Trash cans with oranges

Orange rinds in the trash


Food waste is presented in moral terms. It’s bad, even a sin, to waste food. This is a terrible way to frame the issue.

Not wasting versus wasting is not about good versus bad. It’s about how you rank different goods: waste, safety, health, opportunity, etc.

Not so long ago in a matter of a couple of weeks, I threw out a jar of jam, 2 pounds tortillas, a chocolate cake, the remains of Chinese takeout, trimmings from a roast, 2 racks of lamb, half a bottle of cooking oil, half a bag of sugar, and half-consumed tins of cocoa, coffee and tea, as well as pounds of fruit peelings.  Why?

  • Safety.

The jam had gone moldy and thus not safe to eat. The lamb stank.

In days of rationing after World War II, my mother scraped mold off jam (or bread or cheese) and we ate the rest.

Even we, though, would have balked at stinking New Zealand lamb.  (It had been in the supermarket cooler defrosted but plastic-wrapped for days. The manager returned my money).

  • Job mobility.

We spend two to three months a year working away from home, usually overseas. At the end of our stay, opened, half-used bottles of oil, bags of sugar, and cans of tea, coffee and cocoa have to be disposed of. Some readers have told me their neighbors are happy to take such leftovers. Great. Mine have never been. I’m not sure I would be confident accepting opened food containers from a total stranger.

In a highly mobile society, students, migrant workers, the workers who live in residence motels, and others probably also pitch partially used staples.

  • Work requirements.

The kilogram of tortillas I bought for a conference demonstration. They would not last the journey home, so left them on the hotel room dresser in case the cleaning lady wanted them. Again, if I were her, I’d be suspicious of an opened packet.

  • Experimentation and Taste.

The chocolate cake that looked so enticing in the bakery turned out not to be to my husband’s liking. Out it went.

Who hasn’t tried new ingredients or  only to discover they didn’t like them?

  • Respect for others.

Leftover food was passed on to servants, the poor, and beggars In the past, and still in many countries in the world,

Now we feel embarrassed to pass food we won’t eat to those poorer or less fortunate than us. Ideally they don’t have to suffer the humiliation of accepting it. A change for the better in my book.

(Yes, I know a common argument, perhaps the commonest argument, is that waste food should feed the poor but I do not think this, even when possible, is ideal.  See the reference below).

  • Care for animals.

Leftover food not good enough for humans (splintery bones, lights) went to animals. Now, vets warn against giving pets leftovers. Pigs aren’t welcome in the suburbs and even chickens create problems.

  • Not worth your time.

When food makes up 40, 50 or 80 or 90% of disposable income, then you won’t find much waste because any savings have to be savings from food.

When it makes up 10%, as it does for many in the US, then it’s not worth your time to worry over every little leftover.  There goes the stale Chinese takeout.

  • Health and Taste.

I believe it is good for my husband to eat fruit, but he’s picky about it, so from time to time I make orange juice.

I end up with three or four rinds for every glass of juice.  I can make marmalade and candied peel, but there is a limit to the number of rinds I can use. (Contrast this with early twentieth century Sweden where an orange was a rare Christmas treat, used peel and all).

  • Making orange juice

    Making orange juice for break

Clashing values

Not wasting food is good.

Safe, healthy, tasty food is also good. The ability to choose food is good. The opportunity to work is good. Respecting others is good.

It would be wonderful if the “don’t waste” value never clashed with other values such as safety, health, taste, choice, respect, and financial sense.

Life’s not like that. Values clash all the time.  Behaving well as an adult means making choices about which values are most important.

Eating well as an adult means making choices about what values are most important.

So enough of the spurious contrast between virtuous non-waste behavior and sinful waste. That simply induces guilt and anxiety.  Guilt and anxiety make it difficult to eat well.

Instead recognize that when adults “waste” food, it’s frequently neither careless nor sinful but because they reckon that safety, health, taste, choice, respect for others and/or financial sense are values that trump “non-waste.”

That’s why I’m a happy food waster. And you might want to be too.


The Onion had a great piece on food waste that made many of the same points.  Hat tip to Jayson Lusk who regularly posts on waste, in this case on an economist’s approach to why people waste.

Marc Bellemare and his colleagues have a paper out that suggests that perhaps the problem of food waste is over-hyped.  They do a good job of pointing out the differing and often slippery definitions of waste that are employed, often, I have to suspect, for food activist ends.

Also some food “waste” is essential for a secure food supply.

Wikipedia has a pretty good and non-emotive article on food waste.

Here’s a link to a useful article by Martin Caraher and Sinéad Furey on the question Is it appropriate to use surplus food to feed people in hunger?

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