How much food waste is there in the United States?
In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. This estimate, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. Reducing this loss and waste could generate a number of benefits to society:
- Wholesome food that is currently wasted could help feed families in need.
- Land, water, labor, energy and other inputs that are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food could be conserved to protect the environment.
- Greenhouse gases generated from food rotting in landfills could be reduced to help mitigate climate change.
What causes food loss and waste?
Food loss occurs for many reasons, with some types of loss—such as spoilage—occurring at every stage of the production and supply chain. Between the farm gate and retail stages, food loss can arise from problems during drying, milling, transporting, or processing that expose food to damage by insects, rodents, birds, molds, and bacteria. At the retail level, equipment malfunction (such as faulty cold storage), over-ordering, and culling of blemished produce can result in food loss. Consumers also contribute to food loss when they buy or cook more than they need and choose to throw out the extras (See Buzby et al (2014)).
Does the U.S. have a goal to reduce food loss and waste?
In 2015, the USDA joined with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a goal for the nation to cut its food loss and waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.
What baseline estimates of food loss and waste will be used to measure progress in reaching the 50 percent reduction goal?
To measure and describe progress against the goal, the following two different, but equally important, baselines were chosen for the 2030 Food Loss and Waste (FLW) reduction goal:
- For food waste in the United States, EPA’s “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures” provides an estimate of the amount of food going to landfills and combustion with energy recovery from residences, commercial establishments (e.g. grocery stores and restaurants), and institutional sources (e.g. school cafeterias). Pre-consumer food generated during the manufacturing and packaging of food products is not included in EPA's food waste estimates. Using the available data, 2010 was selected as a baseline at 218.9 pounds of food waste per person sent to landfills and combustion with energy recovery. The 2030 FLW reduction goal aims to reduce food waste going to landfills and combustion with energy recovery by 50 percent to 109.4 pounds per person.
- For food loss in the United States, USDA’s Economic Research Service has estimated the amount of available food supply that went uneaten at the retail and consumer levels. In the baseline year of 2010, food loss was 31 percent of the food supply, equaling 133 billion pounds and an estimated value of $161.6 billion. The 2030 FLW reduction goal aims to cut food loss at the retail and consumer level in half, by approximately 66 billion pounds.
Neither estimate provides a comprehensive evaluation of food loss and waste in the United States. However, reductions in both these estimates will provide evidence of progress in reducing food loss and waste and the serious environmental impacts associated with landfilling food. A variety of other data collection efforts across the country will help provide information on other segments of the supply chain.
How is food loss and waste defined in the context of the U.S. reduction goal?
USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) defines food loss as the edible amount of food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason. It includes cooking loss and natural shrinkage (for example, moisture loss); loss from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; and food waste. For the reduction goal, USDA is adopting the convention of using the general term “food loss and waste” to describe reductions in edible food mass anywhere along the food chain. In some of the statistics and activities surrounding recycling, the term “waste” is stretched to include non-edible (by humans) parts of food such as banana peels, bones, and egg shells.
What are some ways to reduce food loss and waste?
The best approach to reducing food loss and waste is not to create it in the first place. Waste can be avoided by improving product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling, and cooking methods. If excess food is unavoidable, recover it to donate to hunger-relief organizations so that they can feed people in need. Inedible food can be recycled into other products such as animal feed, compost and worm castings, bioenergy, bioplastics and clothing.
USDA and EPA created the food recovery hierarchy to show the most effective ways to address food waste.
For more on the hierarchy, visit EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy website.
Did USDA retire the U.S. Food Waste Challenge?
USDA and EPA are pleased to announce that due to growing interest in food waste reduction in the United States, we are retiring the U.S. Food Waste Challenge and urging Challenge members and prospective members to become U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions by making the commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their U.S. operations by 50 percent by 2030. While K-12 schools are not eligible for the Champions program, USDA offers many educational resources related to reducing food loss and waste in schools, and we encourage schools to continue to educate children on the value of reducing food waste.
What is the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions program?
Launched by USDA and EPA in 2016, U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions are businesses and organizations that have made a public commitment to reduce food loss and waste in their own operations in the United States by 50 percent by the year 2030. Note: The U.S. Food Waste Challenge group has been retired. Companies and organizations that had joined the Food Waste Challenge are encouraged to become U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions.
How does a company become a U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champion?
To join the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions, organizations complete and submit the 2030 Champions form (PDF, 333 KB), in which they commit to reduce food loss and waste in their own operations and periodically report their progress on their website.
Does USDA or EPA verify the Champions’ food loss and waste reduction estimates?
The exact definition of food loss and waste could vary by country, business and consumer. U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions are encouraged to consult the Food Loss and Waste Protocol for information on defining and transparently measuring food loss and waste. It is at the Champion’s discretion whether to calculate the 50 percent reduction on an absolute or per customer/consumer basis.
Dr. Jean Buzby
USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison