Throwing $165 Billion in the Trash: John Oliver Puts Food Waste on Blast

The ‘Last Week Tonight’ host shared shocking stats on how much Americans chuck in the garbage.
Jul 20, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Is there anything more American than all-you-can-eat pancakes and chicken or massive cheeseburgers that come with layers of hot dog and potato chips? What about if you take a few bites of your meal and then throw the rest of it in the garbage—all while a hungry family looks on?

That’s the sobering food-waste reality John Oliver tackled on Sunday night’s Last Week Tonight. The comedian had plenty of jokes in his 18-minute segment on the issue—Donald Trump, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Channing Tatum all got a little food-related ribbing. But in between the laughs, Oliver’s look at how much we throw away is pretty sobering.

So, Why Should You Care? Oliver cited a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council that found Americans waste about 40 percent of their food every year, an amount that has increased about 50 percent since the 1970s. “At this rate, in 40 years when you order pizza from Domino’s, they’ll just deliver it straight to the Dumpster,” Oliver quipped.

The amount we waste is worth $165 billion, a shocking total given the 50 million U.S. residents who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, Oliver said. And given the dire drought situation in California, which produces about half of the nation’s fruits and veggies—90 percent of strawberries are grown in the Golden State—Oliver noted that our waste is also environmentally irresponsible.

“At a time when the landscape of California is shriveling up like a pumpkin in front of a house with a lazy dad, it seems especially unwise that farmers are pumping water into food that ends up being used as a garnish for landfills,” he said.

Once that food ends up in landfills, it produces the greenhouse gas methane. “When we dump food into a landfill, we’re essentially throwing a trash blanket over a flatulent food man and Dutch-ovening the entire planet,” Oliver said.

RELATED: 5 Astonishing Facts About the Food We Throw in the Trash

But America’s food waste problem isn’t just one of individuals turning up their noses at produce that seems a bit wilted. Oliver dove into the pervasive misconceptions around use-by and sell-by dates and food donation policies, and how stores overstock produce because consumers assume that if there are only a few heads of lettuce on the shelves, those must be the ones no one else wanted.

Oliver also joked about how imperfect fruits and veggies are subjected to what he calls “produce body shaming.” It’s a hilarious reference to a problem that has spurred food waste activists to challenge Walmart and Whole Foods to begin selling ugly fruits and veggies.

Everyone has a role to play in addressing our relationship with food waste, Oliver said—from resolving to eat uglier fruit, to taking expiration dates with a pinch of salt, to no longer worrying about getting sued by high-powered lawyers representing the hungry.