Food waste: Statistics that make you rethink your relationship with food

October 13, 2020 Updated: January 24, 2024

By guest blogger, Shannon Bergstrom

Food waste is the largest single component of municipal solid waste in the U.S., and arguably, it is also the easiest type of waste to prevent. The scale of our waste is mind blowing, with 80 billion pounds discarded each year, to put that into context, that about 30-40% of the entire food supply. 

However, there are plenty of other shocking statistics that tell the story of food waste in the U.S. Here, we look at some of those stats and how they can help us reduce waste at all stages of the supply chain. 

Food waste in the USA is among the highest in the world 

Food waste is most prevalent in developed countries and topping the charts on almost any metric you care to mention is the USA. In 2011, it was estimated that around 1,572 calories per day, per person was wasted, which when you consider the average pre-adolescent child requires around 1000-2000 calories per day, is a substantial amount of waste. However, by 2017, the problem had grown further, with 40.7 million tons wasted per year, making it the largest single component of municipal solid waste generation at 15.2 percent. 

Consumers waste the most food

While waste occurs at all stages of the production-distribution-consumption chain, it is consumers that waste the most. ReFED estimates total consumer waste to be 43%, with consumer-facing business not far behind at around 40%. This amounts to a staggering financial loss of $144 billion in homes across the U.S., with consumer-facing businesses losing around $57 billion. 

Fruits and vegetables are the most common waste (and the most preventable)

The most commonly wasted food products are fruits and vegetables, with dairy products and bread and bakery products close behind. Naturally, this makes some sense since these perishable items are the first to go bad, however, with proper planning and more resourceful food preparation techniques, these products are also the most preventable waste streams in our kitchens and restaurants. They are also among the most easily composted. 

218 billion dollars is lost each year

While you may consider the consumer losses we previously mentioned as staggering, the total financial cost to the U.S. amounts to a jaw-dropping 218 billion dollars. That’s more than the entire GDP of countries such as Ethiopia or New Zealand – in fact, it’s more than the entire GDP of Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Nicaragua combined. 

Only 27 million tons is composted (and most of that was yard trimmings)

Composting, or recycling for organics, is way less common than you might think. This may be particularly surprising since organics are the easiest waste item to recycle, relying entirely on natural processes to break down food waste safely and turn it into compost. However, only 27 million tons was recycled in 2017, and of this, more than 24 million tons was yard trimmings, with less than 3 million tons of food waste composted. 

Beef is particularly wasteful and resource intensive

Any type of beef product that is wasted not only contributes to the release of methane and CO2 when food waste rots in landfill, but it is also the most resource intensive food product that we produce. Whether you’re a believer in a mainly plant-based diet or not, the fact that livestock emissions account for about one fifth of all global greenhouse emissions, and that beef is around 10 times more resource intensive than poultry, dairy, eggs or pork, you begin to get some idea of the scale of the problem with America’s favorite meat. 

7% of global greenhouse emissions is attributed to food waste

Food waste is thought to account for around 7% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, and the methane, carbon dioxide, and chlorofluorocarbons that are generated when food waste goes to landfill have a significant environmental impact. To put this into context, food production accounts for 26% of greenhouse emissions, so when we add those figures together, the food we need to survive generates more harmful byproducts than both the transport sector and the energy we use in constructing and operating the buildings we inhabit. 

Perhaps the most concerning factor when considering the impact of food waste, is that it is largely preventable. In fact, by increasing composting facilities (both at home and within municipalities) we could reduce waste in landfills, and the emissions associated with it, by a significant amount. This, combined with more conscientious purchasing, preparation, storage, and of course, cooking, by consumers and businesses could reduce food waste by around 80%, mitigating many of the ill-effects associated with it. 

Today, fighting food waste should be as much a priority as banning single-use plastics, and both businesses and consumers should inform themselves on how to minimize their impact when it comes to organic waste. For more information on how to do this, contact your municipality or visit the EPA website.

Author Bio 

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.

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