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Diving into America's food waste problem

Home cooks and grocery shoppers have more power than they realize when it comes to controlling the No. 1 source of ozone-depleting garbage in our waste stream: food.

North American consumers make more food waste than anyone else on the planet. But there is an upside to that: Just about any improvement will mean progress.

Jeremy Seifert was a home cook who started turning food waste into meals by Dumpster-diving near his Southern California digs. But when he decided to make a film about his garbage gourmet adventures, he started asking bigger questions about the global food supply, like, "Why do we throw out so much of our food in the first place?"

His documentary, "Dive" (available now on DVD) explores the world of Dumpster-divers but also a global food system that finds 1 billion people malnourished while a third of the world's food is thrown away.

On a domestic level, the film has only grown in relevance since it was made in 2010, as today record numbers rely on food stamps while the country throws away a whopping 40 percent of its food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Most is discarded before it ever reaches consumers.

"It's such a shame how much food is thrown away at a retail level," says Seifert, who has lobbied grocery chains to donate more and throw away less. "When I had encounters with store employees, they treated me like subhuman scum. But I think the shame should be the other way around. It should be on the people throwing it away."

Food waste author Jonathan Bloom agrees that reducing waste at the production and retail levels (through gleaning and donations) can make the biggest impact, but he stresses that there is also much consumers can do.

To Bloom, who wrote "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Half of Its Food," that statistic is "empowering because, as we've seen with recycling, when people wrap their mind around a simple environmental behavior change, that change can make an impact."

Food waste makes up about 20 percent of our waste stream, and when it's bagged and tossed in the landfill it leaks methane, a gas that is 21 times more destructive to the ozone than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. But if the food was instead composted -- as only -enriching compost rather than methane.

Seifert said that his dive into the world of food waste uncovered a lot of shocking facts but also a lot of hope for change.

"We are so overwhelmed by so many gigantic issues we can't quite grasp," says Seifert, "but we can all work on food waste because it's in our kitchens and it's so tangible."

What consumers can do: Bloom and Seifert are often asked about their favorite waste reduction tips and we've combined them with a few from the EPA and some of our own.

* Plan weekly meals and buy only what you can cook before it spoils.

* Shop like you have a small fridge: "It would be cool if everybody was eating all that fruit and veg in there," says Seifert, "but the fact is our fridges are too big."

* "Eat down" your fridge: Sort through what you already have and challenge yourself to make dinner from it.

* Rediscover the art of soup: "It can be the most amazing way to reduce food waste," Seifert says. "You can take a whole bunch of misshapen, wilted vegetables and make something great."

* Buy smaller amounts of the high quality food; you're less likely to toss it.

* Shop like a European -- if you can -- with frequent trips to local stores for smaller amounts of very fresh food.

* Package leftovers so they are ready to take for lunch the next day.

* If food isn't going to be used soon, freeze it.

* Try composting food scraps at home or using a compost service.