Stop to think about the last time you threw away an overripe banana. Whether you didn’t know what to do, or because the overripe banana lost its appeal, you tossed it in the garbage. Now you may want to consider food waste.

Food waste is a combination of many factors, including consumer buying habits, perceptions of how food is supposed to look, and inefficiencies in our food system. There are good, bad, and ugly consequences for our actions.

First, understand why you may want to reduce food waste. Question your actions and then you may actually start helping the environment and feeding hungry people. My Earth Day commitment and ongoing respect for the environment is to help create food waste awareness and help others make better choices.

The Ugly Facts of Food Waste

America is losing 40 percent of its food, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) paper authored by Dana Gunders, Staff Scientist, Food & Agricultural Program.

The ugly facts are that consumers are the highest contributors to food waste, when you compare consumers in the food supply chain to producers. And how much food waste are we responsible for compared to other countries? The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much as a Southeast Asia consumer.

An example cited in the NRDC paper points out how ugly carrots had been sliced for baby carrots to meet retail standards that benefitted the producer. This helped to minimize the producer’s food waste and supported the operation by actually selling a higher price per pound of carrots. Although it is a great solution to reducing food waste, this example points out our obsession with how food looks and the ultimate toll on other wasted food supplies due to food appearances and standards.

Bad Losses in Food Waste

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in 2008 that households and food service operations, ranging from restaurants, cafeterias, fast food, and caterers contributed to losses of 86 billion pounds of food—that is 19 percent of the total retail food supply, and also cited in the NRDC paper. Large portions, pressures to maintain extensive menus, and staff behavior contribute to that loss.

Did you know Americans throw out 25 percent of the food and beverage that is purchased? The reasons for household food losses, as cited in the NRDC paper, stem from not using what we buy, a lack of education on label dates, and spoiled foods. For example, the USDA label guidelines suggest that the “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Our behavior is to immediately throw away food beyond best used by date instead of planning ahead.

Contributing to these alarming bad losses, consumer food waste has a significant impact on energy resources. According to a McKinsey study, the company helping organizations achieve performance and productivity, it has reported that consumer food waste uses eight times as much energy than the post-harvest waste used along the food supply and in food preparation. Consumer food waste has more serious impacts on water and energy than post-harvest waste due to energy used in transport, packing, processing, distribution, and preparation at home.

Good Things We Can Do to Minimize Food Waste

Proper handling and storage of food requires awareness, planning, and behavior. My banana example touches on each of the factors I’ve identified as contributing to food waste. What can we do? An overripe banana can be peeled, sliced and individually wrapped and frozen for use in a nutritious smoothie drink. Furthermore, merchants serving smoothie drinks can reduce food waste simply through adjustments to handling and storage of fruits and vegetables.

Feeding the hungry and poor is a topic often not thought of everyday, unless you were to become aware of how food banks are dependent on transportation. Only 10 percent of available, edible wasted food is collected for distribution to people that may benefit from these efforts. Sadly, nutritious food is going to waste because food suppliers rely on federal tax incentives for food donations. However, California’s Farm to Family program continues to grow and Walmart’s donation of refrigerated trucks to the Feeding America program demonstrates what can be done.

What steps can you take at home or at work to make a difference in reducing food waste?

Through education, better planning, and behavior, we can reduce food waste. Small, incremental steps contributing to long-term results can make a big difference towards a healthier planet and population. Be part of the solution, not the problem.