Little Known Problem, Big Impact: Food Waste in the United States

My mother was adept at giving new life to old food; stale bread became croutons, old milk was used for baking, and any leftovers were carefully stored away in Tupperware containers for the next day’s lunch. She made sure we had almost no food waste in our house – and what she was doing wasn’t just thrifty, it was incredibly important for the planet.

In America, about 40% of the food that is produced ends up being wasted. This shocking number is even more troubling when you break down the implications: the value of lost food is about $161 billion dollars every year and it causes 11% of our national greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not because we make too much: despite everything we waste, 14% of households in the U.S. still struggle to put food on the table.

The food system in the US is massive. Agricultural production uses half of the available land, 80% of our fresh water, and 10% of the total energy. It’s also a major cause of pollution – livestock release methane, a greenhouse gas that speeds global climate change. Chemical runoff seeps into our soil and water, and makes the land unusable in the future. To make room for farmland, ecosystems and habitats are destroyed, which harms biodiversity. Of course, some of this ecological damage is necessary to make food. But the fact that 40% of the food it makes will never be consumed should be a warning sign.

Still not convinced that food waste is a serious issue? How about the economic consequences? Imagine the amount of money (including taxpayer money) spent on fertilizers, pesticides, equipment and all the research needed to develop them. Grocery stores and restaurants waste around $50 billion a year, about 10% of their budget, and the average consumer wastes $2,000 worth of food a year. Imagine walking out of a grocery store and immediately throwing a third of your purchase into a nearby trash can!

After the trash can, where does that food waste go? Into the waste stream, where it takes up roughly 20% of landfill space (which is becoming scarce, especially in the northeastern United States). That alone costs over $1 billion every single year – and it releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases. That means it’s partly responsible for people’s climate-related health problems (respiratory disease, asthma, heat-related diseases, etc.). And of course there’s the extreme weather patterns caused by global climate change, that cause property damage – both on a small scale and to our infrastructure (think about what Hurricane Sandy cost New York and New Jersey).

As for the social side of the problem, consider the 42 million Americans who live in food-insecure households. This means that these families do not have consistent, affordable access to healthy food, which could be mitigated if they had access to the perfectly good food that is being wasted at every stage of the food system.

All in all, our current food production system is deeply inefficient; waste happens everywhere you look, from produce rotting in the fields if it is too ripe or not ripe enough or if there is an insufficient number of workers to harvest it, to poor transportation leading to damaged food, to grocery stores disposing of products that are still edible but not aesthetically perfect, and of course people letting food go bad in their homes.

Food waste is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas release, and it has devastating social and economic consequences. So why aren’t sustainability advocates talking about it? It’s rarely mentioned among those same messages that are constantly hammered home – turn off the water when you’re brushing your teeth, take shorter showers, turn off the lights in empty rooms, keep the AC low, etc. People simply don’t know that they’re losing money and harming the environment by constantly throwing away the food they don’t want.

In the past few years, we’ve been making progress. Some grocery stores sell discounted produce and dented cans cheaper – others turn food into meals to be sold at the hot food/buffet section. Some are even composting wasted food, cutting down on the emissions and turning the waste into fertilizer (which you can resell!). At the state level, landfill fees that make waste disposal more expensive give stores an extra push to get greener. Other countries are also making strides; last year, for example, France passed a law to fight food waste, mandating that all large grocery stores form partnerships with food banks to make food donation simple. These kinds of changes along with business innovations and new technologies are going a long way to address the issue.

But there is a still a lot of work to be done: to help solve the issue, start at home. Try tracking how much food you throw out for a week and you’ll be shocked! It helps to know exactly what’s in your fridge so you can plan your meals around it, and be sure to store it correctly so it can stay fresh longer. At the grocery store, keep an eye out for discounted products, and be sure to buy the right amounts of what you need. If you end up buying too much, find your local food bank and donate it, or try composting to reduce its environmental impact! To continue your momentum, spread this knowledge in your community. Ask local organizations, businesses, and governments what they plan to do about systematic food waste. It’s more important now than ever to use the knowledge we have about sustainability to make changes that will improve the economic, social, and environmental welfare of this country.


For more specific tips on how to reduce food waste at home:

EPA Reducing Food Waste at Home

To get involved at a community level:

EPA’s Community Implementation Guide

To find food banks near you:

Ample Harvest: Find a Pantry

For a detailed overview of food waste in the U.S.:

NRDC – Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill



By Madeleine Weko, Intern, LVSN