - putting them in raised beds or pots as well underneath at least 6 inches of dirt.
Step 2: Start saving “green” waste like vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, and coffee grounds.
There are a few ways you can save your greens before adding them to your compost for ease and convenience. You can get a white odor-free bin, a stainless steel smell-proof bin, or a green freezer bin. You can also go the easy route like I do - simply put the scraps in a reusable plastic bag in your freezer before transferring them to your compost pile.
Tip: it’s best if your produce waste is no thicker/bigger than the size of your thumb.
This is where I’ve made a few mistakes so far. First, I froze an entire apple. Oops! That’s definitely thicker than any scraps I’m supposed to use. Next, I ran out of space to save my items before getting the rest of my space set up. This is easy enough to adjust, but no one wants a freezer full of scrap food. The biggest struggle is getting started and continuing to move forward to the next step.
Step 3: Make sure you have some “brown” waste. Dry leaves, uncoated paper and cardboard, straw, etc.
This helps the compost break down properly and have all it needs to thrive. You use two to four parts brown for each part green material. That ratio lends itself to the most success. You might need to think harder about finding these materials, but you can always reach out and ask friends if you can help them recycle their Amazon boxes and other cardboard products.
Step 4: Layer your compost and let it do its thing.
Whether you’re using an open composting system like me, you’re going to layer the brown material and the green material on top of each other. If you’re using a tumbler, you can add everything in and give it a spin. Now you let it rest.
Step 5: Turn the compost once a week.
This step is simple. Once a week, you are going to turn the compost with a shovel, garden hoe, or pitchfork. Or if you’re using a tumbler, you’ll just give it a good crank. The tumbler compost will be ready to use for dirt in just a few weeks, but the outdoor compost pile can take up to a year to fully break down and be ready.
Bonus: Feeling confused about what you can and can’t compost? You can use this handy guide from "Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook" by Dana Gunders. This post also contains great information on why certain items shouldn’t be composted.
If you followed these steps, you are now along for the journey with me - learning to compost and reducing our food waste together. The planet thanks you and so will all your plant babies when you plant them in nutrient-rich soil that’ll help them thrive.
Even if you’re not a gardener or have a house full of plants, you might have a friend who will be happy to take that compost off your hands and use it for their plants. You can see if there’s a community garden in your city that would use it for a good cause.
What else can you do to reduce food waste?
You can advocate for food composting in your city if it’s not yet available. You can only purchase what you’re actually going to eat. You can freeze foods getting close to expiration. There are so many ways to actively cut down on your carbon footprint and the way you support or harm our environment.
It doesn’t have to be complicated, even if it is a sacrifice. We each need to take responsibility for the role we play in reducing food waste. I’m starting with composting - what are you going to do?
About the Writer
Olivia Alnes is a writer, advocate, and entrepreneur based in Moorhead, Minnesota. Her work is focused on empowering and encouraging women. She blogs at oliviaalnes.com about all things intentional lifestyle - from food to justice. When she’s not working, you can usually find her working on DIY projects or walking her fluffy foster pup, Pepper.