Americans waste tons of food, and that’s a fact — 1.3 billion tons of it a year, to be precise, or 30 to 40 percent of the total supply. Social and political implications aside, that’s just bad business. Supermarkets and restaurants are stocking nearly twice as much food as they can actually sell, which means it's their budget dollars that are really going into the landfill.
Those numbers are from Wasted, a recent documentary by American chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain — and backed by the USDA — which has set its own food waste reduction goal of wasting 50 percent less by 2030.
Food waste at home is certainly a factor. Among millennials, it is not uncommon to hear people joke about how they should just stop buying produce altogether, especially since they never use it up before it goes bad – and this is the generation that’s supposedly all about saving the planet, reducing waste and living frugally, whether by choice or necessity. They never actually stop buying produce, however, and the waste cycle continues.
But, the cost of three bananas is low compared to the amount of food that’s trashed by restaurants every single day. And, in a business with such thin margins, throwing anything away after paying for it can be a tough bite to swallow. Some chefs combat this by creating special dishes with ingredients they need to use up or by finding other creative methods of their own. Despite the efforts of some, however, restaurant food waste remains appallingly high.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest offenders of all — at least if you ask Bourdain: supermarkets.
“Go to any major chain supermarket and think about that tower of perfectly stacked, impeccable oranges or tomatoes,” Bourdain said. “Understand that the supermarkets, by design, have already figured and cost out the fact, the immutable fact, that they will throw 30 percent in the garbage just so it will look cool. This is horrifying.”
Bourdain has been known to get vocal about his strong opinions on everything from the brief Starbucks unicorn Frappuccino craze to things people need to stop doing at airports. Now, it seems, he’s chosen food waste as his next campaign.
Like adding sour blue powder and mango syrup to a milk-based drink or carrying one’s liquids through the body scanner, wasting less food is perhaps a no-brainer. And yet, like drinking that ungodly swirl of pink and purple with its cumulus tuft of whipped cream on top — and like wearing bangles through a metal detector — for some reason, people still do it.
If Bourdain is looking for allies, they’re out there. Here are three innovators of many who have found ways to not only cut back on food waste, but also, in some cases, turn a profit on food that would have otherwise ended its life in a landfill.
Hands-On Mobile App
The Hands-On mobile app by Boston-based Food for All connects customers with leftover food that restaurants would otherwise throw in the dumpster at closing. Customers score a half-off deal at some of the city’s best restaurants, and restaurants get to transform that trash into cash: It’s a win for everyone.
Customers use the app to place an order during the day and then go pick up their food around 9:00 p.m. Upon launch, the app shows users the nearby participating restaurants with which they could lodge an order, and even offers directions to help them find their destinations.
Approximately 50 restaurants in Boston and New York currently use the app, which is still in closed beta, but will be available on both Android and iOS — and the beta is available now for those who would like to test it.
To encourage adoption, Hands-On aimed to make it easy for restaurants to implement. The system is stored on the user’s device, requiring no extra equipment or space on the restaurant’s part, and the processes were designed to have minimal impact on employee workflow.
The most commonly known vodka base is potatoes, although the clear liquor can also be made by fermenting molasses, soybeans, grapes, rice, sugar beets and even — though this one’s kind of gross — from byproducts of oil refining or wood pulp processing (told you it was gross).
By comparison, making vodka from leftover bread and other discarded starches sounds positively tasty. That’s exactly what Misadventure Vodka has done. Each week, the southern California distillery collects as many as 1,200 pounds of past-prime bakery products from a local food bank. Each completed bottle represents two pounds of food waste.
The distillers accept all discarded starches, even ones with unusual flavor notes, like chocolate cake and jalapeno bagels. Since yeast only eats the sugars, the strange flavors get stripped away during the distillation process, meaning the final product remains consistent regardless of the food ratios collected.
Apparently, it tastes pretty good, too. Misadventure Vodka sells its spirits to bars, restaurants and retailers throughout the state, and the liquor can also be ordered online. Oh, and did we mention it’s gluten-free?
As reported by Forbes, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calculated 43 percent of food waste comes from consumer households, and approximately 20 percent of that waste is a result of misreading expiration dates. That means dairy is one of the most-wasted categories, with vegetables, fruits and grains not far behind.
The problem is consumers understand expiration dates to be a drop-dead consume-by-or-else date, whereas those creating the labels understand those dates to indicate a range of optimal freshness. The date when the food would actually spoil and pose a health issue is generally much later. But, “better safe than sorry,” we say — especially when feeding our children — and away goes the perfectly good milk.
Now, there’s an Alexa skill to help consumers make better decisions about the food that’s in their fridges, especially food that’s been there a while. The NRDC and the Ad Council created a “Save the Food” Alexa Skill to support that 50 percent food waste reduction goal.
Should you throw out that apple? How should you store your bread? What is the best way to thaw a two-year-old steak that’s been sitting in your freezer? Alexa has answers — although the harder part may be getting consumers to ask the questions at all.