As St. Patrick's Day celebrations came to a close, my Instagram feed grew chock-full of alarmingly similar posts that captured perfectly poured Lucky Charms hovering in midair. Each picture, showing joyous laughter and smiles, perfectly exhibited Michigan’s vibrant school spirit that lures hundreds to visit for the holiday. Unfortunately, past the cheerful scene lay an upsetting image: monstrous mounds of cereal decorating the ground below. St. Patty’s Instagram posts aren't the only example of social media’s contribution to the global food waste problem. In recent years, online platforms have played an increasingly influential role in encouraging wasteful behaviors, which hints at social, economic, and environmental troubles in the ensuing years. 

(B)in-Formation on Global Food Waste 

nachos, pizza, chicken
Laura Quinting

While social media has clearly worsened the issue, the problem stems from a time long before the Digital Age. To best understand the roots of the matter, we have to look at one of the leading culprits: the United States. America’s relationship with food wasn't always wasteful. In fact, food preservation played a vital role in the nation’s survival through the mid-nineteenth century. Alas, as industrialization swept the country, those resourceful behaviors went by the wayside. The development of mass-producing factories paved a new and commercialized narrative for food. Food became highly accessible and far more affordable, immensely improving quality of life. The Age of Industrialization granted Americans with a new freedom of food choice which brought with it the emergence of food waste.

World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II were brief beacons of hope with their efforts to reduce waste, as food preservation was crucial for the nation’s survival. After that time, transformations in the food growth process made irreversible changes that ramped up waste. Developments in agricultural chemicals led to even more mass production and overconsumption, a destructive and dangerous duo. From production to distribution to consumption, waste is made at all stages of a product’s lifespan. While everyone contributes to the problem, consumers have influential leverage in working towards the solution. By changing their behavior in terms of buying, cooking, and storing food, consumers can force producers to adapt to more sustainable processes. Therefore, consumers’ ominous behaviors will inevitably result in detrimental methods of production. 

Trash Is #Trending

With the advent of omnipresent social media use, food waste has gotten way out of hand. According to a study conducted by Sainsbury’s, one of the largest supermarket chains in the United Kingdom, newer generations are exhibiting significantly different attitudes towards the issue, which they attribute to the onset of interactive media. Sainsbury’s studied the purchasing and consumption habits of 5,000 people aged 18 and over, finding that Millennials tended to purchase ingredients for unusual recipes that were incredibly difficult to reuse. The inherent competitiveness of social media enrolls users in a contest for the best content, encouraging wasteful behavior “for the ‘gram.”

Additionally, younger generations reported spending far more per week on food than their parents, which, combined with their prodigal habits, generates concerning quantities of garbage. In broader terms, social media has transformed the culture of “eating to live” into “living to eat,” which amplifies food’s disposability. In the culinary world, this notion of “living to eat” creates a complex trade-off: it paints food as a creative outlet for expression and promotes appreciation for its visual aspects, while also accumulating waste. To find the balance between celebration and food preservation, consumers need to make more sustainable decisions.

Let’s Talk Trash

While food waste is largely advertised as an environmental issue, it also hinders business and economic sectors. Every year, families in the United States lose an average of $1,600 to $2,000 on food that is purchased but not eaten. According to the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, that cost is more than monthly food charges for a family of four. For businesses, all of the products deemed unsellable add up to about $161 billion in waste. This massive amount of food loss costs families and companies thousands of dollars. In terms of damage to the environment, food waste jeopardizes global temperatures, air quality, and the overall stability of our planet. To combat the continuing damage, consumers can make small adjustments to their daily schedules, like correctly storing food, saving leftovers, and matching serving sizes to intensity of hunger. A simple Google search will lead consumers to thousands of tips, like these 7 ways to reduce food waste. Public policy changes when communities demand action, and together we can be catalysts for change.

As Millennials, we take a lot of heat for ruining the “golden days” of past generations and social media tends to be the first to blame. If these platforms can fuel the problem, they can equally detract from its power. Food waste surely has an unpleasant aftertaste, so let’s change the menu.