Agriculture, Food and Beverage

Food waste 101: The facts and solutions

Food waste is the number one material in US landfills, accounting for 24% of all municipal solid waste.

Food waste is the number one material in US landfills, accounting for 24% of all municipal solid waste. Image: Pexels

Libby Leonard
Freelance Writer, Ecowatch
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Over a third of the world’s food production is lost or wasted each year.
  • Half of all produce is thrown away in the US because it is seen as being too ‘ugly’ to eat.
  • Another big cause of food waste is people not knowing the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates, a survey shows.
  • Some groups are trying to change this, including by selling food that otherwise would never be put out in supermarkets, and by repurposing food waste into renewable energy.

When one thinks of food waste, many still think that it involves leftover food scraps, or expired food left in the refrigerator that ends up in the garbage. They don’t think about the scores of food thrown out by supermarkets or not purchased by supermarkets for not being aesthetically pleasing enough to sell, despite that the food is perfectly edible.

Over a third of the world’s food that’s produced gets lost or wasted each year. This happens while over 820 million people worldwide are affected from hunger.

Some of this food, particularly in the United States, often ends up in our landfills emitting greenhouse gases, and taking forever to decompose. According to a 2018 report by the Waste Journal, landfills have 10-15 years left of landfill capacity. Ten-thousand U.S. landfills have already closed having reached capacity with 3,000 active landfills left.

On the bright side, there is a global food waste revolution happening with many changemakers creating solutions to help feed the hungry, to feed the soil, to repurpose food waste into renewable energy, and find innovative ways to sell food that otherwise would never be out in the supermarkets. Still, there is a lot of work to be done.


  • According to the USDA, in the United States alone, 30-40 percent of the food supply is wasted.
  • Half of all produce is thrown away in the US because it is too ‘ugly’ to eat. This amounts to 60 million tons of fruit and vegetables.‘Ugly’ fruit and vegetables make up a third of all wasted food.
  • In Europe, 40-60% of fish caught are discarded because they do not meet supermarket quality standards. Nearly 50% is discarded in the United States.
  • A survey conducted by Respect Food reported that 63% of people don’t know the difference between “use by” and “best before” dates. “Use by” dates indicate perishable items. “Best before” can be eaten after the given date, but won’t be at its highest quality.
  • Food waste is the number one material in US landfills, accounting for 24% of all municipal solid waste.
  • When the food in landfills rots, it produces methane, which is one of the most powerful greenhouse gas emissions. About 6%-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stop wasting food.
  • Food losses translate into lost income for farmers and higher prices for consumers, giving us an economic incentive to reduce food waste.

Environmental Impact of Food Waste

Around the industrial revolution in the early 1900s is when food waste started to become more apparent. Food cost less and was more readily available. Prior to this people were preserving food by salting, spicing, picking and drying. There was little use for refrigeration because meat, fish, milk, fruits and vegetables did not play as important of a role as it does in diets today, though some used the elements for refrigeration methods.

Refrigeration in the 1930s helped preserve food longer, but as time went on, particularly after WWII, industrial agriculture ramped up with overproduction, particularly to accommodate exporting.

It wasn’t until 2013, that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) studied the impact of food waste on climate change, designating food waste as one of the top three emitters of greenhouse gasses.

When food scraps enter the landfill, it emits methane as it breaks down. Globally, landfills and wastewater emit 67 million metric tons of methane — that’s 20% of methane emissions, according to the United Nations.

When food waste breaks down it also produces nitrogen, which when exposed to air, forms nitrate, which can then leach into the groundwater, which is often times used as our drinking water.

Nitrates can affect how our blood carries oxygen. High levels can turn skin bluish or gray and lead to more serious health effects, like weakness, birth defects, excess heart rate, fatigue and dizziness.

When we waste food we also waste the natural resources it involves to produce it.

Water use while raising animals and growing crops is extremely intensive. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), food waste ends up wasting a quarter of our water supply in the form of uneaten food and equates to $172 billion in wasted water, adding that the US spends over $220 billion in growing, transporting, and processing 70 million tons of food that eventually ends up in landfills.

Agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s water use. By throwing out two pounds of beef, you are wasting 50,000 liters of water used to produce the meat and nearly 1,000 liters for a glass of milk down the drain.

Food Waste and Security

When it comes to fruits, nuts and vegetables, the USDA has high standards for quality, that is not based on nutritional value, but on appearance. Though some practical concerns are listed, like vegetables being free from rot, etc, many fruits and vegetables on this extensive list (seen here) require firm, plump, appearances, or specific sizes or shapes.

Ken Rutledge, who manages sales at a potato farm in California, has to figure out what to do when retailers decide that his fingerlings aren’t the right size, or that his yellow potatoes aren’t perfectly round. He has seen up to 75% of his crops rejected due to appearance.

“I don’t think you get past the gut punch,” he told The Guardian, referencing the amount of food that goes wasted. “If you’re a produce grower or an artist, would you rather see your work thrown in the burning pile or would you rather have it used and appreciated?”

Cosmetic imperfection is one of the main causes for food waste, and what’s particularly interesting is that following the USDA’s high standards for quality is entirely voluntary, yet despite this global crisis, supermarkets continue to stock shelves with only a specific glistening quality of food, which not only results in food waste, but lost income for farmers.

One of the reasons for this possibly happening is that consumers are not asking grocers to stock these items.

In the US in 2016, Whole Foods and Walmart paired up with companies that source and sell imperfect produce to do pilot projects in-store, but this was quietly abandoned in 2019.

The companies however are still up and running. One of them is Imperfect Foods, whose slogan is “groceries that help you fight food waste” and is a delivery service that rescues and redistributes food, including produce, shelf-stable goods, dairy, meat and seafood. They do so in support of farmers and producers to eliminate food waste.

The company claims on its website, that as a customer, in one year up to 380 pounds of food can be saved from going to the landfill.

Misfits Market, which recently acquired Imperfect Foods, is another online marketplace that delivers sustainably sourced foods with the same model. Consumers, they say can save up to 40% on food as opposed to what is purchased at the market.

Repurposing Food Waste to Those in Need

While the above is a couple of direct-to-consumer options, there are also numerous organizations that are helping out those in need both nationally, by state, and internationally. Here is a list of some of those who are making a difference in the US:

Feeding America

Founded in 1979 to support underserved Americans facing hunger, they partner with farmers, market chains, and restaurants to rescue food waste and bring it to food banks across the US. They also reach communities through mobile pantries. They work to help alleviate food insecurity for seniors, and children with school pantries, summer meals, and other programs.

412 Food Rescue

Launched in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2015, this organization equips local citizens with the tools and knowledge to reduce food waste in their communities. They also work with food donors by redistributing the produce to local charities and underserved households, as well as, empower local citizens through their app Food Rescue Hero, to find and deliver food parcels to those in need.

The charity utilizes zero-waste kitchens where they prepare meals, and use surplus food to create original products and work to redistribute previously unsellable groceries.

Food Recovery Network

Founded by students at the University of Maryland in 2011 to recover surplus dining hall food from campus, it has evolved into one of the largest student-led movements in the US across colleges and university campuses across the nation.

Besides collecting leftover goods from food vendors, restaurants and farms to deliver to community service agencies, they also run campaigns to raise awareness among students about food waste and food insecurity, and give students the tools to advocate for waste relief with policymakers.

City Harvest

Founded in 1982 in New York City, it’s now one of the city’s largest food rescue organizations that redirects surplus food to those in need by partnering with individual and corporate food donors, then delivers it to soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community food programs. They also have mobile markets to give residents access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Food Rescue US was founded in 2011 by Jeff Schacher and Kevin Mullins to create a sustainable and scalable food rescue model that combats both food insecurity and food waste. Today, they engage volunteers to help reduce food losses in multiple locations nationwide.

Food Rescue US

Founded in 2011, this organization created a self-sustaining community model that gets citizens in their local communities to transfer fresh food surpluses from local businesses to social service agencies that feed the food insecure. With locations all over the US, they do this by using an app to locate where to recover food from restaurants, shops, farmers’ markets, or corporate retailers.

Here is a list of over 50 more, both by state and international charitable organizations who are fighting food waste.

Other Solutions to Solve Food Waste

Just as there are many charitable organizations helping to get food to people in need, there are many other solutions, both old and innovative ways to repurpose food.

Food Waste and Renewable Energy

Many might not think of it, but food waste can also be turned into renewable energy and several large companies over the years have signed on to do so.

Using a process called anaerobic digestion (AD), food waste is treated at a special AD plant, where it’s broken down into a methane-rich biogas that is then used to create new energy.

General Mills has been doing it since 2016, after pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28% over a ten-year period. The company’s Yoplait Greek yogurt production involves separating whey from heavier cream in milk, which results in 60-70 percent of the milk becoming an unusable waste by-product called acid way. In order to avoid landfill disposal their Tennessee plant constructed an anaerobic digestor and connected energy recovery facilities.

The biogas created is used to power a Caterpillar engine that generates about 1.6 megawatts of electricity, which supplies over 10% of the processing facility.

Most recently Chobani, Kikkiman Foods Inc. Schreiber Foods, Hillebrand and Polar Beverages also just joined the Farm Powered Strategic Alliance (FPSA/Alliance), which is a collaborative movement to expand renewable energy production across America. The Alliance was initially founded in 2020 by Vanguard Renewables, Unilever, Starbucks and Dairy Farmers of America with goals to eliminate food waste first, but then repurpose what can’t be into renewable energy through farm-based AD.

Vanguard Renewables is a Massachussettes-based firm that is New England’s largest organic recycler.

There is also a company called HomeBiogas that manufactures systems one can use at their home, with the biogas from food scraps being used to either turn into cooking gas, or liquid fertilizer.

Internationally, Costa Rica generates a lot of waste through coffee production and has been using technology to turn it into heat and power, while South Korea has been a massive example of harnessing the power of food waste for that and fertilizer.

Livestock Feed

Food waste turned into livestock feed benefits farmers by reducing feed costs and disposal costs. Food waste particularly from production is nutritious, like dried and wet extracted residue from the beer-making process at breweries, corn gluten from wet milling manufacturing of corn starch or syrup, or dried and wet grains from distillery processes.


Gleaning is the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, grocers, restaurants and other sources to provide for those in need.

Now in the US and UK, there are several organizations that help take care of excess crops.

The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems’ National Gleaning Project, has a map that shows services state by state in the US. It also has legal policies and resources for farmers to protect them against liability.

In the United Kingdom, Feedback, a charity that was founded by food waste activist Tristram Stuart, also has a Gleaning Network across the country, which has saved 1.2 million pounds of food waste to date. The website has both a toolkit, to help empower those who’d like to set up gleaning services in their communities, as well as, a map that shows organizations already doing it.

The USDA also has a toolkit to get started in US communities.


Composting is the act of recycling food waste and other organic waste into a valuable fertilizer that can help enrich soil and plants by providing a lot of nutrients. Enriched soil has a lot of environmental benefits, like capturing water to help mitigate droughts, recycling nutrients, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the United States, 20 states have composting facilities making it more available for communities to get rid of their extra food, with Ohio leading the efforts with more than 370 composting facilities, however, there is no state mandate to compost. Only a handful of states including California, Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island had state mandates for special treatment of organic waste. There are several progressive cities when it comes to composting as well. San Francisco was the first U.S. city to establish a citywide food composting program, and right now, the city composts and recycles about 80 percent of its waste. Portland composts 70%, while Boulder composts 50%. Seattle has been offering a weekly curbside pickup program and mandates that residents and businesses do not put food scraps, compostable paper, yard waste, and recyclables in their garbage.

For other programs across the country, environmental nonprofit Greenblue created interactive maps and charts other municipally-run and privately-run composting programs in urban environments across the US for better access.

Composting can also be done at home, or within community networks as well.

Food Waste and Culinary Solutions

In the film Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, late chef, and world traveler Anthony Bourdain says how he was taught to “use everything, waste nothing.”

Across the world, chefs and other culinary entrepreneurs are trying ways to solve food waste through innovative ideas with food.


Refettorio Ambrosiano

Chef phenom Massimo Bottura, who is the two-time winner of the best restaurant in the world (Osteria Francescana in Moderna Italy) opened Refettorio Abrosiano in 2015 at an abandoned theatre in Milan. With the menu changing daily, he serves Michelin-style meals made from food destined for the landfill and serves the dishes to 100 or so diners that are runaways, refugees, the homeless and the unemployed.


At this Michelin Green Star restaurant in Copenhagen, chef Matt Orlando experiments with food to turn waste products into fine-dining meals, some of which include ice cream made from leftover bread to coffee grounds- miso. He trains his staff to see food by-products not as waste, but valuable ingredients for new dishes.

Upcycled Foods

Toast Ale

Designated as “planet-saving craft beer,” this UK beer brand, which is also created by activist Tristram Stuart, is made from recycled bread (particularly the ends people leave from sliced loaves). All proceeds go to the nonprofit Feedback to fund future campaigns against food waste.


Co-founded by college roommates who realized how much grain is leftover by trying to brew their own beer, this company rescues and upcycles grain from breweries and repurposes using patented technology to create baking mixes, pastas, and snack bars.

Here is a list of other upcycled foods from Bon Appetit.

Policy and Other Changes

While in 2015, the EPA and the USDA announced their first food-waste reduction goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030, the onus has largely been left up to organisations and communities outside the government to take control of the issues. The USDA does provide fundings for some initiatives, however, as of now only six states– California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and Vermont–prohibit sending food waste to the landfill.

Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), ReFED, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), released “Opportunities to Reduce Food Waste in the 2023 Farm Bill,” which outlines 22 recommendations for Congress to implement in the next Farm Bill, but movement on that probably will not happen until later next year.

International Policy

Europe is progressing much farther on the policy front, with France which in 2016 made it illegal for retailers to throw away food, and incentivizes them to partner with NGOs to give food to those in need. The law comes with fines of up to 3,700 euros.

In 2016, Italy also put a law in place that allows businesses to escape sanctions for donating food past the sell-by date, as well as, allowing for tax incentives for the food donated.

South Korea is also at the forefront of mitigating waste. In 2013, the government made residents in Seoul pay for recycling depending on how much food waste they were creating. The policy was successful and then rolled out to other cities.


Across the UK, several supermarket retailers have gotten rid of the “best by” labeling on food to eliminate food waste. Manufacturers have used the label for decades to estimate freshness, but have nothing to do with safety, and may encourage consumers to throw away food that is edible.

In Norway, some retailers have changed their labeling to “best before, often good after,” while Denmark is creating the first climate labeling food system, so people are aware of their footprint. France is also in the process of changing their labeling to reduce food waste.

How to Cut Down on Food Waste in Our Everyday Lives

1. Take inventory of your fridge and pantry before you go shopping to make sure you prevent overbuying.

2. Create a meal plan so you can utilize ingredients appropriately.

3. Buy “ugly” foods of all shapes and sizes.

4. Properly store food in the fridge for maximum freshness.

5. For vegetables past their prime, repurpose them in soups, casseroles, frittatas and more.

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