The Surprising Truth Our Trash Cans Revealed About 68% of the Food We Toss

Closeup on a hand putting a box of chips in the bin
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You may have heard that 31-40% of food skips our tables and goes directly into a landfill. Or you may have heard that the amount of food thrown out each year in the United States is valued at $218 billion.

But why are those numbers so high? Are we lazy? Uneducated? Simply an entire nation of picky eaters?

A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) opened people’s trash bags — literally — to find out what we’re throwing away and why we’re so eager to give up on what’s in the fridge.

Why Did This Research Team Dig Through Trash Cans?

Researchers looked at the amount of food waste in residential and nonresidential areas of the three test cities: New York, Nashville and Denver. But what they found in residential areas is particularly interesting.

Participating households were asked to track the food they tossed and to explain why they threw it away. Researchers then dug through participating households’ trash to determine what was really in there and if it could have been salvaged.

In all three cities, researchers found that most of the food households discarded was edible, although it may not have been particularly appetizing at the time it was tossed. When you include “questionably edible food” — defined as items that are edible although, culturally, we may not be fans (think carrot tops and potato peels) — an average of 68% of food discarded as recorded in kitchen diaries was considered edible, the report found.

So most of the food households tossed was edible, if not appetizing, up until the last minute.

Compare that with how households reported the breakdown of their food waste by weight. Households reported that 44% of it consisted of inedible parts, like eggshells, pits and banana peels. They also listed moldy and spoiled foods as big culprits at 20%. Respondents said they tossed 11% of food simply because they didn’t want to eat it as leftovers.

But there’s guilt at work here, too: Seventy percent of residential participants admitted “they sometimes save leftovers even if they think they will not be eaten,” while 75% said they felt less guilty when they saved leftovers instead of throwing them away.

Not to knock anyone’s cooking, but it sounds like we should be striving to cook more meals that we want to eat as leftovers.

What You Can Do to Reduce Food Waste at Home

The study revealed that consumers are confused by dates on food packages, whether they say “best by,” “sell by” or “use by.”

Four percent of food tossed from residences was reported “past date on label,” although 87% of participants said they give an item the smell-and-sight test before making the final call on whether it’s past its prime.

To help ease the date confusion, we created a guide to help you figure out what those dates on food items mean and how closely you should follow them.

Knowing what to do to stretch overripe food can dramatically reduce food waste — we’re talking saving entire bunches of brown bananas here.

Proper food storage is another key to reducing waste, whether it’s knowing the right way to store fruits and vegetables for longevity or the best way to stash leftovers.

One major challenge remains: Cooking in a single-person household. Across all the cities investigated, researchers found no relation between food waste and income level or race, but they did notice that smaller homes wasted more food than larger ones.

Meal planning can help out here, but using fresh items before they turn may still be a trial-and-error game.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.