What causes food waste?
There are numerous factors. For example, oversized
restaurant servings lead to excessive waste in fast food restaurants
and sit-down eateries. Fruits and vegetables that are considered too
small, too large, or visually unappealing are tossed out by retailers.
And when crops are no longer profitable to harvest, farmers often leave fields
On the consumer side, a lot of confusion exists
about the freshness dates on packaged foods, and people sometimes throw out
items prematurely. The largest segment of food waste comes from
households allowing food to go bad.
By Wasting Food, We’re Throwing Out A Lot of Nutrition
Not only is food not being used, but a lot of
nutrients are lost as well.
Fruits and vegetables (including roots and tubers) are
being sent to landfills more than any other type of food.
All in all, we’re throwing out a lot of nutrients that
people need to nourish themselves and be healthy — when eating them could help
lead to lower rates of disease and other health challenges. (In particular,
Americans under-consume fiber, and the
fiber we waste through discarded food could fill the gap for over 200 million adult women.)
Food Waste Is A Tremendous Economic Waste
When food is wasted, it’s like burying money in the
According to the Food Loss & Waste Protocol, about
940 billion dollars are lost each year globally, due to the huge level of
inefficiency in food distribution and consumption.
Also, excessive demand for food we don’t even eat drives up
prices, making food more expensive for everyone, including the
But as bad as the problem is — that’s also how much better
things could be with a change! In 2017, the World Resources Institute analyzed
700 companies across a variety of food industries in the United States and 16
other countries. They found that for every dollar, on average, the
companies spent cutting food waste, they saw a $14 savings in operating costs.
On a more personal level, individuals and families could have
more money in their pockets if they didn’t waste food. In Britain, each
family discards, on average, 700 pounds, or $1,170,
worth of food each year. That could provide for more than 250 pounds of
at $4 per pound!
Food Waste Is Also an Environmental Disaster
Food is the number one addition to landfills. But it may seem like
throwing food into landfills is no big deal. After all — food is biodegradable,
It’s true that food itself is biodegradable, but it’s usually in plastic garbage bags and buried deep beneath
other waste. This dark, cramped, and oxygen-starved environment drastically
slows the rate of decomposition.
Because the food in landfills is
deprived of oxygen (and insects), it barely breaks down.
And much worse, as it slowly decays, this food releases climate-damaging
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, methane is 25 times more harmful than carbon
dioxide over a 100-year period, and landfills account for 16%
of all methane emissions in the U.S.
When the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations (FAO) analyzed food and climate change, the
organization concluded that if food waste were its own
country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
In addition, for the food encased in
plastic, the nutrients may not return to the soil for many hundreds of
While a few landfills have implemented composting, most of them still don’t do
If food waste were its own
country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Throwing food away also wastes
resources used in production including land, water, energy, labor, and capital.
According to a 2013 analysis by the
FAO, the land devoted to producing wasted food would be the
second-largest country in the world.
Producing more food than we need
also places croplands under pressure to over-produce, fueling increased
use of pesticides and unsustainable practices that increase yield but
cause long-term damage to soil, water supply, and sometimes even to food
Could Reducing Food Waste Help
Solve World Hunger?
As a child, you may have heard this
as you pushed food around your plate: “Eat all your food because there are
starving people in the world.”
The truth is, the world
produces enough food to feed every human on this planet — and then some. We
waste a lot of this food directly by sending it to landfills.
We also waste enormous amounts of
grain and soy by feeding them to livestock in feedlots and modern “factory
farms.” Producing one pound of feedlot beef requires about 12 pounds of feed input. For pigs,
it’s about seven pounds, while for chickens, it’s at least
The world produces enough food to
feed every human on this planet — and then some. We waste a lot of this food directly
by sending it to landfills.
The reality is that just stopping
food waste is no guarantee that more food will reach the people who don’t have
enough money to buy it.
But one thing is certain: Every
pound of food we waste by feeding landfills or livestock, instead of people, is
a pound of food that definitely won’t be helping the world’s hungry.
And if we reduce demand, we can
lower the price of food. We won’t be perpetuating a global system in which the
rich eat meat and feed landfills, while the poor struggle to eat at all.
What’s Being Done About Food
Waste in America?
Recent years have seen countries,
organizations, and companies making strides towards reducing food waste.
Here’s some of what’s being done in
the United States:
- In September of 2015, the United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) and the EPA announced a goal to cut food loss
and waste in half by the year 2030 — which is in line with UN
Sustainable Development Goals.
- In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new guidance to standardize food
date labels. The guidelines encourage producers and retailers to use a
“Best if Used By” date label, so consumers are clear that these foods are
still edible past that date (as long as they don’t show signs of
- The Food Donation Connection is an organization
that helps companies
“responsibly discard surplus foods.” Since 1992, it has coordinated the
donation of more than 400 million pounds of prepared food from
more than 15,000 restaurants.
- States and cities are taking action, too. California,
Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and
the District of Columbia offer state tax credits for food
donations. And a new law that went into effect in Austin,
Texas, on October 1st, 2018, now requiresrestaurants to dispose of food waste
Progress is being made, but there’s
much more to be done if we want to reduce food waste in meaningful ways.
What’s Happening Around the World
to Reduce Food Waste?
Other countries are also leading the
charge to cut back on food waste.
Here are some inspiring
In France, a 2016 law banned grocery stores from throwing
away any edible food. Failing to follow the law can result in a $4,500
fine — every single time. And it’s reportedly working. The
nation’s food bank network, which serves 5,000 charities, now gets almost
half of its stock from grocery outlets.
Britain’s biggest grocery chain, Tesco,
recently decided to get rid of “best before” labels
on fruits and veggies to keep consumers from throwing them away
Germany has an ambitious goal of halving food
waste by 2030. One strategy is to use smart packaging that can
inform consumers when food is no longer safe to eat.
- A chef in Toronto, Canada, has come up with a creative solution: a
pay-what-you-can grocery store, bakery, and cafe that sells rescued
produce and other goods. Volunteers run the store, and any food that’s
left over gets donated to a nearby homeless shelter. Called The Feed It
Forward Grocery Store, it’s diverting about 500 pounds
of food per day from landfills.
These are all exciting ideas, but
the best opportunity may be what you can do.
How Can You Help Reduce Food