We all know that food waste is something that happens in the world. That’s why it hurts the heart a little to see food go to waste after dinner or grow mold, untouched in your fridge. But there is more to the issue than just food being thrown in the trash.
To appreciate how much impact each of us can create by being food-waste-conscious, we have to understand what pieces of the puzzle we are addressing with our actions. Pleasantly, this is an area of waste reduction that we can be quite successful in!
What is the Difference Between Food Waste and Food Loss?
Before we dive into the complex issue of food waste, we need to understand the difference between food waste and food loss. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they describe different issues. What do they have in common though? Both can have an incredibly harmful impact on the environment that we should and can fix. But, if we are going to effectively direct our efforts, it’s best we first understand when and where food is lost or discarded in the food supply chain.
Food loss occurs most often when food is being harvested or during post-harvest processing and distribution to suppliers and food manufacturers. Whether it’s because of improper storage or over-ordering, food loss is, unfortunately, a common and even expected component of the food supply chain.
Food waste is the kind of waste we are more familiar within our homes or at restaurants. This is the food that you may be tossing into your own garbage can or, if you’re familiar with the benefits of composting, gets turned into compost and ultimately a healthy soil mix.
How Do Consumer Expectations Contribute to Food Waste?
A common problem in grocery stores, in particular, is that we, especially in the United States, have adopted exacting standards for what kinds of produce look “acceptable” for sale. We unnecessarily link quality with appearance.
Once food reaches the grocery store, vendor, or restaurant where it will be sold, the issue vendors face is consumer expectations. What are we looking for when we step up to the rows of produce in the grocery store? Well, we are looking for fruits and vegetables that look like the picture on the flashcard from kindergarten.
Have we not learned that we can’t judge produce by its cover? After the pretty food is purchased, produce that doesn’t match the picture-perfect look that customers are used to is often thrown out, even though they are just as delicious!
Campaigns like Les Fruits & Légumes Moches (Ugly Fruits and Vegetables) in France discounted the less-than-perfect-looking produce, and companies, like Imperfect Produce, are sprouting up to get this good food onto plates.
Charities like Feeding America have resolved to divert produce from the landfills as well, using this food to serve hungry families. But, until consumers accept the value of imperfect produce, we’ll continue to see this form of food waste at a mass scale, and efforts are unlikely to keep pace with the problem on their own.
How Much Food is Wasted?
Based on a report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every year, we waste about 1.3 billion tons of edible food. This represents a third of all food produced worldwide, and the socioeconomic and environmental impact of this waste can be very costly.
Food Waste Statistics
Here are some of the more compelling facts that put food waste into perspective:
- Global food wastage results in an excess of 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere (about 10% of the 32.5 billion tons released each year).
- It would take 28% of the world’s farming land to produce the 1.3 billion tons of edible food lost each year.
- The vast majority of wasted food ends up in landfills rather than being composted, and the UN estimates that at-home composting could reduce each household’s annual waste production by 150kg (about 330lbs).
- In the US alone, retail and consumer food loss totaled 133 billion pounds and cost $161 billion in 2010.
- Countries with higher income tend to see higher rates of retail and consumer food waste, while low-income, developing nations experience greater food loss post-harvest.
- The FAO estimates that global food loss and waste vary between categories as follows:
- Produce – 45%
- Seafood – 35%
- Cereals – 30%
- Dairy – 20%
- Meat – 20%
Who Produces the Most Food Waste?
As we touched on before, developed countries tend to see the most food waste at retail and consumer levels. The amount of food wasted can differ greatly between countries based on several factors, including how seriously each country has approached the issue in the past.
How Much Food is Wasted in the World?
According to the UN, close to half the world’s produce is lost or wasted every year. How devastating the numbers are in various regions of the world depends on the specifics of their food systems, the agricultural industries present, and whether initiatives exist to reduce how much food goes to waste every year.
Overall, the countries that produce the highest amounts of food waste per capita are Australia and the US, which produce 361kg (about 796 lb.) and 278kg (about 613 lb.) per capita, respectively.
When compared between the regions, consumer-level food waste is consistently much higher in Europe and North America versus South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Per capita, food waste ranges between 6 and 11kg in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to waste between 95 and 115kg in Europe and North America.
That’s a difference of over 150–190%. While food waste in different regions may not directly impact the food available to those in poorer nations, the harmful environmental impact will certainly carry over and affect everyone worldwide.
