Imagine tossing one-half of all your Salsarita’s burritos, pouring half of every Nathan’s broccoli cheddar soup down the drain, or only eating four of your eight spicy salmon rolls. Unfortunately, this situation is not just anecdotal. Around 40% of all food in the United States does not get eaten, and this number is only expected to increase. This huge quantity of food waste has far-reaching environmental consequences that can and must be addressed here at RIT.

The biggest issue with the amount of waste we create is the production of methane. When food is simply tossed into the garbage can, it ends up in landfills. In fact, food takes up over 24% of all U.S. landfills today. As this waste breaks down, it produces large amounts of methane. That methane, which is 28-36% more potent than vehicle emissions, is then released into the air. The problem is made worse by the United States’ massive livestock industry which accounts for 37% of total methane emissions.

Overall, food waste contributes more to climate change than every country in the world after the U.S. and China, so it is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

Food waste starts long before you throw away your unfinished lunch; it happens on every step of the food’s journey from farm to plate.

During production, factors like insects, mold and bacteria can kill or damage produce. When food is distributed, equipment can malfunction and even after reaching its final destination, blemished food is often thrown out. It is estimated that 20% of fruits and vegetables are lost in production, 12% more during distribution, and 28% is lost in the final stage: the consumer level.

As consumers, we have very high aesthetic expectations in what food is worth buying, and we often we over-purchase when it comes to food. Restaurants are especially guilty of this, as they need to purchase enough to always be able to feed customers, but and are forced to throw away whatever is not eaten.

From my experience working over the summer at a gastropub, I can attest to the alarming amount of food that is thrown away every single day from unsatisfied diners’ untouched meals to expiring condiments and produce.

Some might argue that the only way to significantly reduce food waste is by preventing initial loss at farms and during distribution, but prevention at the consumer level is just as important. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) spells out a hierarchy of food recovery methods from most effective to least effective, and all five levels can be implemented here on campus.

The most preferred method is source reduction: limiting the volume of surplus food generated.

For example, stocking each dining hall based on its popularity to ensure each has just enough food for a given day. Next is feeding hungry people which could be accomplished by donating leftover food at the end of each day or week to local food banks. Similarly is feeding animals; local farmers can recycle food scraps into animal and plant feed. Fourth is industrial use, where food is rendered into fuel and other materials.

There is actually a great example of this happening on RIT’s campus right now. Teams of researchers at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability have been collecting waste from dining halls and converting it into biochar, a material currently used for printing but expecting to have many more uses in the near future, including polymers, electronics and wastewater treatment. This research is a great step in the right direction for RIT.

Lastly is the most widely-known method, composting. This, in my opinion, would be the easiest to introduce to RIT’s dining system.

When I get food on campus, I’m often surprised by how few waste bins are available (usually a few garbage cans and one or two recycling bins outside a dining location). Not only do we need more bins in general, but adding compost bins labeled with what can be discarded into them would be an easy way for students to reduce their food waste on campus.

As RIT students, we should push for these changes, but there are actions we can take ourselves to reduce our own personal food waste. For those living in the residence halls, try to only buy as much as you intend to eat at each meal and if left with extra food, save it for a later meal. If you live in your own house or apartment, carefully plan grocery trips and only buy what you need for the week. You might also consider joining a composting program. There are multiple in the Rochester area, including Impact Earth and Roc City Compost..

We each have a role to play in helping our environment and limiting food waste is one of the most important yet simple efforts we can take so let’s get to it.