Preventing food waste - optimal fridge organization

Did you know that there’s actually an ideal order or layout of how to organize food in the fridge? A way that could help prevent food waste, reduce grocery bills and improve how sustainable your household is?  So, to set the scene - you’re on your way home with your weekly Costco or Sam's Club haul, you are loaded up with more bags and boxes than you care to count, and then the dread hits… “Am I going to get all of this to fit in the fridge?!” 

If you’re anything like me, when you get home you give a halfhearted attempt at making sure all the veggies stay together, the meats are separated and the dairy products are on another different shelf, all while fending off hungry kids who want to know what's for dinner.

It’s super easy for us to just slip down to the store and replace wilting foods with fresh produce, although it seems our collective habits have started to change over the last few years, and as folks are looking at ways to reduce our household bills. I'm the first to admit that I’m guilty of over-purchasing food products which I then proceed to forget about, and a week later I’ll find a half-wilted bag of spinach that I swore I was going to be making healthy smoothies with… Well, why does this matter - beyond of course emptying our bank accounts for no reason?

Is food waste a problem in the United States & Canada? Spoiler alert - Yes it is!

In the United States alone, food waste is estimated to account for 30 to 40 % of the entire food supply. This estimate, based on 2010 figures from USDA’s Economic Research Service, suggests that % food loss at the retail and consumer levels which corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds, with a value of $161 billion.

On average, the Canadian household produces about 140 kilograms (or 308 lbs) of food waste per year, which costs around $1,100. Think of the savings to be had!

For Canada as a country, a whopping 2.2 million tons of edible food is wasted each year, with an estimated value in excess of $17 billion. This also equates to 9.8 million tons of CO2, or 2.1 million cars on the road, which drastically contributes to Canada’s overall carbon footprint. Now I got that off my chest, you can skip straight to the section for our fridge optimization - top tips here, or keep on reading if you're interested in more facts!

This amount of waste has far-reaching impacts on society, and potentially on the production of climate-change gases like methane:

  •  Food that could have helped feed families in need is currently sent to landfills 
  • Landfills release methane as organic food waste decomposes. The big problem with methane is its global warming potential (GWP), which is a calculation that allows experts to compare the effects of any gas emissions to carbon dioxide. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in recent decades, methane has warmed the planet by as much 86 times more than CO2.
  • Topsoil, water, labor and energy is wasted in huge quantities to produce, process, package and transport a disturbing amount of food that will simply be discarded. This all adds unnecessarily to the carbon footprint of the agricultural industry which keeps on growing as populations grow.

Does the U.S. and Canada have a goal to reduce food loss and waste then?

In 2015, the USDA joined with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a goal to cut US food waste by 50% by the year 2030. Canada is committed to the United Nation's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which also sets a target to -

"halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses" by 2030.

What baseline estimates of food loss and waste will be used to measure progress in reaching this 50 percent reduction goal?

The United States does not currently have a single baseline estimate of food loss and waste. Instead, two very different measures describe the amount of food loss and waste in the United States:

  • EPA estimates: 2010 was selected as a baseline for the US at 218.9 pounds of food waste per person sent for disposal. The 2030 FLW reduction goal aims to reduce food waste going to landfills by 50% to 109.4 pounds per person.
  • USDA estimates: the amount of food loss and waste from the food supply at the retail and consumer levels: in 2010 food loss and waste at the retail and consumer levels was 31% of the food supply, equaling 133 billion pounds and almost $162 billion.

None of these estimates or initiatives provide a comprehensive evaluation of food waste in the United States or Canada. However, reductions everywhere will provide some progress in reducing food loss and the serious environmental impacts associated with landfilling food.

Let's face it, the argument for genetically modified food mostly hinges around being able to feed everyone in the future - and yet we currently throw 30-40% of what we produce away. It seems pretty obvious that avoiding wasting food is a really good plan, and we can all do our best to help.

Reducing food waste at home - part of the solutions to reduce wasting food
Reducing food waste at home - part of the solutions to reduce the wasting of food. Image from Canadian Gov Website

We would also conjecture that eating more seasonal and locally grown produce should also be high on peoples list of action items for living sustainably.

