The United States has a food waste problem. A big one. As much as 40 percent of the nation’s food supply — 133 billion pounds or at least $161 billion worth of food — ends up in the trash each year, according to the federal Department of Agriculture.
Doing something about all of that waste would save money. It would help hungry families. It would keep billions of pounds of trash out of landfills. It would even cut back significantly on climate-changing emissions released when food decomposes.
But individually packaging bell peppers or bananas — as a recently announced partnership between packaging and recycling giant Sonoco and Clemson University proposes to explore — would be the wrong solution.
That’s because we also have a huge plastic waste problem. Billions of tons of it are in landfills around the world, and a floating mass of tiny plastic particles in the Pacific Ocean is at least as big as Texas. None of us will be alive by the time a plastic bag finally decomposes.
In fact, plastic never really goes away. It simply breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. Those tiny particles are then eaten by small animals and work their way up the food chain — to humans.
“Each year, the food industry loses $15.6 billion due to food spoilage at retail,” Sonoco President and CEO Jack Sanders said in a statement late last year. “Modifying packaging design to extend shelf life by even one day can recover $1.8 billion of that loss while feeding more people and reducing waste to landfills.”
But it doesn’t make much sense to trade one type of waste for another. Instead, there are far more sustainable ways to cut back on food waste.
To start, consumers have to get more comfortable with eating imperfect fruits and vegetables, and grocery stores need to be more comfortable putting them on display. There’s nothing wrong with a bruised apple or a misshapen tomato, but too much produce ends up in the trash for cosmetic reasons.
Shoppers should also avoid buying more fresh produce and other perishable items than can easily be eaten before they spoil.
And supermarkets can partner with local food banks and other charities to donate food that would otherwise be thrown away. Lots of hungry people could benefit from unwanted but still perfectly edible goods.
Laws reasonably protect food donations from liability related to food-borne illness and other concerns.
And hunger is indeed a problem. About 18 percent of South Carolina residents are considered “food insecure,” according to the nonprofit Feeding America organization. That means they don’t always know where their next meal will come from.
Going hungry is unacceptable when so much food ends up in the trash. Connecting people in need with unused food should be a top priority. But trading polluting packaging for a few extra days of shelf life for a zucchini isn’t the answer.