Sustainable Blog

Who, Me Waste Food?

Survey: 1 in 3 Americans don't think the amount of food they waste is a problem

cat in refrigerator

Photo Credit: Meggito via Compfight cc

Here at Sustainable America, we spend a lot of time thinking of ways to educate Americans about the food waste issue—about how discarded food wastes precious resources, harms the environment, could help feed hungry people, and wastes money. A new consumer survey funded by Sealed Air, a multi-national packaging company, confirms that we still have work to do.

The poll found that 63% of respondents are concerned about the amount of food wasted in the United States. Great news, right? Well, it turns out that only 1 in 3 of them thinks the amount of food wasted in their own household is a problem. In other words, I don’t waste food, but everyone else does.

Americans, in fact, throw out approximately 25% of the food they purchase, costing the average family of four $1,365 to $2,275 a year. Sure, some people are doing better than that, but most of us have room for food waste improvement.

The poll — conducted by Harris Poll surveying 1,005 adults who do at least 25% of their household’s grocery shopping — also measured consumer attitudes about food packaging. It found that 72% of consumers perceived food products with no packaging as environmentally friendly, and only 43% perceived food products with packaging designed to keep food fresher longer as environmentally friendly.

I see where they’re coming from — more packaging means more waste, but if a bit of plastic ultimately keeps more food out of the garbage, is there a net environmental benefit? The answer is complicated and depends on many factors: How was the package produced? Is it easily recyclable? How much energy went in to producing the food it’s protecting? How much waste it can prevent?

Who has time to consider all of that when they’re rushing to pick up Tuesday’s dinner?

When I’m at the store, I usually choose as little packaging as possible. And so do the survey’s respondents. When given a choice between an unwrapped and wrapped cucumber, just 27% said they’d prefer the packaged version. But when they were told the plastic wrap would extend the cucumber’s shelf life by 11 days, many changed their minds — 60% said they’d prefer the packaged cuke.

Here’s another packaging question. Which of these packages do you think keeps meat fresh longer…and by how many days?

shrink-wrapped meat packaging

The answer surprised me. The meat with the foam tray and overwrap will last 2 days if stored properly. The shrink-wrapped version? 21 days! That’s quite a difference! If you saw this information at the store, would it influence your choice? You bet. These results point out that grocery stores and packaging companies need to work harder to communicate the food preservation benefits of their packaging choices.

The encouraging news from this survey is that consumer education can help change attitudes and behaviors. When the respondents were shown facts about the environmental, economic and social impacts of food waste, 60% said the impacts were more than they expected. Knowing the facts, a full 73% said we should all try to make it a high priority to limit food waste.

We agree! And it’s great to hear that awareness of the facts about food waste work to get people thinking about changing their behaviors. Please help us spread the message about food waste further. Donate to Sustainable America today!

Amy Leibrock
Editor

LEARN MORE
“We Survived for 6 Months on Discarded Food”
10 Things to Do With Stale Bread
Staff Challenge: Go Zero-Waste for a Month

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.