Addressing Food Waste in NYC – State of the Planet

Trashed veggies in a Dumpster. Credit: OpenIDUser2

As I step out of my Harlem apartment each morning, I’m greeted by a disheartening scene: black trash bags strewn across the sidewalk, revealing the remnants of last night’s uneaten meals from the Italian restaurant at the corner. Yet, at $24 for pomodoro pasta, I imagine customers would clear their plates rather than leave them for the local rats to enjoy.

It’s a frustrating sight, especially when a block away, people are lining up at the food pantry for their next meal.

Stop Food Waste Day, observed annually on April 24, serves as an important reminder that even in well-resourced cities like New York, food is distributed in ways that highlight major socio-economic disparities. And food waste also exacerbates the current climate crisis and must be addressed to reach a net-zero economy.

As I head west to Columbia University, I witness the same wasteful patterns. I attend professional events with no shortage of food. Buffets are filled with finely chopped colorful vegetables, evenly spread appetizers, cheese platters and hot dishes of mushroom soup and vegetarian stews. Yet, more often than not, a large amount of the food is left untouched and goes to waste because of guidelines forbidding it from being served at a later event.

I’m pretty confident the events I’m attending aren’t the most wasteful ones at Columbia, since they are aimed at sustainability and climate students who understand the importance of minimizing food waste. Some attendees even come prepared with Tupperware to bring leftovers home.

According to one paper on planetary health, over 30% of all the purchased food in wealthy societies is wasted. The agricultural systems that lead to food waste not only contribute to gas emissions in landfills but also account for 70% of all freshwater use, are a major source of water pollution globally and contribute to around 80% of the world’s deforestation, in turn leading to changes in land use and biodiversity loss.

In New York City alone, emissions from the production and consumption of food represent 20% of the city’s overall emissions, making it the third largest source, behind buildings and transportation.

At the end of the day, whether the pomodoro pasta ends up satisfying one’s hunger or lands in the trash, the emissions required to cultivate the wheat, plump tomatoes and basil end up in the atmosphere. And whether it’s a human who enjoys the comforting and tangy flavors of the meal, or the rats digging through the trash, the energy and fuel used to transport, store and prepare the food has already been used.

In order to reduce food waste, institutional reforms around food systems need to be implemented at various levels of the food supply chain. These should include regulations and incentives for businesses to reduce waste through better inventory management, improved distribution systems and consumer education programs.

Governmental bodies and influential institutions, such as the New York City government and Columbia University, will play a crucial role in leading systemic change in New York, and need to be held accountable for implementing effective policies and initiatives to combat food waste.

And since change often starts with pressure from the community, organizations and student groups must encourage their local governments and academic institutions, respectively, to take action.

Organizations like City Harvest have already started making a difference by intercepting produce that would have otherwise ended up in landfills and redistributing it to food pantries across the city. According to its 2021-2022 report, the organization rescued nearly 102 million pounds of food—75% of which was fresh produce. By making these items freely accessible to the community, the organization not only reduces food waste but also works to fight food insecurity.

Opportunities for actions at the individual level, such as composting food waste, have also flourished in recent years and will be essential contributions to mitigating environmental impacts. Local markets, like the Columbia Sunday Greenmarket, provide communities with locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a place to drop off their compost.

While New York City has already implemented composting bins throughout the five boroughs to help New Yorkers dispose of food and plant waste, organizations and student bodies must persist in advocating for better waste management practices at the governmental level and within educational institutions.

Strolling back from Columbia to my apartment after a long day, the black bags have been collected and the Italian restaurant is filling up with customers for the night ahead. All I hope is that tonight the diners are hungry enough to savor their pasta and leave their plates empty, keeping tomorrow’s sidewalks clear.

Lylia Saurel is a Climate and Society graduate student specializing in climate change communications. She holds a dual bachelor’s degree in journalism and international communications from Baruch College. This article originated as an assignment for a class on strategic communications for climate change at the Climate School.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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