Food waste in America has skyrocketed in recent years, with 40.7 million tons (81.4 billion pounds) of food waste generated in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the equivalent of over 180,000 Statue of Liberties.
This is a shocking statistic which unfortunately becomes less surprising the more you learn about the growing problem of food waste in America.
Globally, we waste a third of all food produced for human consumption, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN). In the United States, that equates to approximately one pound of food wasted per person per day. If we keep this up, reports estimate that in ten years, we’ll waste the equivalent of 66 tons of food per second across the globe.
What is Food Waste?
Before we go any further, here’s a quick primer on the basics of food waste:
Rubicon’s mission is to end waste, in all of its forms. In this article, we’re going to look at the issues surrounding food waste in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world. We’re going to look at what causes food waste at every level of the food supply chain; and how to reduce it. And we’re going to uncover the most interesting food waste statistics out there.
Keep reading to learn more about food waste in America.
How Much Food is Wasted in America?
Each day in the United States approximately one pound of food per person is wasted. This equates to 40.7 million tons (81.4 billion pounds) of food waste generated in America in 2017, or between 30-40 percent of the food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
How much food is wasted in the U.S. can be seen directly through its monetary losses. The annual food waste in America has an approximate value of $161 billion, while the average American family of four throws out $1,500 in wasted food per year.
As it stands, the U.S. is the worldwide leader in food waste generation, with the majority of wasted food being sent to landfills. In fact, food waste is the number one material in American landfills, accounting for 21.9 percent of all municipal solid waste (MSW) according to the EPA.
How did we get here? Knowing how much food is wasted in America each year is only the first step toward tackling a problem that is bigger than the simple monetary loss. The reality of food waste in America is that we live in a country in which more than 54 million people are food insecure (18 million of which are children) according to 2020 data collected by Feeding America. These numbers are up from 37 million and 11 million, respectively, in 2019, with the sharp rise in food insecurity due to the effects of the COVID-19 public health emergency and the subsequent economic downturn. (For more food waste statistics, scroll down to the “Food Waste Facts and Statistics” section below.)
What Causes Food Waste in America?
The causes of food waste in America go far beyond just tossing our leftovers in the trash, and they are crucial to understand in order to reduce our nation’s collective food waste going forward.
From production and supply, to our tendency to overpurchase, to the unrealistic aesthetic standards we have come to expect from our fruits and vegetables, these are the three main causes of food waste in America:
Production and Supply Chain
Food wastage occurs at every step of the supply chain, with different types of foods being more or less likely to be lost at each step.
According to data from the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand that was collected by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 20 percent of fruit and vegetables are lost during production, 12 percent are lost at the distribution and retail level, and a further 28 percent are lost at the consumer level. Seafood faces a similar fate, with 11 percent lost during production, 5 percent lost during processing and packaging, 9.5 percent lost at the distribution and retail level, and a further 33 percent lost at the consumer level. (For more on the specifics of food loss, this paper from Dana Gunders is a must-read.)
Unrealistic Aesthetic Standards
When you’re in the produce aisle at your local supermarket, do you ever put back carrots, potatoes, zucchinis, or any other fruit or vegetable because it doesn’t look as straight, slender, round, or otherwise how we have been conditioned to believe this item should look?
Food waste in America is exacerbated by unrealistic aesthetic standards for our produce. You’re not alone in not picking up that misshapen carrot in the produce aisle. Grocery stores have learned over time that consumers don’t tend to purchase misshapen produce. As a result, many stores stop accepting them from their suppliers. Thankfully there are outlets for misshapen produce; restaurants don’t care what their carrots look like so long as they can turn them into delicious dishes on the plate, and start-ups such as Imperfect Foods, Misfits Market, and Hungry Harvest make it easy for consumers to receive “ugly produce” right to their door.
Portion Sizes and Overpurchasing
While not the most dramatic cause of food wastage, increased portion sizes in schools, restaurants, and the home leads to overpurchasing. Subsequently, more food is thrown out because it’s gone bad.
Restaurants want to have enough food to serve their customers, so they overbuy and throw out what goes bad. At the consumer level, however, you have the power to ensure you purchase only what you need, you serve portion sizes that work for you and your family, and you don’t throw out food too early.
What are the Effects of Food Waste?
While the negative effects of food waste in America are numerous, this article will focus on the three largest.
The environmental impact of food waste in America cannot be undersold. As food rots in a landfill, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more potent than the carbon that comes out of passenger vehicles.
Landfills are the third-largest industrial emitter of methane, with food waste alone representing 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While it is possible to offset the harm of these emissions through organics recycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion, the best way to reduce these emissions is to waste less food in the first place.
Food Insecurity and Global Hunger
While mentioned above, it bears repeating here. We live in a country in which more than 54 million people are food insecure (18 million of which are children) according to 2020 data collected by Feeding America, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. These numbers are up from 37 million and 11 million, respectively, in 2019, due to COVID-19.
The fact that we as a country are wasting 30-40 percent of the food supply each year when more than 54 million Americans are food insecure is unconscionable.
