5 Alarming Statistics From the New Food Waste Documentary Narrated by Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain
Food personality Anthony Bourdain's new documentary about food waste had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Anthony Bourdain was not totally comfortable appearing in Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, a new documentary he produced that had its premiere last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. "I don't like the idea of being an advocate," he says at the beginning of the film. "Even the appearance of a hashtag upsets me. But as a culinary student, as a young cook, I came up in an old-school system that abhorred waste as a fundamental principle. The whole enterprise was based on the idea of using everything."

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The average American apparently doesn't subscribe to this principle of conservation. Forty percent of all food in the United States goes to waste. Restaurants throw it away, supermarkets throw it away and consumers throw it away. Wasted! illustrates not only the extent of this waste, but the damage it does to both the economy (the annual cost of food waste is $1 trillion) and the environment (humans have destroyed 10% of the Earth's wilderness in the last 20 years for reasons largely related to food production). Here are five more statistics that showcase the extent of the problem.

1. Over 90 percent of wasted food in the U.S. ends up in landfills

Forty percent of the food in the U.S. is going to waste, and 90 percent of that wasted food is ending up in landfills. The EPA made a pyramid for food waste recovery: From most to least preferable, the pyramid recommends reducing the production of surplus food, then feeding the hungry, then feeding animals, then converting food waste to energy, then composting food waste and then, finally, sending it to a landfill.

When food goes into a landfill, it produces methane gas, which is 23 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As food journalist Eve Turow Paul points out, when most Americans think about reducing their carbon footprint, they think about spending less time in the car. What they should be doing is trying to curtail how much food they send to the landfill.

2. The average American family spends $1,500 a year on wasted food

Supermarkets are the "apex of power in our food system," says food activist Tristram Stuart. They are stacked high with more product than they could ever dream of selling to create an illusion of infinite supply, causing consumers to buy more than they need.

Feeding into this are "best by" or "sell by" dates. Most consumers assume the food is no longer edible after these dates pass, but this isn't always the case. The dates are mostly used as a way for stores to manage how they turn over their product supply. Nevertheless, how many half-eaten loaves of bread have you thrown away because they've "expired"? How many eggs have you thrown away?

“When we buy food on the world market and throw it away, we are literally taking food off the shelves of the global food marketplace and we are taking food out of the mouths of the hungry," says Stuart.

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3. 10 million tons of produce go unharvested each year

“There is a surprising amount of waste created on the farm level," says Eve Turow Paul. "Currently we are growing too much of the wrong product. The right product is not getting to people as many people as it needs to get to.”

For a piece of produce to make it to the shelves of a supermarket, it has to look pretty. The physical appearance of a carrot might not have anything to do with how it tastes, but Americans expect a carrot to look a certain way, otherwise they're not going to buy it. Consumers—and thus farmers—are also not taking advantage of all that is edible. A cauliflower's biomass is 40 percent cauliflower and 60 percent leaf. The leaves tastes good, but that's not why the plant is grown, so they are discarded.

“We think of nose to tail for an animal and we celebrate utilization of all the animal’s parts out of respect for the animal, but rarely do we think in that same analog for a farm," says Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley. "Why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we have the same respect for a landscape? Why wouldn’t we utilize the entirety of a landscape the same way we utilized he carcass of a chicken or the carcass of lamb? Same idea.”

4. For every pound of shrimp caught, up to six pounds of other species are discarded.

The world does not have an endless supply of fish, but you wouldn't know it from our wasteful fishing practices. As pointed out by chef Mario Batali, Americans essentially eat four types of fish: cod, salmon, tuna and shrimp. Anything else is usually deemed unsuitable, and for no real reason at all. What is kept and what is discarded depends entirely on the current preferences of the consumer, not what is edible—or even what tastes the best.

To illustrate the fickle appetites of fish eaters, Bourdain points out that lobster used to be served to prisoners before it became a delicacy. Chilean sea bass is only on the menu of fine restaurants because it was renamed from the "toothfish." One culture's "trash fish" can just as easily be another's high-priced entreé.

5. In the United States, 70 percent of grain is fed to livestock instead of people

This doesn't have to be the case. Not only could that grain be used to feed people, our food waste can be going to feed livestock. In Japan, this practice has been refined to the point where pigs are fed specific kinds of recycled food waste—say, pineapple scraps—to create a certain flavor profile when they are eaten. The U.S. should take note. The U.N. estimates that if we fed waste to pigs instead of using the typical corn-soy mix, it would liberate enough food to feed 3 billion people globally. It would also eliminate waste that otherwise might be headed for the landfill.