The Facts About Food Waste
How much food is wasted in America?
Just how much food do Americans waste? Here’s some “food” for thought: While the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food2 every year, the United States discards more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons — 80 billion pounds — every year.3 That’s estimated to be 30-40 percent of the entire US food supply,4 and equates to 219 pounds of waste per person.5 That’s like every person in America throwing more than 650 averagesized apples right into the garbage — or rather right into landfills, as most discarded food ends up there. In fact, food is the single largest component taking up space inside US landfills,6 making up 22 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW).7
Globally, we waste about 1.4 billion tons of food every year.15
Why do we waste so much food?
Before COVID-19, it was estimated 35 million people across America — including 10 million children — suffered from food insecurity.8 That number is expected to increase to as much as 50 million people9 in 2021 due to the employment drop and financial fallout from the pandemic. With so many people suffering who need basic amounts of food, why do Americans waste so much of their food abundance? Getting to the bottom of what causes food waste in America is a challenge that traverses the complex landscapes of socioeconomic disparities, confusion, and ingrained beliefs, layered with human behaviors and habits. Food spoilage, whether real or perceived, is one of the biggest reasons people throw out food. More than 80 percent10 of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because they misunderstand expiration labels. Labels like “sell by”, “use by”, “expires on”, “best before” or “best by” are confusing to people — and in an effort to not risk the potential of a foodborne illness, they’ll toss it in the garbage.
More than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good food because they misunderstand expiration labels.19
Compared to the rest of the world, food in the United States is plentiful and less costly, and often this contributes to a general sentiment of not appreciating or valuing it the way other communities around the globe do.
Americans are often impulsive in their food purchases, unrealistically assessing how much food is required, and as a result buying more food than they need or buying food they won’t actually eat.
Our take-out society doesn’t use food in its entirety the way our ancestors used to. We underutilize leftovers and toss food scraps that can still be consumed or composted.
Composting isn’t part of our food-prep routine, so we continue to add fuel to the fire in increasing the sheer size of US landfills.
Americans discard more food than any other country, nearly 40 million tons — or 30-40 percent of the entire US food supply.16
Changing the laws to curb so much waste
The good news is that several states across the country are taking action to curb food waste and gain food recovery. Legislators in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have passed laws11 that restrict the amount of food waste going to landfills. Vermont’s “Universal Recycling Law” went into effect in July 2020, banning food scrap waste entirely. According to the Vermont Foodbank, as a result of the new law, food donations statewide have increased 40 percent.
There is pending legislation in California, Colorado and Massachusetts that would establish programs to fund private-sector composting and organic collection programs.8 In addition, several states like Tennessee and Washington, and cities like Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin, have created food waste task forces to reduce waste, creating composting education and infrastructure and eliminating food waste from US landfills.