Wastefulness in America is a challenging situation to get your mind around. There is a certain need to try and protect yourself from the shame of your own over-consumption but the sheer enormity of our problem makes it equally difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. The weights and costs of nearly everything we waste?-?food, medicines, materials?-?amount to millions and billions and that doesn't always sink in when you're staring down the choice of schlepping home lackluster leftovers or letting it go to the trash.
RELATED: You Can Live Without Producing Trash
A couple years ago, I was in Northern California, filming a TV episode about the local food system. My producer and I were at an urban farm that doubles as a non-profit, educating people about agriculture and distributing produce to food pantries and senior centers. We were there on a day when volunteers were gleaning, a last-chance selection of crops that weren't first picks for sale. It was impressive to see how much was left to harvest and you could hear the volunteers?-?mostly sorority girls?-?remark on how this food seemed perfectly fine; the leaves just had a few more holes in them than you'd usually expect.
At the time, this struck me as such an obvious solution to food loss. In 2010, Americans missed out on 133 billion pounds of food, according to the USDA. That's 31 percent of the available food, amounting to 1,249 calories per person each day. This isn't just food we don't finish eating. It's also food that went bad before we could cook it or got attacked by pests. It's the food, like that the gleaners were picking, that doesn't make it to retailers because it doesn't look the way we've come to expect.
The funny thing I've figured out about food appearance is it's harder to get past than I thought. When I was at the farm, watching the gleaners harvest hole-ridden chard, it was so clear that this food is fine. Part of that, however, was context. I was seeing the food come out of the ground and watching it get washed and packaged. When I've received my own locally-sourced produce boxes, my level of suspicion is much higher. I've had a lady bug in my chard and harbor an intense fear of slugs and snails, so any mark on my greens sets off warning alarms. They're so tightly packed, I'm paranoid I can never wash them enough to know they're really clean. Those supermarket greens, on the other hand, look like they've been sterilized within an inch of existence.
I can work past my cognitive dissonance, realizing that the food that scares me is the same as what I wished others would be willing to eat, but it's certainly not as straightforward as I imagined. It's probably even harder for people who don't have the chance to learn about the food system or buy fancy organic produce. We've become very accustomed to perfectly round, bright red tomatoes. You put a lumpy, cracked heirloom in front of most people and they think it's a mutant far past it's expiration date.
I'm not trying to give anyone free passes on wastefulness. The point I am trying to push is that combating our waste problems is going to take significant efforts from all of us and, in order to attain the kind of change we need, we should be firm but realistic about our what we can contribute to this cause.
For example, ways I try to reduce my over-consumption:
Attempts to conserve that I've been unable to master:
I have tried to store packaging boxes for reuse but it just turns me into a box hoarder. I want so badly to be good about this. The answer for me, is to buy fewer things that need to be shipped.
The waste our country and others like it produce is disheartening. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says we made 254 million tons of trash in 2013 (compared to 88.1 million tons in 1960). That's 4.4 pounds from each of us, every day?-?which, let's be honest, you can easily imagine throwing out. It's probably true that my small moves to be less of a materialistic hog aren't doing that much. But it's likely that they also aren't making things worse either and, being ever the optimist, I think that matters.