Almost half of the food produced in the world for consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted. What is causing us to add an enormous amount of food waste to the land fill every year?

We could all benefit from making more informed decisions when it comes to food wastage. Of the food America wastes, around 40% of it is completely avoidable and that’s not counting the amount of time and money wasted on preparing all the unused food. 125-160 billion pounds of food are wasted every year, which is both nutritious and edible. Food can be wasted for many reasons, both good and bad: unpredictable weather conditions, problems in processing, poor production forecasting and fluctuations in the markets cause food loss before it even begins to make its way to your local grocery store. Then the excessive ordering, lack of planning and many other reasons can contribute to food waste. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that $218 billion of food is wasted in the U.S. each year. Unused food can be a waste of water and land. And studies show that the use of excess fertilizer used on produce is releasing harmful nitrogen-based nutrients into our soil. With food insecurity rates reaching a shocking 12% of all households in America, reducing waste by just 15% could provide enough sustenance for up to 25.2 million people annually.

What Is Wasted Food?

We can break wasted food down into two categories, food loss and waste. Food loss refers to food that gets spilled, spoilt, or otherwise discarded before it makes its way to being served as a finished product. You might think of food loss as something that occurs during the production or the distribution process, but it can also happen any time later in the chain. Food waste is a problem that refers to food that’s been up until the point of human consumption, but was discarded at some point. Even if it’s not expired or spoiled, it still didn’t get around to being consumed. Retail and customer waste happens more often than other stages in the food supply chain.

America‘s Food Waste Problem

In the US, it is estimated that up to 40% of the food supply is considered wasted food. While the world wastes 1.4 billion tons of food every year, the US alone wastes more that any other country: 40 million tons per year – 80 billion pounds in total. Meaning, Americans waste roughly 220 pounds per person. Food has become the single largest component taking up space inside US landfills, making up 22 percent of municipal solid waste(according to the EPA).

Identifying Where Food is Lost

Once we understand what food waste is, it‘s easier to identify it and see it in every point along the food chain. Identifying points in the food chain that are creating issues with food waste is the first step in learning how they can be fixed.

Farming’s Impact On Food Loss

The USDA estimates that about 30% of food in America is never eaten, either at the retail or consumer level.

Most people are aware of how much food they throw away in their home kitchen and in restaurants, but food loss also happens throughout the supply chain. USDA wants to understand food loss at the farm level and ERS research is integral to this process because ERS adjusts national forecasts for food supplies by taking into account nonedible parts of foods (bones, peels, etc.) and losses that occur on farm-to-fork.

One out of every 7 items of food produced on farms globally is never harvested, or lost. This estimate amounts to around 20 billion pounds lost per year. Food loss on farms can happen for a number of reasons. To become less reliant on unpredictable factors like weather and pests, farmers often plant more than they need. This also protects against price fluctuations where they may end up with a lot of unsold produce. It might seem like a challenge to try to sell products to people given the current chaotic market. There’s also a lot of discussions about food waste happening across the world. When you think about it, farmers are throwing out thousands of pounds of edible food everyday under these situations. If the cost of produce on the market is lower than the cost of transportation and labor, sometimes farmers will leave their crops un-harvested. When there is increased production from the farmers, or less demand for a product, dumping occurs. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers lost a major portion of their business due to restaurants being closed. Farmers are finding it difficult to make money via their crops. They can’t afford the additional cost of harvesting and processing food if there are no buyers. Cosmetic imperfections on produce are a huge factor in why food is wasted before and after harvesting. Consumers are less likely to buy produce that has weird cosmetic issues such as large spots or shapes. Poor food handling procedures can lead to people having no choice but to throw out perfectly good food.  Farmers these days are having labor shortages due to changing immigration laws. This has led them to leave food in the fields.

Food Loss on Fishing Boats

A study, published by Fish and Fisheries, compiles 60 years of data on industrial fishing practices. The data from the fleet suggests that they might be throwing back as much as 10% of the fish they catch, which is roughly 100 million tons per year. This might be because fishermen are targeting smaller fish, the fish are diseased, or they weren’t the right species. One example of how humans are being replaced in the fishing industry is with Russian trawlers that often collect roe from pollock and then discard the fish. While some fish species can survive being thrown back into the ocean, this process is fatal for most fish.

Produce Packing Houses Food Loss

Produce that meets the high cosmetic standards of the retailer or consumer, it will go to suppliers for processing, but even if they do accept the produce, there are instances where costs become too high to justify the cost of transportation. For small and midsize farmers, this can make is difficult to make any profit on their produce.

There is an estimated 125 to 160 billion pounds of food wasted every year. Most of which is edible and still nutritious.

Wasted Loss at Manufacturing Facilities

Manufacturing and processing facilities generate waste in the form of unwanted food. This happens while they are cutting off edible parts, such as skins, fat chunks, crusts and peels. There is about a third of this food waste recovered and used for other purposes, such as animal feed. Although more and more of the food being produced is being reused, about two billion pounds of food remain wasted during the processing or manufacturing stage.

