During the coronavirus pandemic, many stores have not allowed reusable bags. One Earth Day idea that has surfaced is to cart groceries to your car and put them in your reusable bags. Bonnie Washuk photo

When the first Earth Day celebration took place 50 years ago, addressing the polluting of the nation’s land, water and air was the top priority. While that priority remains the same today, our understanding of what contributes to pollution and to climate change is far greater now, and includes the role that food production and food waste plays in that cycle.

With that in mind, here’s a few ideas for what consumers can do to help the environment and their pocketbooks when it comes to food.

DON’T WASTE IT (OR YOUR MONEY): IF YOU BUY IT, EAT IT

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 31% of food grown, collected and shipped to stores ends up in landfills or incineration plants. Most of that is food that shoppers buy, don’t eat, then throw out.

There are several reasons why that’s bad for the environment:

  • Spoiled food is a large source of solid waste, which takes up landfill space or reduces the efficiency of incinerators, and in both cases costs your municipality more money to handle.
  • The effort and cost to grow, raise, process, package and transport the food to your grocery store is tremendous, and wasted if the food is thrown away.
  • All of that work to get food to your store also creates byproducts and pollution, whether it’s from the energy needed for processing, packaging and transportation, or from the fertilizer and pesticides used on crops and the animal waste created in raising and producing meat.

When it comes to your own household budget, wasting food is like throwing money out your window. If consumers ate all the food they bought, research shows they’d save 20% to 25% of their grocery bill.

One of the author’s weekly shopping lists. Bonnie Washuk photo

Key to not wasting any food is planning, Sarah Nichols of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said. That means serious meal planning, making a menu for the week, and using the food you buy. This makes even more sense as we weather the COVID-19 crisis, which has meant fewer trips to the store for everyone.

Before heading to the store, go through the cupboards, fridge and freezer to see what you already have. Make a dinner menu for each day of the week, buying the food you need for that plan. Or use the grocery store sale flyer, basing your menu on what’s on sale or is in abundance.

Nichols wrote a blog about her top five ways to reduce food waste while social distancing. Her recommendations:

1. Plan every meal

2. Organize your fridge to avoid food waste (no milk on the doors because it’s warmer on doors)

3. Learn new cooking skills

4. Start composting instead of throwing food scraps in the trash

5. Donate food (while being aware of social distancing)

RECYCLE SINGLE-USE PLASTIC BAGS

Maine’s new law banning single-use plastic bags was to start today, Earth Day. Because of safety concerns that reusable bags could carry germs, the law’s start date was postponed to January.

But those bags can be recycled; under Maine law, near the entrance of every store offering the bags should be a container to recycle plastic bags.

Put the plastic bags you’ve used in those bins so that plastic doesn’t end up in tree branches or waterways where they pollute and kill wildlife. The plastic never decomposes, it just breaks apart into tiny pieces that get into the environment and soil, water, air and food, Nichols said.

BAG YOUR FOOD AT YOUR VEHICLE

Another way to use fewer single-source plastic bags is to ask the hardworking grocery cashiers not to bag your purchases; you can put your things unbagged in a cart.

Nichols leaves her reusable bags in her car and bags her groceries herself once she gets to the car. It takes only a few minutes, and these days most people can spare the time in order to avoid using more plastic.

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