Written by Dr. William (Bill) Rathje, this article appeared in the March-April, 1996 issue of The ULS Report. Bill was Professor of Archaeology at The University of Arizona and Director of The Garbage Project. He also co-authored Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are with Bob Lilienfeld, and wrote the best seller Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage with Cullen Murphy.
According to refuse sort records, the average household wastes between 10 and 15 percent (by weight) of the solid food it purchases — nationwide, that is enough food to feed everyone in Canada. This waste figure includes just the once-edible food that the Garbage Project’s student sorters have held, weighed and recorded; it does not include food debris (such as bones, peels, rinds, etc.) and is not corrected for whatever food was ground down garbage disposals.
This discard of food is a weighty waste of money. In addition, once-edible food alone represents 10 percent of the household refuse destined for disposal. In landfills, food waste occupies a fair-sized portion of the space, as can be documented by 10-year-old heads of lettuce and the 20-year-old guacamole that have been exhumed by Garbage Project excavations. As a result, once-edible vittles represent an opportunity ripe for source reduction.
There are several specific behavior patterns which are associated with high rates of food waste. Most are obvious. It should come as no surprise, for example, that fresh produce is wasted at ten times or more the rate of processed fruits and vegetables, and foods that are used frequently (such as the slices from standard loaves of bread) find themselves in the trash much less often than foods which are used only sporadically (e.g., hot dog buns or muffins).
My favorite pattern, however, is not so obvious: households which purchase the highest proportion of processed foods waste the highest percentage of fresh foods. (Note: This doesn’t mean they waste the most fresh food, but only that they waste the highest percentage of the fresh food they purchase.)
This odd pattern has a simple explanation — “The Fast Lane Syndrome.” When those afflicted by it go shopping, they buy fresh produce, convinced that they will find the time to make nutritious, home-cooked meals from scratch. Knowing their hectic lifestyle, however, they also buy prepared foods as back-ups.
At the end of the week, the packaging from the prepared foods is in their garbage, and the lettuce in their refrigerators is blue and gooey. Sound familiar? If it does, then you and I are a lot alike. If we can be a little more honest with ourselves, we will be able to take a “bite out of our garbage!”