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Wasted Food and a New Spin on the 3 Rs

By: Erin Biehl and Karen Banks

For decades, we’ve heard the slogan: reduce, reuse, recycle. Those familiar “three Rs” are often represented by the well-recognized Mobius Loop, spinning infinitely on bins, packages, and bottles nationwide.

The three Rs and the symbol are intended to educate consumers about the waste hierarchy, which tells us that the prevention, reuse, and recycling of materials is far preferable to sending them to a landfill—and by some measures the campaign is working because recycling and composting have increased 500 percent since 1980 in the U.S. On the other hand, a considerable portion of the waste stream still eludes us: food. Each year, 52.4 million tons of food is thrown away in the U.S. That’s the equivalent of 1,200 USS Missouri battleships full of food. Another 10.1 million tons of food never make if off the farm field.

Instead of reinventing the wheel (or in this case, the loop) to address our wasted food problem, wasted food experts and advocates are putting a new spin on the three Rs—“reduce, recover, recycle.” The adapted slogan emphasizes the need to address wasted food by reducing the amount of food grown but not consumed, recovering it from stores and cafeterias so it can be channeled it to people in need, and finally, to recycle unused food through composting.

A multi-sector stakeholder collaboration called ReFED (Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data) looked into the costs and benefits of addressing wasted food at each “R” point. Their verdict: that although it may be challenging, the most cost-effective way to minimize wasted food is to reduce or prevent food loss, especially through consumer education campaigns and standardized date labeling. ReFED estimates that efforts to prevent wasted food could divert 2.6 million tons of food from landfills annually.

In June, the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic invited ReFED, along with other business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders to explore solutions to the problem of food loss in the U.S. At the “Reduce and Recover: Save Food for People” conference, speakers showcased strategies to reduce wasted food at home, in stores, and in schools. We’d like to share some of those strategies.

First, there are tools to help consumers prevent wasted food. The USDA estimates that a typical family of four in the U.S spends $1,500 on wasted food each year. Imagine throwing $125 in the trash once a month (along with a sad box of strawberries.) To help consumers save food and money, the EPA developed a Food Too Good to Waste toolkit. Groups like the Rhode Island Food Policy Council (RIFPC) are adapting the toolkit and using it to help consumers save food and money. The RIFPC worked with 40 households for six weeks to track their wasted food and test intervention strategies. At the end of the pilot, RIFPC reported participants saw a significant reduction in wasted food.

A second strategy is to change policy that can help consumers and businesses reduce wasted food. Disposing of food past its “sell by,” “expires on,” or “fresh by” date is costly for grocers and wastes perfectly edible food. In the U.S. there are no federal regulations governing date labeling. State regulations are limited and can be contradictory, leading to consumer confusion. This waste does not go unnoticed by grocers. Grocery associations and legislators are working to establish universal standards for date labels in the U.S. Earlier this spring, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–CT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act to establish a uniform national system for date labeling.

A third strategy gets educational institutions involved, mainly through their cafeterias. Keeping food out of trash bins can help school nutrition programs to save money. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, an initiative of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program, for example, has devised research-based methods of getting kids to eat more healthy food from the school cafeteria. Tactics such as rearranging the lunch line or putting recess before lunch have been shown to increase students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, while at the same time reducing the amount of food thrown in the trash.

Prevention can be good for consumers, business and for the environment, but achieving it requires changes in household habits and standardized policies. While it is the first step, it is still only one of the three Rs of wasted food. The federal government, supported by a multi-sector stakeholder coalition, has set an aggressive but achievable goal to cut wasted food by 50 percent by 2030. To achieve this goal, we need to make the three Rs of reduction, recovery and recycling of wasted food the new norm for the 21st century.

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