BY MAIRE O’NEILL
When Sue Barns spoke to the Voices of Los Alamos group Monday evening, she said she hoped to impress on people what a tremendous impact food waste has on the environment. When people think of food waste, often the first thing that comes to mind is food discarded by grocery stores or restaurants, but Barns made it clear that great amounts of food are wasted in the home. She offered many solutions that can be implemented to make a difference in what is a serious global problem.
Barns asked why people should we care about food waste.
“It’s not a titillating topic like politics or sexy like renewable but here’s what got me involved. I personally want to spend my time and energy working on solutions that address as many global problems as possible,” she said.
The amount of food people waste depends on where they are in the world but globally, about a third of the food that’s produced is wasted. The United Nations estimates that amounts to about 1.3 billion tons a year and North America is a prime culprit.
“Although food loss and waste occurs all along the supply chain from farm to fork, in the U.S. and other developed nations in the west, the majority of waste occurs at the consumption level and that means that it’s caused by you and me,” Barns said. “In the U.S. we waste about 40 percent of the food we produce and if you break it out by calories it’s about enough to feed everyone an extra lunch and dinner every day or perhaps feed folks who are food-insecure.”
She noted that these staggering numbers are reflected in the amount of food that is wasted in Los Alamos as well. Back in 2016, she said Environmental Sustainability Board members put on gloves and Tyvex suits and sorted just over seven tons of residential trash from Los Alamos and White Rock to see what was in it.
“We found that about 17 percent of what we sent to the landfill was food and that’s a little bit below the national average which is about 20 percent, but even so, last year that accounted for 1.6 million pounds of food sent to the landfill,” Barns said.
She noted that other studies have shown that about 70 percent of the food that’s thrown out is or was good food, not bones, pits and peels.
“It was food that could have been eaten but wasn’t because someone bought too much, or the kids didn’t like it or it was left to die in the back of the fridge. That 70 percent of our food waste accounts for 582 tons of food sent to the landfill in 2019 that could have been eaten and if you break that down, that includes over 1 ½ tons of edible food every single day,” she said.
That’s just residential food waste, Barns said, and does not include food waste from schools, restaurants or grocery stores. At the landfill, food waste makes methane which is a potent greenhouse gas of course, so in 2018, she said, the County had to spend more than $1 million on a methane extraction system to capture that methane so that it wouldn’t be vented into the environment.
“The amount of food waste we have in Los Alamos is pretty shocking and also pretty expensive. Food waste is also very costly at a personal level. A family of four wastes approximately 122 pounds of food per month. Twenty five percent of the food we buy on average is wasted so that’s like saying you go into the grocery store, buy four bags of groceries and drop one in the parking lot for the ravens to eat because it’s going to end up in the trash anyway,” Barns said. “All of this adds up to about $1,500 per family per year, which is like rolling down your car window and throwing out $150 every month. It’s a lot!”
Barns explained that the environmental impact of this amount of waste is formidable because all the effort and resources that went into producing the food including the energy, the human cost of labor, time and capital. Other effects of food production are habitat destruction, deforestation and pesticide damage, as well as all the resources that go into the processing, transport and sales of food.
She noted that resources like water are greatly affected.
“If you throw out a pound of hamburger you waste as much water as taking a five-hour shower and that’s because we use 70-80 percent of our fresh water supply to produce our food. How much of our fresh water goes to produce food that isn’t eaten? We waste about 25 percent of our fresh water on food that we do not eat,” Barns said.
Worldwide the total amount of food waste in 2007 occupied about 28 percent of the world agricultural land area which is an area equal to North America and Central America.
“In the U.S. the area of land that’s used to grow food that’s thrown out it greater than the state of New Mexico – about 80 million acres. Think about what we could do with a whole state’s worth of arable land if we had it – if we weren’t just using it to grow food that’s wasted we could grow more food for an expanding population or do something amazing like restore wildlife habitat. At this point we’re just wasting it basically,” Barns said.
Barns believes the most striking and important impact that reducing food waste would have is on global warming. She said the most recent analysis by Project Drawdown shows that reduced food waste is the single greatest solution out of about 100 solutions considered to reduce and draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
“I know this sounds incredible, but you need to think of all the ways that carbon emissions are embedded in food production and disposal and how much food is produced and wasted worldwide. If food waste were a country, it’s estimated that it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the U.S. Reducing this by just 50 percent would have a massive impact,” she said. “You can graph the impacts of various solutions. In relation to other solutions such as restoring tropical rainforests or global implementation of utility scale solar electric generation, reducing food waste by 50 percent could potentially have a huge impact. Of course we need to do all of these things but I think it’s clear that reducing food waste has a big role to play in reducing our carbon problem.”