Above is Canada's official Government version of how they anticipate solving the food waste problem - please note that the solutions are ranked from the most to the least desirable - and that putting organics in the recycling bin to produce Renewable Natural Gas (once considered a green option) is no longer considered favorably, as it leaks from the natural gas delivery system just like regular gas does (One of the main reasons why natural gas is being phased out in homes).  

Optimizing fridges, know your fridge and food basics!

It may surprise most people, but where you place your foods in the fridge is really important to help reduce food waste. Here is a step-by-step guide on which products should go where:

  • Top shelf – save this prime real estate for leftovers, drinks, eat-me-next foods, berries and herbs.
  • Middle shelves - depending on how many shelves you have in your fridge, these should be used for milk, eggs and dairy products.
  • Bottom shelf - this is the coldest part of your fridge and is best saved for for raw meats, poultry and seafoods. It’s always best to store these food products in reusable sealed containers or trays to prevent any drips from contaminating the food below. 

Most fridges have drawers with adjustable vents that allow you to control the humidity level. It’s our advice to set one to a high-humidity (closed with less air flow) and one to a low-humidity (open with more air flow).

The high-humidity drawer should house most of your veggies, in particular the ones that may wilt. That would be carrots, leafy greens, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, cucumber, green beans, lettuce and peppers.

In your low-humidity drawer you should put fruits and the vegetables that have a tendency to rot and break down, such as apples, pears, grapes, mushrooms, mangoes, peaches, oranges and lemons. 

If you happen to have a deli drawer, this should be home to cheeses and deli meats (if that's your thing), just be certain to have a nice bottle of red wine at the ready!

How to make a fridge work best

The fridge door is the warmest part of the fridge. Hey, maybe that’s why the milk goes sour sometimes? This could be helped by making sure that the fridge door isn't left open for long periods of time. Leaving the door open lets cool air fall out the bottom and significantly raises your fridge’s temperature.

A refrigerator is best set at 4 degrees Celsius or 39 degrees Fahrenheit - and it never hurts to double check with a seperate fridge thermometer, as we've known some built-in ones to be quite inaccurate.

Some food produce will release a gas called ethylene, which can speed up the ripening process of nearby foods. So, to keep your foods lasting longer, separate the foods that create ethylene from the foods that can be harmed by it. You should keep this kind of easily-spoiled produce in a loosely tied bag away from already ripe foods.

Fridge Optimization can help reduce food waste
Fridge Optimization can help reduce food waste - especially keeping the wrong foods apart in the fridge

Foods to keep separate in the fridge to prevent spoiling

Common foods that are high-producers of ethylene in fridges are: 

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Avocados
  • Ripening Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Figs
  • Honeydew
  • Kiwis
  • Mangoes
  • Nectarines
  • Papayas
  • Passion fruit
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plantains
  • Plums
  • Prunes
  • Quince
  • Tomatoes

Common foods that are ripened or spoiled prematurely by ethylene in fridges are: 

  • Unripe bananas
  • Green beans
  • Belgian endive
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Leafy greens
  • Lettuce
  • Okra
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Watercress
  • Watermelon

It should be no surprise then that in Canada, the most prominently wasted foods are vegetables, accounting for 30%, followed by fruit at 15%, leftovers at 13%, bread and baked goods at 9% and dairy and eggs at 7%. To put this into perspective, on average every day in Canada, we waste 470,000 heads of lettuce, 2,400,000 potatoes, 750,000 loaves of bread, 1,225,000 apples, 1,000,000 cups of milk and 555,000 bananas! 

We all know that bulk buying works out cheaper, and it’s admittedly sometimes easier to do than having to keep going to the store every few days to stock up. I know it’s definitely not on my top 10 list of things to do! However, doing this isn't always that economical, as it can lead to additional food waste and throwing hard-earned dollars in the garbage.

So the next time that you think you’re going to get through that huge bag of greens or manage to eat all of those potatoes and loaves of bread, remind yourself to take a step back and think;

“Do I really need all of this produce?”

It's better for everyone to be more conscious about living more sustainably (and economically). At the very least, it’s good food for thought…

Now you know the best way to organize the foods in your fridge to prevent food waste. Find more pages about green lifestyle choices in these pages : 

Find more about green home construction in the Ecohome Green Building Guide pages - also, learn more about the benefits of a free Ecohome Network Membership here.