| By Natalie Mousa
ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste across the U.S. food system, defines food waste as “uneaten food and inedible parts that end up being landfilled, incinerated, disposed of down the sewer, dumped, or spread onto land.”1 This food is considered to be safe and of high-quality.2
ReFED considers food waste to be a subset of “surplus food” which they define as “all food that goes unsold or unused by a business or that goes uneaten at home,” regardless of how it is disposed (fed to animals, repurposed, composted, etc.).1
35% (54 million tons) of total estimated food produced (229 million tons) in 2019 was left unsold or uneaten.1
The United Nations (UN) has set out two Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at reducing food loss and waste. SDG 2 (End Hunger) is focused on eliminating hunger around the world. SDG 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns) is focused on producing food sustainably. SDG 12.3 measures global food loss and waste to accurately understand what areas need the most help.
Graph showing how food waste in the U.S. has been managed over the years.4
On a global scale, approximately 1.4 billion tons of food every year.5 In the United States nearly 40-80 million tons of food is disregarded every year, making the U.S. the country that discards the most food in comparison to any other country in the world.5
In 2019, 54 million tons of food was wasted. That would be like every person in the U.S. throwing over 650 average sized apples right into the garbage. This wasted food is the single largest component taking up space inside US landfills, making up 22% of municipal solid waste (MSW).6
76% of surplus food came from perishable items in 2019.1
The vast majority of surplus food comes from perishables, such fruits and vegetables, meats, prepared fresh deli items, seafood, milk and dairy, and some grain products such as bread and bakery items.1 Perishables often get discarded due to the fact that they go bad quickly, in comparison to non-perishables.
Environmental effects of food waste in 2019.1
Food that is never eaten or sold still has to go through the entire food production system. This means that the food must be grown, harvested, transported, cooled, cooked (or otherwise prepared), while still being disposed of.
Food waste has irreversible environmental consequences. The food wasted generates greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons, which equates to 11% of the world’s emission, thus contributing to global warming.5 According to the World Wildlife Federation, the production of wasted food in the United States is equivalent to the greenhouse emissions of 37 million cars.
A significant amount of food waste ends up in landfills. 24% of landfills are filled with wasted food, which the EPA estimates is the highest percentage proportion of any product in landfills.1 As food rots in a landfill, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas “28 to 36 times more potent than the carbon that comes out of passenger vehicles.”3
Freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce. 14% of all freshwater use is used on food that is wasted. When we waste food, we not only waste water, we waste energy, fuel, and the physical labor it took to produce, package, and ship this food. “When we waste food, it’s not just the food itself that is being wasted.”3
In 2019, Surplus food equated to $408 billion dollars of lost revenue.1
With 54 million tons of food going to waste in 2019, that uneaten or unsold food would equate to roughly 2% of U.S. GDP, or $258 billion dollars.1 The restaurant industry spends an estimated $162 billion every year in costs related to food waste.5
According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, dairy products are the food item we toss out the most (that being food waste rather than surplus food). The average American family of four throws out $1,600 a year in produce. “Multiply that by the typical 18 years that a child lives at home and you could easily pay for a year’s worth of tuition at any number of America’s private colleges or universities.”5
Food insecurity in the U.S. (2019).1
According to Feeding America, the number of people struggling with food insecurity grew in 2020 to more than 50 million.7 Food insecurity means a lack of “reliable access to sufficient, affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food.”1 A significant portion of food waste is perfectly edible and could go to help those in need.
Projected rates of food insecurity among the overall population in 2020 by state.7
Surplus Food Occurs Across the Supply Chain.1
Surplus food is not a singular problem, loss and waste occurs at each stage of the supply chain, with the majority happening at consumer-facing businesses and in homes.1
Food waste begins at the production level. “Low market prices and high harvest costs often make it uneconomical for farmers to gather all that they produce.”1 This results in farms disposing of perfectly good food.
