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Staple My Fridge March 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in food, society, sustainability.
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One of the most shameful statistics I have read about recently is the 91 billion pounds (41 million tons) of food Americans throw away annually. That’s enough food to feed Canada. If the sheer waste of calories and nutrition is not bad enough, consider that food that ends up in landfills produces methane (CH4), which traps 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide (CO2). It is estimated that 10% of all anthropogenic methane is the result of food waste. I am not sure how other countries rate on the food waste scale, but I would hazard a guess that America leads by a comfortable margin, both in terms of food waste per capita (although perhaps some other Western country is even more profligate) and gross domestic (although perhaps China or India waste more total food by virtue of having four times the population, although somehow I doubt it).

What an embarrassment. And what an opportunity. Just imagine what would happen if we could cut down food waste by 50%. We would have 20 million tons of excess food to either feed under-nourished Americans (and yes, there are many of them despite the obesity epidemic), to export, or G forbid to contribute to the World Food Bank. Consumers would save money by not buying 50% of the food they might otherwise throw away. And anthropogenic methane would be cut by 5% with a proportional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

How do we do this? Self control? RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for the unwashed)? Eat more leftovers? I confess, 50% of what I eat is leftovers. I love leftovers. It’s my second favorite food category. Right after “food.” But how about this for an idea? Smaller refrigerators! The average residential refrigerator has a nominal capacity of 20-22 cu. ft. and an actual capacity of 15-17 cu. ft. I have not done a longitudinal study, but I believe that like our houses, cars, waistlines, and LDL levels, our refrigerators have gotten bigger over time. In 1922, the first commercial refrigerator had a capacity of 9 cu. ft. (Incidentally, it cost twice as much as a car did in those days). Capacity increases may have been abrupt, but more likely they were gradual. You know, like glacial melting.

Alright, maybe that is not a good example. But my theory remains. Most people have more refrigerator than they need. “And if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t realize that you are like most people”. (one of my favorite quotes, courtesy of Daniel Gilbert). In addition to consuming more energy and kitchen real-estate, having more refrigerator than you need tempts you and gets you accustomed you to buying more food than you need. After all, a half-filled refrigerator is a pretty sad sight. And there is the probably the latent misconception that buying more food than you need now simply means delaying having to go to the store again. But that’s wrong because refrigerated food is refrigerated for a reason–it spoils otherwise. Buying more food than you need now means either eating more food than you need or throwing away more food. And really, which one is worse?

One of the recently popular solutions for drastic weight loss is bariatric surgery, i.e., having your stomach stapled to reduce its capacity. I myself sometimes joke that even that would not work for me and that what I actually need is to have my mouth stapled instead (that would actually kill two birds with one staple). But maybe what we need as a society is to have our refrigerators stapled instead. Try this for an experiment. Take a piece of cardboard and duct tape it over the bottom shelf of your fridge, thereby reducing its capacity by 20-25%. Try this for a couple of months and see if your eating, shopping, and food waste habits change. For the better. If they do? Hey, take another piece of cardboard and tape it over the second shelf!

I don’t do Facebook anymore, but maybe one of my three readers does and can start a little social experiment! Oh, and if you find yourself buying too much food while you are getting used to your new smaller fridge, you can send the excess to Donna Simmons.

P.S. Does having a blog make me a narcissist? I hope so. I need some narcissism (and some other big words) in my life.



1. Megan Baer - March 30, 2010

Great points Amir! I grew up with parents who were domestically impaired. There was always rotting food in the fridge and we still went out every week, bought more groceries and shoved it into the fridge to rot again. Ahhhh….memories! My current low income has given me pause to buy only what we are really gonna eat (heaven forbid!) and it feels great to look in the fridge and only see edible items! Your fridge-size theory is equivalent to my women’s purse size theory: whatever the size, we will always fill it up!

Amir Roth - April 4, 2010

My conscience is not exactly clear here. I try to eat leftovers (my general rule is to eat the oldest edible thing in the fridge) but invariably I can’t keep up and stuff gets thrown away. Too much stuff. After reading this article, I am going to try to be better about this. I may also try composting which I have been wanting to try for a while. I wonder if I can get the township to start a food-scrap composting program. They already have one for yard waste. Hmmm…

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