Why food waste may be one of the most pressing climate issues facing Maine
According to the United Nations, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases behind China and the United States. For Susanne Lee, this makes food waste one of the most pressing issues of our time. She is not a climatologist, as one might think. In fact, his background is all in business. She was an executive-in-residence at Maine Business School. She is now a faculty member of the Mitchell Center for Sustainability at the University of Maine, which launched this summer Food Rescue in Maine, an action campaign to try to tackle the problem of food waste. She spoke with All Things Considered host Jennifer Mitchell.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jennifer Mitchell: So, you know, this talk of food waste has sort of intensified probably over the last 10 years or so. How big is a problem today?
Susanne Lee: The statistic is that about 30-40% of the food produced in the United States is never eaten. So it’s incredible, it’s something like 133 billion pounds of food wasted every year in the United States, worth about 160 billion dollars, not including the cost of water, energy, of the work necessary to produce this food which is produced but never eaten. They said it was like going to the grocery store buying five bags of groceries and on the way to your trunk you actually dropped two, it’s kind of, you know, the level of trash .
So why are we doing this? Like, I can’t imagine this conversation taking place, you know, at pretty much any other time in history. I know you pointed out that date labeling is a problem. We’ve heard a lot about this lately about best before dates and best before dates, with people getting confused by these and just throwing things away before they really have to as a factor. But does anyone actually profit from food waste? And, you know, what are some of the more commercial aspects of why we’re doing this?
I think we used to appreciate food, we appreciate it for the wonderful resource that it is, but in some ways the way our food system has developed, it’s kind of separate consumer producers. And, you know, how did we get here, and who benefits from it, it has a lot to do with consumer products and packaged goods. A business is very results oriented, I mean I taught in business school, it’s all about results. So even if I have food waste, as long as my income is higher, my costs are lower, and I make enough profit, I have already considered the amount of food waste and the cost of disposing of it. . It’s another [issue] – the cost of the food that is wasted, the cost of the inputs into that food, not to mention the cost that you then have to pay someone to transport the food you discard. This is therefore a third level of cost for food waste. So companies, as long as they covered these three costs and charged enough to make a profit, don’t really care. And there are some, you know, notable fast food chains that have, you know, if you were to check their dumpsters a huge amount of food, but yet they’re profitable. They have therefore taken no steps to mitigate this food waste. Because it doesn’t matter, only if it starts to reduce your results, you start to care.
So that begs the question, is there a role that the state or the municipalities could perhaps play? Also, how big is the problem in Maine?
Well, just to give you the stat right now in our state, about 97-99% of food waste is landfilled. Thus, the main component of our waste stream is food. So you won’t find anything in any other component as much as you will find in food, that’s 30% of our waste. So that’s a problem and the state is aware of that, that’s why they’re trying to do things like pilot communities. So even in rural areas, communities like Winslow, and we just set up with Readfield, Wayne, and Fayette, these consolidated collection sites, and in many cases at transfer stations, they’re starting to compost there down, which really helps the communities. What’s happening is in our neighboring states, so Vermont and Massachusetts, Vermont with the most aggressive ban on organic waste, they have a complete ban, and what that’s done is that donations increased by 40%. So people start thinking, okay, I can’t put food in the trash anymore. So now I’m going to have to start thinking about what I’m going to do with this food? Well, maybe I’ll have to, you know, handle this more carefully. If I have good edible food, maybe I should take it to the pantry or share it with my neighbor or my family or something. So this is a stage in which some states in some communities have implemented laws restricting the landfilling of food.
What you’ve described here is sort of this big problem, you know where you have the element methane, you have massive waste, economically, you have water resources used, travel costs, fossil fuels, they go into transporting food that is put in a landfill to create more greenhouse gases. And that seems like a really huge problem. But at the same time, it also seems like something everyone can do a little something for. If I don’t let this bunch of bananas rot, will I really have an impact?
You know, in the state climate program, there was a lot of emphasis on energy and cars and things like that. And, okay, that doesn’t matter to a lot of people. But everyone eats food, so everyone can be affected by this problem and have an impact on the problem. You know, I say I was blessed to be part of this project, even though I had no idea two years ago, because there isn’t a single problem for me that could be more important right now. You know, feeding people, preventing climate change, saving money that could be used for much better resources. You get all these benefits just by tackling this one problem.