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America Wastes $160 Billion in Food Every Year But Is Too Busy to Stop

The good news? At least half of us know it’s a problem.

Americans say they feel bad about the 130 billion pounds of food (PDF) the nation wastes every year. But not badly enough to do anything about it.

More than half the respondents in a new national survey said they are aware of the scale of this $160 billion (PDF) problem. Almost 80 percent said they feel guilty when throwing food away, but 51 percent said it would be difficult to reduce household food waste. And 42 percent said they don’t have enough time to worry about it.

The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, found that responses from wealthier Americans showed them less willing to be inconvenienced, said Dana Gunders, a food-waste expert at the National Resources Defense Council who wrote the first major report about food waste in 2012. Gunders wasn't involved with the study released on Thursday.

“I’ve always thought it’s a bit of a luxury to waste food,” she said.

It gets worse. The fact that less than 60 percent even understood that wasting food is bad for the environment shows a troubling gap in awareness, said Brian Roe, a co-author of the study and a professor of agricultural marketing and policy at Ohio State University, which funded the study. In particular, many aren't aware that food that ends up in landfills contributes to the release of methane, a major contributor to global warming. Not to mention all the fuel and fertilizer expended in food production that could be saved if we just ate everything on our plate.

“People haven’t quite made the link between food waste and the environmental consequences of food waste,” Roe said.

In 2013, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge to share best practices for limiting food waste. Despite those campaigns, only 42 percent of the survey's respondents said they believe wasted food is a major source of wasted money. (But  87 percent bragged that they waste less food than similar households.)

Conducted last July, the survey released Thursday was administered by the research firm SSRS, which used a national sample of 500 people. The firm used weights to ensure that the sample was representative of the American population in terms of age, gender, and race. The researchers also looked at why people waste food, finding that almost 70 percent threw items away after the package date expired, thinking it reduces the chance of foodborne illness. Almost 60 percent said food waste is necessary to ensure that meals are fresh and flavorful. Previous research (PDF), however, has found package dates to be largely arbitrary and unregulated (The sooner they expire, the sooner you buy more, of course). In May, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, introduced a bill to standardize such labels.

“When you step back and understand that those dates are not about the food safety, we can see that there’s a real opportunity for improvement,” Gunders said.

The survey results showed some good news, though: There was a slight increase in food waste awareness, compared with a similar study released last year. Roe said the uptick would have been greater if the survey had been done after September. That month, the EPA and the Department of Agriculture launched a campaign to cut food waste in half by 2030.

Roe compared perceptions of household food waste (which he said accounted for about half of all food waste) with how Americans considered recycling in the 1980s. He suggested that educational initiatives and local programs to make large-scale collection of wasted food easier and in-home composting more practical could make both part of our daily routine.

When discussing the issue of food waste in March, Elise Golan, director of sustainable development for the Department of Agriculture, called for more resources to be dedicated to limiting food waste. “I think it’s really a wake-up call, a challenge for businesses, entrepreneurs across the country to say, ‘What can we do?’” she said. (To make it easier to measure household food waste, Roe and other researchers are developing a smartphone app with Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center to help people measure what they eat more accurately.)

Although the percentage of Americans who say they’re willing to change behavior seems small, Gunders said the progress is encouraging. Four years ago, “nobody was talking about the issue and nobody was thinking about it,” she said. “To have over half the population think food waste is a serious problem is a tremendous achievement in terms of public awareness.”

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