Transportation and Distribution Vulnerabilities

Food transportation and distribution is an important aspect of the food industry. However, perishable foods can easily go bad during this process, which has consequences for both consumers and producers. Food can get spoiled, especially in developing nations where the absence of appropriate refrigeration and infrastructure is an issue. The level of food waste that comes from improper refrigeration is not significant in the United States. This can lead to produce going bad and becoming a large source of food waste.

Some major problems for businesses in this stage include the rejection of shipments containing perishable foods, which are wasted if there are no buyers within a short period of time. It is estimated that between 2% to 5% of food shipments are rejected by buyers. When they do hit the shelves, these goods often end up being wasted as they have a shorter shelf life. Often, rejected food shipments are donated to active and in-need charities. The numbers of these organizations are endless, yet some reject donations because they’re given too much.

Where is Food Wasted?

Food Waste in Retail Businesses

An estimated 80 billion pounds of food were wasted in US retail stores in 2020. This is particularly concerning, given that there are over 35 million Americans, including 10 million children, living with food insecurity. A lot of loss in retail operations comes from perishables such as baked goods, produce, meat, seafood and prepared meals. The USDA estimates that about 30% of food in American grocery stores is thrown away.

Retailers produce on average $1 retail profit for every $2 of fresh produce they throw away. Unfortunately, retail stores that waste valuable resources are often doing so because it benefits their bottom line. Some of the main reasons for food loss at retail stores include: oversized packages, expired sell-by-dates and damaged goods are just some of the issues we face in a typical supermarket. Bringing these to customers attention helps them make better choices for themselves and their families.

Food Waste in Restaurants

The US generates about 22-33 billion pounds of food waste every year (including schools, hotels, and hospitals). That’s 6 to 14 trillion calories that end up in a landfill instead of on someone’s plate. The good news is there are ways we can reduce our food waste and save money at the same time. There are a few things hindering the process of eliminating food waste in restaurants. These include overly generous portions, inflexibility on the parts of restaurant management and extensive menu choices. Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that, on average, leftovers make up 17% of the meal and 55% of those will be left at the restaurant. Portion sizes have increased significantly over the last 30 years, often by 2-8 times than USDA or FDA prescriptions.

Food availability can in part be prevented by steps taken at the kitchen level, such as proper food preparation and storage. Failure to follow procedures could lead to wastage. Buffets and all you can eat restaurants are particularly wasteful, any left over food can’t be repurposed or donated because of health code restrictions.

Food Waste in Households

Households are responsible for the largest portion of all food waste. According to ReFED, the average US household wastes 76 million pounds of food per year which adds up to about $1,500. About 40-50% of that is wasted at the consumer level. Including seafood waste you find 51-63% at that level. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average person in the US wastes 238 pounds of food per year, or 21% of what they buy. This can cost up to $1,800 per year. In terms of total mass, fresh fruits and vegetables account for the largest losses at the consumer level (19% of fruits and 22% of vegetables), followed by dairy (20%), meat (21%) and seafood (31%).

Major contributors to household food waste include:

  1. Food Spoilage — About two-thirds of food waste at home is due to people not using it before it spoils. Food spoilage at home can be increased by improper storage, lack of visibility in refrigerators, and partly used ingredients.

  2. Over-Preparing — About a third of food is wasted in the average household. This is because people are cooking or serving too much food, and we’ve grown accustomed to larger portions.

  3. Date Label Confusion — It’s estimated that up to 80% of Americans discard food because they can’t comprehend the meaning of date labels (e.g., “sell by,” “best if used by,” “expires by,” and so forth). Dates such as “sell by” and “use by” serve as suggestions from the manufacturer for peak quality, but are not federally regulated. Some research in the UK suggests that if people better understood and heeded date labels on food, they might be able to reduce 20% of household food waste.

  4. Overbuying — Retail stores often have deals that encourage people to find impulse and bulk items when shopping. The result is that some of these foods may not be eaten before they spoil, so be sure to plan appropriately.

  5. Poor Planning — The lack of meal plans or shopping lists means you’ll often estimate what and how much food to buy. Unplanned restaurant meals or food delivery can mean forgetting about the ingredients you have at home and expiring them before they’re used.

How does Food Waste Impact the Environment?

Out of all the food produced in America, only 5% is composted. This has caused uneaten food to be the largest component of municipal solid waste in landfills. When it breaks down, it forms methane – a greenhouse gas that is up to 86 times stronger than CO2. WRAP research revealed that if food waste were collected and disposed of, the net greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to removing one-fifth of all cars in the UK.

Another good reason that consumers should be concerned with food waste is how much energy it uses on average. A study from McKinsey found that the average household’s food wastage is responsible for eight times as much energy usage as the food loss from farms.

Aside from the time they save, food waste is also a major cause of water depletion and pollution. In the US alone, this category of garbage makes up more than 25% of all freshwater consumed. Considering how many resources are needed for food production, it is worth our while to make sure that the food we produce is not wasted.