How to Clean Out Your Fridge Sustainably
We’re gearing up for the winter weather...and that means the holidays are also quickly approaching. Some of us are thinking about what we need to prepare, some of us are signing up for that local turkey trot, and some of us are hiding under the covers until Spring comes.
What some of you may not know is that November 15th has been deemed Clean Out Your Fridge Day. If you ask us, it’s perfectly timed just as folks are thinking up menus, planning out seating charts, and most importantly, making room for all the holiday grub that will be going in it by tossing those pickles that have been crammed in the back corner for who knows how long.
While we will try to fit all of our Turkey Day leftovers into cranberry-mashed potato sandwiches, how should we be disposing of food that we no longer want? While we’re all familiar with the “finish everything on your plate” narrative...here are a few more tips to consider.
OUR TOP TEN TIPS FOR REDUCING FOOD WASTE AT HOME
- Don’t shop hungry
- Plan out meals
- Buy and use small plates
- Indulge in pre-packaged products...occasionally
- Eat your leftovers
- Get creative with recipes
- Try composting
- Throw stuff out less often
- Separate food scraps from their containers
- Give yourself a break
WHAT TO DO BEFORE THERE ARE LEFTOVERS
If you find yourself continuously getting to the point where your food is going bad before you can eat it, you’re in luck, because we have some helpful hints for what to do before and in the grocery store.
#1 Don’t shop hungry
There’s nothing quite like hitting the grocery store after work, pre-dinner and accidentally coming home with four different kinds of tortilla chips. Unfortunately, impulse buying leads to food waste. Outside of spending more money on food, a recent study found that hungrier people spend 64% more money when shopping than those who are less hungry on all items. Our advice? Eat a snack, then shop.
#2 Plan out meals
While we’re not suggesting meal prepping (because who actually can eat the same thing for lunch for a week straight), we do suggest planning out meals. This starts with something as small as writing a shopping list. Doing some pre-shop planning reduces food waste.
#3 Buy and use smaller plates
It may seem simple, but using a smaller plate can create less waste. In restaurants, people waste more food if they use a bigger plate. When the hanger (hungry + anger) hits, we know that our eyes will be bigger than our stomachs. Account for this by sizing down before piling on the grub.
#4 Indulge in pre-packaged products...occasionally
If we’re just trying to address food waste, those convenient, pre-packaged, pre-portioned products are a great option. Think pre-cut vegetables, tofu that’s already been marinated, or ready-to-cook chicken. Convenient food is more likely to be consumed and can decrease food waste. But, why buy a pre-sliced apple in a plastic bag instead of just grabbing the apple itself? Well, outside of just convenience, plastic packaging can keep food hygienic and prolong shelf-life…Sustainability is all about trade-offs, but today we’re talking about food waste.
WHAT TO DO ONCE THERE ARE LEFTOVERS
Thanks to our resident scientist (and your not-so-stupid questions), we’ve already looked at what to do with leftovers that haven’t spoiled. To recap, there are three ways that those leftovers may be disposed of:
- You compost it
- You trash it
- You eat it, digest it, and...flush it.
#5 Eat your leftovers
According to The International Panel on Climate Change, the digestion-to-toilet pipeline will produce 60% fewer methane emissions than uneaten food in a landfill, while composting can cut down methane emissions by 30-86%, depending on how aerated and well-maintained your compost pile is. So, in order of least to most harmful impact, eat your leftovers. You already paid for that food’s carbon footprint (check out our blog on carbon and water footprints of foods for more info), plus the carbon footprint from whatever heat source you used to cook it. The energy or fuel that it takes to get food from farms to tables consumes 10% of the total US energy budget, so if you’re eating those leftovers, you’re making sure that all of those emissions still serve a purpose.
#6 Get creative with recipes
We know it may be tempting to just order in rather than using last night’s leftovers. Unfortunately, having poor skills when it comes to reusing leftovers leads to food waste. Can’t think of what to make? Big Oven lets you input three leftovers, from tomato sauce to hamburgers, and gives you an idea of how to combine them to make something creative and delicious.
#7 Try composting
If you just can’t bear to chow down, the next best option in line is composting. You can either create a compost bin at home or if that is too DIY for you, look for food scrap collections in your local municipality (this means you collect your food scraps, but someone else does the dirty work). For example, in New York City, you can find local food scrap drop-off sites through the sanitation department that accept:
- Fruits, Vegetables and Eggshells
- Coffee, Tea and Nuts
- Dried Flowers and Houseplants
- Bread, Grains, Pasta
(Some sites also accept Meat, Fish, and Dairy, but it just depends on the local facility’s capabilities.)
WHAT TO DO TO CLEAN OUT THAT OLD STUFF FROM THE FRIDGE
A 2019 study out of the Resources, Conservation & Recycling Journal looked at food-related routines and household food waste. Basically, they tried to answer one key question: what is the relationship between habits around food (like grocery store trips and cleaning the fridge), and creating food waste?
#8 Throw stuff out less often
The study found that people who clean their fridges occasionally or frequently are significantly less likely to utilize items than people that clean out their fridge rarely or never. We’re not telling you to not clean your fridge, but practice mindfulness when doing so. It’s easy to go haywire and toss it all when you’re on a roll… so think through if you can use something that’s been hanging out on the shelf for a while before jumping the gun.
#9 Separate food scraps from their containers
How many jars of pickles and jam are in your parents’ fridge? How many jars of mustard are years past their expiration dates? Hopefully by now we’ve convinced you of the merits of composting, but even if tossing food is where you’re at, consider dumping those containers, washing them out, and properly recycling them instead of throwing those glass jars and vintage sauce in the landfill together.
#10 Give yourself a break
As you clean out your fridge, don’t feel guilty about throwing out the food you don’t want. Remember, this is all about progress over perfection. Who knows, maybe you’ll be better equipped to remember to grab a rag instead of a paper towel when you’re enjoying the food you’re eating instead of just eating it to avoid sending it to a landfill. Making space for that big, juicy tofurkey (anyone here a vegetarian?) doesn’t have to come at the expense of your wallet, the planet, or your happiness.
WAIT, WHAT IS FOOD WASTE AND WHY IS IT SO BAD?
When we waste food, it is bad for our wallets and the environment.
On the money side — for a family of four in the US, the monetary value of food waste is estimated to total between $1,350 to $2,275 per year. That’s anywhere from 235 pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks to a downpayment on a car.
On the planet side — food waste accounts for the largest category of solid waste in US landfills and 23% of US methane emissions. Food that goes into the trash has some pretty heavy impacts on the environment in two ways. First, most of the food we consume starts as seeds planted in a farm, which means our global food system hinges on agricultural production. In the United States, agriculture accounts for 80% of freshwater consumption and 50% of land use. That means that agriculture, as it’s presently conceived, is pretty resource-intensive. If we’re wasting food, all those precious resources are in the name of...well, nothing. Second, according to the US Department of Energy, organic materials (i.e. food) that end up in landfills decompose and eventually emit methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has 28 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.