Earth Day is Saturday, but every day can be better for the environment when you make good choices about purchasing food and reducing the waste it leaves behind. Those small steps can help solve environmental issues in big ways.
Why should you care about this? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that wasted food accounts for the largest portion of American trash by weight — more than 66 million tons a year — and once wasted food reaches landfills, it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Individual households generate approximately 40% of discarded food, according to a Pennsylvania Resources Council news release.
A new PRC initiative aims to decrease that percentage, with information that shows residents ways to eat well and waste less. A bonus? You can save money, too, as you work some simple methods into your daily routines.
The Posner Foundation has provided PRC with a grant to create a series of flyers explaining how to cut down waste and donating extra food among other content, according to PRC Deputy Director Sarah Alessio Shea. Two of the handouts are already posted on the PRC website, and the materials will be distributed at other PRC workshops, recycling events and how-to events, accompanied by QR codes for easy access and links.
Shea said PRC conducted local research to create the materials, and the end goal is to work on more, then combine them into a booklet, all to be available online.
The need to work on reducing waste works together with important needs in the region.
“We must address food waste. It is not only an enormous environmental problem but also an important social issue with one in 11 Pennsylvania residents currently experiencing food insecurity,” PRC Executive Director Darren Spielman said in the news release. “Tremendous resources — such as land, water, energy and labor — go into growing, storing, processing, distributing and preparing food, and it is all squandered when food never reaches the table.”
The statewide environmental organization is dedicated to the vision of a Pennsylvania where nothing is wasted, and it stewards material resources and waste minimization to conserve water, air, energy and land.
Simple strategies such as planning meals, freezing food before it spoils, eating leftovers, donating excess catered meals and making shopping lists can result in a significant reduction of the amount of food tossed each year.
“Our motto for this educational campaign is simply, ‘We can stop food waste one decision at a time,’ because although it’s a huge global problem, we each can take action every day to stem the tide,” Shea said. “Many small actions can add up to make one big impact. People can eat well, save money and waste less, and our campaign provides a wealth of resources and guidance to point them in the right direction.”
PRC’s “Stop Food Waste” content posted on its website and distributed via social media provides hands-on strategy for meal planning, food donations and storage. Special topics include ideas for enjoying the “inedible” parts of fruits and vegetables — such as peels and rinds — and adapting principles to thrive in an apartment or college dorm setting as well as homes. Readers are also directed to considering canning and preserving produce, especially from home or community gardens.
“The first step is to begin noticing how you currently handle food, from what you purchase to what you toss, and then to develop a strategy to address a few large areas for improvement,” Shea said in the news release. “You’ll be surprised how easily a little planning, a few new tools and a fresh outlook can set you on the path to reducing the volume of food you waste. PRC is eager to show you how.”
Many resource councils across the country focus on recycling and composting. Being able to apply for the Posner grant spurred the Pennsylvania agency staff to look into the waste hierarchy chain a bit more, Shea said, and layer it into its existing programming. “How could we harness the work we are already doing? The workshops, even our waste audits for local businesses and governments, we can add a layer on before the fact,” she explained. “What are some ways?
“It is not earth-shattering info [in the handouts], but it reminds people of these other options.”
It can start with buying smaller amounts of produce, donating extra vegetables and fruit from home gardens to organizations that accept those, and being mindful when purchasing catered food for graduation parties and other celebrations.
“If you are hosting a graduation party and getting a whole bunch of trays of food, instead of opening them all at once, go one at a time,” Shea said. “If you don’t touch that one [extra] tray, you can donate that food.”
For her own use, Shea has turned her vegetable scraps into a broth. She’s not sure she wants to try the pickled watermelon rinds, and she doesn’t really have plans to join the “hardcore” group that eats apples all the way to the core or the skin on a kiwi fruit.
“We had a co-worker who ate her apple cores. That may be a new challenge [for me],” Shea said.
Just in case you heard that apple core seeds contain cyanide, a poison, think again. According to an expert on an NPR “Short Wave” program, you’d need to eat 20 apples to even coming close to having a problem.
Cores and stems might not taste good, other experts explain, but they have lots of gut healthy bacteria that can diversify our microbiomes because they promote a healthy digestive tract, prevent lung infections and improve immunity against diseases. Apple skin also contains a prebiotic fiber called pectin, which is excellent for your gut health.
Even moldy cheese can have a second life, although that is another food waste choice some would want to avoid. In fact, those dry scraps can be turned in Fromage fort, a French dip.
“Everyone has their comfort level with mold on something or [food] expiration dates. And really, they are best sell-by dates that confuse folks,” Shea said. “Trying to use what you have and just learning how to take [food] when trying a recipe, making sure we think about it. It does take planning and thinking creatively.
“The same thing happens with our electronic and household chemical collection events. People overbuy items maybe because they are cheap or on sale and then never use them. Just thinking, ‘What do I actually need’ helps.”
Shea stressed that the information on the flyers are ideas and a guide, and certainly it is not a checklist for things you need to do.
“It does not have to be 100%, all or nothing. Just make a few changes here and there,” she said. “If you have a garden, can you donate instead of letting [the extra produce] rot? It’s great to have a compost bin. You are not going to be able to use everything [you buy].”
And those compost bins can churn out fertilizer and organic material for home gardens, yards and flower beds, saving some money there, too.
PRC staff will hand out the flyers and make sure people get a QR code to check out the suggestions at its events and workshops. The agency plans to produce more information and then compile all of the flyers and content into a booklet. “We’ve been doing our composting workshops for many years, and it has been successful. We just haven’t had this layer. We can speak for a few minutes to talk about it [food waste] before it goes into your compost bin.”
Making sure residents know they can donate extra food and produce to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and 412 Food Rescue among other regional organizations is a message worth repeating, Shea said.
“I think it was kind of something we touched on before, but we never really had the capacity to dive into it as deep as we have now. The grant funding helped,” she said. “We are already working with a group that has an eco-mindset. We are adding to this conversation by adding another voice to it. We want to make sure we recognize there are great outfits out there helping and making sure people don’t go hungry.”