Countries with Successful Campaigns Against Food Waste
Despite having many cultural and economic similarities, other wealthy English-speaking countries have much lower per capita food waste figures: Canada wastes 123kg of food per capita while the UK only produces 74.7kg of food waste per capita.
Those numbers aren’t far off from the lowest figures (44kg per capita in both Greece and China) when compared to the massive rates of food wastage at the other end of the spectrum. These lower numbers are likely due to successful campaigns that Canada and the UK have run for years to combat the issue.
How Much Food is Wasted in the U.S.?
According to the US Department of Agriculture, between 30 and 40% of the annual food supply ends up as food waste, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that the average American produces around 219 pounds of food waste per year. And that’s not just wasted food, it’s wasted money! About $1,600 per family!
In contrast to the UK and Canada, the US hasn’t made meaningful strides to reduce food loss or waste in some time. Recent estimates from EPA indicate that Americans have maintained consistent levels of food waste for the last 20 years.
Toward the end of that same period, the UK was able to reduce its national rate of food waste by close to 11%. While that comparison may seem discouraging, it should actually serve as an example of how much the US could potentially achieve with coordinated and consistent efforts to reduce food loss and waste in the future. We have a long way to go, but we also have many effective examples so we can hit the ground running.
Based on recent rates of food wastage, if Americans reduce their food wastage by 11%, the amount of food diverted from landfills would be enough to fill the Empire state building five times over.
Reducing the amount of food loss, spoilage, and wastage could substantially improve food security for poor Americans and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It’s time to start solving some of our biggest problems instead of contributing to them.
Other Big Producers of Food Waste
Certain industries contribute surprisingly larger shares of food loss and waste today, especially when operations make government and charity efforts at food recovery difficult or complex.
One example is the global fishing industry, which the FAO reports wastes roughly 78.3 million tons annually. In Europe specifically, an estimated 40–60% of fish are wasted before fishing boats even make it back to shore while American commercial fishers waste between 16–32%.
Produce packing houses are another significant source of food loss. As we touched on before, modern standards for vegetables and fruits can result in perfectly edible food being discarded for the sake of profits as companies tailor their inventory to the aesthetic expectations of consumers.
Produce can end up being discarded either at the farm, in transit, or once it reaches grocers, which results in far more produce being grown and ordered for sale than actually purchased by local consumers.
When raw ingredients end up in factories for processing or manufacturing, we see even more loss as the food is cut, trimmed, skinned, and/or peeled. While about 33% of removed portions can be recovered and repurposed as animal feed, most ends up being discarded as expected by-products of the manufacturing process.
Where Does Food Waste End Up?
The vast majority of food waste ends up in landfills, where it piles up and causes extensive environmental harm. Food alone accounts for over a fifth of the trash discarded in municipal landfills in the US.
Many people mistakenly think that food scraps ending up in a landfill isn’t a problem. After all, aren’t they biodegradable? And won’t they just break down and go back into the soil?
The issue is that the normal degradation of natural material depends on the activity of aerobic bacteria, which requires oxygen to consume and break down organic compounds. Without oxygen, such as in the middle of a compact landfill, food can only be broken down through anaerobic digestion, which takes an incredibly long time. Even worse, this process results in the release of methane gas, a greenhouse gas that worsens climate change faster than carbon dioxide emissions.
Various government initiatives in the US have made efforts to divert food from landfills into food recovery and composting programs, but making sure that edible food makes it into the hands of hungry families can be incredibly complex to achieve. Often, farms and retail companies don’t want the cost associated with these sustainable practices.
That’s why it’s important for environmental activists, volunteers, and citizens to vocally and publicly advocate for the importance of food waste reduction, whether that comes in the form of civic action or conscious consumerism. Only then can this issue become culturally and politically important to individuals and advantageous for organizations and businesses following suit.
Why do People Waste Food?
When we think of food waste, it’s easy to imagine someone throwing out leftovers in favor of a fresh meal or forgetting to eat food at the back of the fridge before the expiration date. But the reality is that the bulk of food loss and waste occurs before our food even reaches the grocery store.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that retail and consumer food waste only accounts for 31% of waste in the food supply chain. The rest occurs as the food is harvested, processed, and distributed between farms, mills, factories, and distribution centers.
When food isn’t stored properly because of faulty equipment or over-ordering, raw ingredients often spoil before they make it to their destination to be prepped for sale or consumption. And, even once food makes it to a retail location, that doesn’t mean it’s safe from being discarded.
