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Food Wasted—Opportunity Lost

November 25, 2014

Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday feast I offer some facts and comments on food waste. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, about one-third of food produced for human consumption around the world is lost or wasted each year. Food losses estimated at about 1.3 billion tons per year occur throughout the supply chain—from agricultural production, transport, processing plants, and retail operations, to restaurant, institution, and household kitchens. The annual financial costs to the world from food losses and food waste amounts to an estimated $1 trillion.

The large amount of resources used in food production—from fertilizers and water, to packaging, fuel, labor, and more—are lost as well. The FAO calculates just a few of these losses at: $700 billion in lost natural resources, $172 billion in wasted water, $42 billion in cleared forest, and $429 billion in related greenhouse gas emission costs. And, this doesn’t include the environmental and human health impacts of nutrient pollution from wasted fertilizers, chemical pollution from associated pesticide use, and impacts on the loss to future generation of finite resources such as phosphorus.

According to US Environmental Protection Agency, 96 percent of the wasted food in this country ends up thrown away into landfills or incinerators. EPA’s cost estimation on this waste-- about $165 billion a year. Meanwhile, even in our wealthy country, people go hungry every day. More than 17 million households in this country are food insecure.

Much of the food loss is due to the lack of coordination between the players along the supply chain, from farmer-buyer sales agreements to quality standards which dictate that food items be rejected when not meeting shape or appearance expectations. Food retailers in this country have annual in-store food losses of some 43 billion pounds. To meet unexpected demand and keep customers happy, retailer over ordering of food is common. Significant food waste occurs because of consumer behavior, including poor purchase planning (buying too much because items are on sale and general lack of planning when we shop), confusion over what is meant by “best-before” or “sell-by” dates, and simply not paying attention to what we already have in our refrigerators and pantries. Overly large portions served at restaurants and other food service establishments also contribute to our mounds of food waste. Additionally, for most of us, food is relatively cheap, leading to a somewhat cavalier attitude about our food consumption.

Raising awareness among food industries, retailers, food service establishments, and consumers can help. I’m hoping most of us solid waste professionals practice the organics management hierarchy, with an emphasis on food waste reduction. However, we can certainly do a better job at training the rest of the country.



Some general recommendations to promote food reduction and food recovery:

  • For businesses: EPA Food Recovery Challenge has excellent resources available. Government agencies and other entities can post a link to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act on their websites, along with food recovery organizations providing local services.
  • For residents:  Check out the Food Too Good to Waste Toolkit and post food reduction tips on agency/organizational websites. Consider starting a Facebook page on food waste and what can be done in your community to reduce, recover, and recycle food scraps.
  • Food scrap composting is slowly spreading around the Northeast. If a food scrap collection and processing program has yet to be initiated in your community or is facing challenges, consider low cost alternatives, such as promoting backyard food scrap composting. Also, community composting offers a low cost way to get residents thinking about food scrap composting, separating out materials, and learning about the benefits of compost.


By Athena Lee Bradley

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