According to the Postharvest Foundation, approximately 30-40% of food that farmers around the world produce is never consumed, with 21-33% of water used across U.S. farms wasted.9
“Nearly 90% of surplus in food processing is byproduct – the peels, stems, bones, and other parts not used in the main product – and production line waste.”1 Although, many of these food remains, such as potato peels from french fry lines, are still edible.
Other than byproducts, human error, such as a lack of standard operating procedures and poor training, causes 10% of food waste at the manufacturing level.5 For example, food that is associated with a food allergy, such as peanuts or gluten, is often wasted due to manufacturing lines that need to be run several times to produce an allergen-free product.
Customer demand for freshness can “lead businesses to dispose of safe, edible food based on a perception that it’s past its prime,” with date label concerns equating to 50% of food waste at the retail level.1 Retailers also end up tossing food that is perfectly edible due to aesthetic concerns.
“Difficulty in forecasting, bulk purchasing, and improper storage can all lead to waste, along with preparation techniques that can leave usable food behind.”1 While these are all issues, the majority of food waste, 70%, is attributed to customers who don’t eat all that they are served.1
Many consumers go to grocery stores unplanned, resulting in them over-purchasing and wasting. Bulk deals are also a large driver of food waste at the home level, with families feeling tempted at a good deal. “Many consumers also lack the knowledge of how to repurpose ingredients and store food properly.”1 This includes how to properly store fresh produce and how to read expiration labels.
Over 80% of Americans dispose of perfectly good, consumable food due to the fact that they misunderstood the expiration label and fear the risk of a foodborne illness.5
The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy.8
Confronting food waste and solving the food surplus problem is about everyone doing their part, from individuals to large corporations — taking responsibility and making small changes to create meaningful sustainable changes for the planet.
9 easy tips to reduce food waste.10
Don’t misinterpret expiration labels on food that’s perfectly good to eat.
BEST IF USED BY describes quality “where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to consume.”5
USE BY applies to “the few products that are highly perishable and/or have food safety concern over time.”5
Only 6.3% of food waste in America was composted in 2017.3 Learning how to compost to keep food scraps out of landfills keeps the amount of greenhouse gases from rising.
In the Orlando area, O-Town Compost provides residents with a composting service, making it super easy to compost!
Transition to Community Gardens, local level farming that limits food waste and positively combats climate change. Learn more here.
In addition, simple tricks such as freezing food that can’t be eaten immediately, and donating food to food pantries or delivering leftovers to people who may need it are great ways to limit food waste.
When grocery shopping, plan meals and make deliberate lists. Shopping at grocery stores, such as Sprouts Farmers Market, that are environmentally cautious is a great way to know your money is going to a place that is engaged in limiting food waste practices.
Several states across the country are taking action to curb food waste and gain food recovery. Legislators in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have passed laws that restrict the amount of food waste going to landfills.
“Vermont’s ‘Universal Recycling Law’ went into effect in July 2020, banning food scrap waste entirely.”5 According to the Vermont Foodbank, as a result of the new law, food donations statewide have increased 40%.
There are pending legislations in California, Colorado and Massachusetts that would establish programs to fund private-sector composting and organic collection programs.
On a national level, the “US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal in 2015 to reduce food waste by half by 2030.”5
Be thoughtful and deliberate when eating out by recognizing that portion sizes differ and order only what you know will be eaten. If you end up with leftover food, take it home to share with someone else or to enjoy for another meal the next day rather than having it thrown away at the restaurant.
If you really want to be environmentally conscientious, bring your own containers to take home leftover food. You’ll be doing your part in reducing the “150 million tons of single-use plastic that we use – and discard – every year.”5
Some countries around the world are ahead of America when it comes to managing food waste. France, for example, requires restaurants to donate food that is at risk of being thrown out, but is still safe to eat. Cities in Sweden use food waste to create fuel to power public bus transit. In Denmark, you can use an app to find restaurants and bakeries that are about to close and purchase their remaining food at a fraction of the cost.5
Countries all around the world are taking initiatives to combat food waste, such as the ones mentioned above. Learn more about the different Food Waste Reduction initiatives different countries have taken.