Often, produce is discarded based on appearance alone. Additionally, it’s common for grocers to order much more food than they expect to sell. Grocers, especially in developed countries like the US, operate under the assumption that consumers expect full shelves before they’ll spend money at a particular store. Those conditions mean that grocers and consumers are in a constant feedback loop of overbuying and discarding food. The habits of consumers at home can be similar as well, especially since consumers often think food expires by its sell-by date. As a result, many consumers will throw out perfectly good food well before it’s spoiled.
How Does Food Waste Affect the Environment?
More food being lost or wasted, at any stage of the supply chain, means that more food has to be produced, processed, and transported to meet consumers’ needs. For every extra pound of food produced, additional water, electricity, natural gas, and fuel, among other natural resources, are consumed. The bottom line is this: food waste means more greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
Because of this amount of waste, researchers have estimated that, in the US, food production accounts for 10% of energy consumption, 50% of land use, and a staggering 80% of freshwater consumption. Combined with methane gas released from landfills full of discarded food scraps, all of these wasted natural resources place an economic and logistical burden on efforts to clean up the environment. Also, these impacts contribute to excessive greenhouse gas emissions that take a toll on the atmosphere each day, accounting for close to a third of all emissions from human activity.
Why is Food Waste Bad for Humans?
In the US alone, if we saved just 15% of the food lost each year, that amount of food could reportedly feed over 25 million Americans. Additionally, the less food that ends up in landfills, the fewer tons of greenhouse gases we’ll be adding to the earth’s atmosphere each year.
Considering that one out of every six Americans lack food security, it’s inexcusable that we waste up to 40% of the food produced in the US every year. This has devastating impacts on not only the environment but public health concerns as well.
Without reliable access to quality nutrition, vulnerable populations experience worse health outcomes. Worsening health affects the whole population, resulting in high overall health costs and higher economic burdens for the whole country, which can have lasting impacts on education, environmental damage, and socioeconomic equality.
What Could be Solved with Food Waste Reduction?
When individuals, communities, countries, and the world make choices that reduce food waste, we can:
- Reduce the consumption of natural resources such as freshwater, fuel, natural gas, and agricultural land.
- Improve food security and health for vulnerable families and communities that lack consistent access to healthy, affordable food.
- Minimize the tons of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year.
- Decrease the negative environmental impact of landfills.
How to Reduce Food Waste Every Day
Reducing food waste is something that we can all commit to doing by making small, manageable changes to the way we interact with food in our homes and in our daily lives.
Many of the factors contributing to food waste, especially during the manufacturing, distribution, and retail processes, are out of our direct control. But, by changing our habits, we can decrease the demand for excess food in our local and national food systems.
Here are a few simple ways that we can contribute to food waste reduction in our day-to-day lives:
- Commit to buying food that’s less than perfect.
- Understand how quickly the perishable food you buy spoils so that you don’t buy excess food.
- Try meal prepping to keep track of what’s in your fridge and pantry.
- Support grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and other food sellers that reduce food waste.
- Freeze food you won’t be able to eat in time to avoid throwing it out.
- Try alternative recipes to eat overripe fruits and vegetables.
- Start composting uneaten food, food scraps, or inedible parts of food (like banana peels or apple cores) to avoid adding to your local landfill.
- Advocate for avoiding food waste with your friends and family to reduce food waste in your community!
Our individual contributions to reducing food waste may seem like a small step, but our actions can influence those around us more than you might think. Not only can you set a good example but your shopping habits allow you to vote with your money and support businesses that make the environment a priority.
In the long term, we all need to advocate for community and government initiatives that promote efforts to reduce food loss and waste on a larger scale.
We can all contribute to the effort to make reducing food loss and promoting food recovery a priority in small and large ways. Whether that means writing to your representatives, volunteering your time with organizations promoting food recovery, or simply making a donation to fund the fight for food safety and security for vulnerable populations, every contribution matters.
In the end, reducing food wastage will mean a better environment and economy for all of us, and that’s something that everyone should be able to get behind and work towards together.
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Zion is content strategist, writer, and editor who strives to make complex, technical topics accessible and engaging to any audience. Branching out from medical communications and digital health to tech writing, she’s gained insight into effective communication strategies across STEM fields. Zion enjoys learning and sharing how individuals and businesses can successfully integrate sustainability into everyday life.