Barns said another thing to keep in mind is the need to feed a growing population. She said it is likely that the resources are there to do so but that if food waste is not reduced, more land, water and other resources will be needed to grow food which will also add to the greenhouse gas burden.
“For all of these reasons countries around the world have begun campaigns to reduce food loss and waste. The U.N. has named food waste reduction as one of their sustainable development goals and the U.K, Canada and Australia are implementing their own programs as are many other countries,” she said. “The problem has been recognized here in the U.S. and last year, the FDA and USDA joined together in the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative with the goal of reducing food waste across the supply chain by 50 percent in the next 10 years.”
Barns said the Zero Waste Los Alamos team and Los Alamos County Environmental Services have decided to focus on food waste reduction at all levels in our community – educating residents, involving restaurants and food retailers, getting kids at schools involved, supporting local food banks and finding ways to encourage and facilitate food scrap composting.
“A big part of this campaign is helping residents learn to reduce food waste in their own lives because as I mentioned we’re the ones doing most of the wasting,” she said. “Awareness is the first and most useful step. Ways of reducing food waste haven’t changed much in the last 100 years but what has changed in that time is that food has become cheap and plentiful and therefore less valuable to us. I think also companies have capitalized on our greed and desire for convenience so we’ve drifted away from the values and behaviors around food. As a result, food waste by individuals has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s so clearly this is a behavior change that we can change back if we just decide to.”
Barns said people may think they don’t waste much food and that if you poll people 75 percent of them will say that they waste less food than the average person .
“I think we may lack awareness of how much food we waste because we interact with food in so many ways – so many different times during the day in so many different settings – and food loss can occur at each of those. This also means that we have many opportunities to reduce the amount of food we waste,” she said.
She suggested careful planning, shop your kitchen first, seeing what you have on hand and prioritizing using the ingredients already on hand especially the things in your refrigerator that can go bad. She also suggested only ordering what you’re going to eat if you go out to eat, or finding someone to share it with, or having a plan for storing or keeping the extra food to eat later.
When shopping, she recommended sticking to your list and not shopping when you’re hungry because it could lead to disaster.
“I buy loose fruits and vegetables because it’s easier that way than if they’re packaged to get just the number and quantity that you need. I encourage you to buy the wonky produce. In the U.S. half of all the produce that’s thrown is thrown away because it’s deemed too ugly to sell,” Barns said.
She also encouraged people to use a smaller cart.
“The reason for this is shopping carts these days are the size of Humvees. That is a conscious choice on the part of retailers to get you to buy more. Shoppers abhor a vacuum so you tend to buy more food to fill up the cart. Go for the smaller cart or the hand basket,” she said.
Once the food is at home, Barns said to make sure that the perishable items in particular don’t drift to the back of the refrigerator and become a biology experiment.
“Put them front and center in your refrigerator, consider putting a sign on them so that your family knows what they should eat first and curate what you have in your refrigerator so that you are letting things go to waste,” she said.
Barns also delved into food labels and what the expiration dates on labels mean.
“What you should really know is if your food is safe to eat. The question is which one of the codes actually tells you when the food is not safe to eat. None of them really refer to food safety. The exception to that is expiration dates on formula are supposed to mean something. All the other dates are really just dates put on by manufacturers that make suggestions regarding food quality,” she said.”You can basically ignore those labels and instead use your eyes and nose and experience to tell whether food is still safe to eat. Don’t pitch it just because it is past its date – whatever date you find there. Of course, when in doubt, throw it out. Don’t get sick. Getting sick is bad for the environment also so don’t venture into something you decide is not safe to eat.”
When it comes to cooking and serving, Barns suggests planning portions and not making too much. She suggests trying to make the dishes that are going to use up perishables as soon after you buy them as possible because that’s when they’re going to be the best and less likely to spoil. She noted that research shows that serving food on 10 percent smaller plates actually results in people taking 25 percent less food.
“Overall the most important thing to do is stop being a consumer zombie. You are in control of your shopping, food storage, cooking, serving and disposing of food. You decide what you order at restaurants and whether you take home leftovers. You decide what your kids take to school and what you take to work. You can be the one to help decide what your church or your civic group or your sports team does with food. There are many opportunities for you to save food and save the world,” Barns concluded.
Sue Barns began recycling at a very young age, and continues to seek new ways to prevent waste and pollution. After obtaining a PhD in microbiology, she came to Los Alamos National Laboratory on an Oppenheimer Postdoctoral Fellowship. She continued working in Biosciences Division, doing research on biothreat detection and soil microbial community responses to climate change, before changing careers to train service dogs for people with disabilities. In 2015, she resumed focus on environmental issues, volunteering for PEEC, and serving two terms on the Los Alamos Environmental Sustainability Board (2016-2020) before moving to the Zero Waste Team.