We need to be more conscious about the water we waste when throwing away food.
According to Ismail Serageldi, “Wars of the 20th century were fought over oil. The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water.” I’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies to know he’s not the only person worried about a future plagued by water scarcity—but I didn’t realize that this quote should have been something I discussed in premarital counseling. Let me explain.
Early in my marriage, my wife and I frequently had “spirited” debates about wastefulness. Typically, me leaving a closet light on would trigger an interesting discussion about wasting energy (a surrogate for oil). In my marital juvenileness, I sometimes unconsciously employed a tactic I learned from the Russians, “whataboutism.” She would complain about a light left on; I would, in turn, bring up her excessively long showers. At that time, I don’t know if I was concerned about the environmental impact of wasting water or if I was more frustrated with being hit by liquid nitrogen every time I hopped in the shower after her.
With time, I learned that “tit-for-tats” don’t work well in marriage—marriage is a team sport, not a singles tennis match. I also learned that the water wasted with long showers didn’t compare to how much water we were both squandering by allowing food to spoil.
Food waste is an underappreciated component of our water footprint, “the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business.”
In this post, I break down why we need to be aware of how much water we discard when we throw away food and a few tips on how to limit food/water waste.
Why should we be more conscious about our water usage and waste?
Droughts in California, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, and lead poisoning in Flint Michigan shine a spotlight on how both natural and human-made disasters can affect our freshwater supply. They should also remind us of the importance of access to freshwater. Here a few facts regarding water availability.
• According to the World Bank, only 0.5% of the world’s water is drinkable.
• 30-40% of the world will suffer from water shortages by 2040 (I don’t think retirement in a golfing community is going to be an option for too much longer)
• Agriculture accounts for 70% of our water use
• Energy companies also use a significant amount of our water supply as coolants
• The global middle class will increase from 1.8 billion to 4.9 billion by 2030. This increase will lead to a rise in consumption of freshwater.
What’s the water footprint for various foods?
Food production requires water. Plants need irrigation, and domesticated farm animals need drinking water. Not all plants and animals require the same amounts of water—some need more than others. Whenever we waste food, we also consume all of the water (and other resources) involved in producing that food. Check out the infographic below.
This infographic is great, but I wish it didn’t use the metric system. The Smithsonian gives a friendlier explanation for those in the U.S. by translating the average amounts of wasted foods (pounds per year) into wasting bathtubs of water.
Here are a few highlights:
• 11 pounds of wasted beef per year is the equivalent of 397 bathtubs of water
• Throwing away 56 almonds is equal to 7.7 baths of water
• Wasting 17 apples is like flushing 8.5 tubs of water
• Tossing 64 eggs is on par with wasting 105 bathtubs of water
Here are few tips for limiting food waste and reducing your water footprint?
• Organize your kitchen. We waste a lot of food simply because it remains hidden in our pantries and fridges.
• Minimize foods with large water footprints. If you’re a ‘meat-eater,’ try throwing some vegetarian meals into your repertoire. Check out our post about being a healthy vegetarian if you are thinking about switching to a plant-based diet.
• Be careful with expiration, use-by, and sell-by dates. These dates aren’t standardized and have little to do with food safety.
• Check out the service Imperfect Produce. You can order their boxes of slightly bruised fruit that would have otherwise gone to waste.
• Don’t be afraid to use your freezer
• Make wise decisions when shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club.
• Save veggie scraps to make broths/stocks.
What’s the Bottom line?
• Freshwater is a limited resource. Water scarcity may plague our future.
• Know that throwing away food is synonymous with wasting all the water involved in producing the food itself.
• Producing some foods requires more water than others.
• Limit food waste by not over buying, re-purposing scraps, freezing foods before their expiration, keeping your fridge organized, and being aware of the water demands involved in food production.
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.