Wasted Natural Resources
While rotting food in our country’s landfills causes harm to our environment after it is wasted, allowing perfectly good food to go to waste is also wasteful of the natural resources that helped this food come to fruition in the first place.
When we waste food, we waste the water, energy, and physical labor it took to produce, package, and ship this food. We waste the fuel that was used to transport this food from one part of the country to another. When we waste food, it’s not just the food itself that is being wasted.
How to Reduce Food Waste in America
Reducing food waste in America is going to take some time. Highlighting food waste statistics and facts, such as those below, is a good way to help get the word out about this ever-growing problem, but our work can’t stop there.
As we just learned, there’s more to food waste than what we do and don’t eat. We’re wasting $161 billion annually (with the average American family of four throwing out $1,500 in wasted food per year) while depleting our natural resources, harming our environment, and wasting food that the more than 54 million food insecure people in the United States could benefit from.
Here are some ideas for what you can do to reduce food waste in America:
- Put together a detailed shopping list before you go to the grocery store by planning your meals in advance—and avoid impulse purchases.
- Take leftover containers to restaurants. While some don’t provide takeout containers, they would be hard-pressed to stop you from using your own.
- Recognize that while your eyes may be bigger than your stomach, your plate doesn’t have to be. Using smaller plates can help you to properly portion your food.
- Don’t be afraid of an emptier fridge. When you can’t see the food you have purchased, you’re more likely to forget about it and let it rot.
- Keep track of the food you’re throwing away the most to cut down on trends. Add a dollar sign value so you can see the impact it has on your budget.
- Expiration dates are misleading and nonstandardized, leading many to toss out perfectly good food. Trust your sense of smell, and your gut, before throwing items away.
- Read the EPA’s “Too Good to Waste” implementation guide and toolkit to reduce wasteful food management practices.
The Food Recovery Hierarchy
When we talk about reducing food waste in America we would be remiss to not mention the Food Recovery Hierarchy.
Developed by the EPA, the Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions businesses and individuals alike can take to prevent and divert wasted food. As you can see, source reduction, or simply purchasing less food in the first place, is number one. This is followed by food donations to those in need, sending food scraps to animal feed, then industrial uses including anaerobic digestion and ethanol facilities, before moving on to composting.
Hopefully, food waste is never landfilled because it has so many beneficial uses.
Food Waste Facts and Statistics
The following food waste facts and statistics tell the story of food waste in America.
As I noted earlier on in this article, reading food waste statistics that tell us just how much food is wasted in America on an annual basis is a good way to help get the word out about the problem of food wastage in this country—but we must go further to reduce food waste at every level of the food supply chain.
If you are a restaurant owner looking to implement food waste reduction programs, or you’re a business owner looking to run a more sustainable business, reach out to Rubicon’s Sustainability team at email@example.com and we will be happy to help.
Without further ado, here are 20 of the most interesting food waste facts and statistics:
- 40.7 million tons (81.4 billion pounds) of food waste was generated in the United States in 2017, the equivalent of over 180,000 Statue of Liberties.
- An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year, one third of all food produced for human consumption.
- In ten years, the United States will waste the equivalent of 66 tons of food per second across the globe.
- If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world after the United States and China.
- The United States wastes 30-40 percent of its food supply each year.
- The annual food waste in America has an approximate value of $161 billion.
- The average American family of four throws out $1,500 in food per year.
- Food waste is the number one material in America’s landfills, accounting for 21.9 percent of all municipal solid waste (MSW).
- More than 54 million people are food insecure (18 million of which are children) according to 2020 data, accounting for one in six people. These numbers are up from 37 million and 11 million, respectively, in 2019, due to COVID-19.
- Approximately 38 percent of grain products are lost, 50 percent of seafood, 52 percent of fruits and vegetables, 22 percent of meat, and 20 percent of milk.
- As food rots in a landfill, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more potent than the carbon that comes out of passenger vehicles.
- Food waste represents 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Only 6.3 percent of food waste in America was composted in 2017.
- The healthier you eat, the more important it is that you stay on top of your consumption. If you buy perishable food in bulk, such as fruits, vegetables, and meat, organize your refrigerator so what you need to eat first is up front and visible.
- Americans discard approximately 35 percent (204 million pounds) of edible turkey meat each year, the majority after the Thanksgiving holiday.
- Food is often safe to eat even after it “expires.” Expiration dates are misleading and nonstandardized, leading many to toss out perfectly good food.
- Global preferences for a western diet consisting of a high intake of carbohydrates, sugar, and sodium are major contributors to environmental burdens such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
- Shrink wrapping produce helps to reduce food waste by increasing its shelf life. But remember to recycle the shrink wrap and other plastic bags, wraps, and film that are clean and dry.
- Lack of awareness of basic nutrition adds to food waste among consumers. While many people believe it’s better to buy fresh food, in reality, frozen food products often retain more nutrients while lasting longer.
- The size of your refrigerator can impact the amount of food you waste. You’re more likely to forget about food you have, improperly store your food, and buy more than you can eat before it goes bad.
To learn more about Rubicon’s work transforming the entire category of waste and recycling, be sure to download our inaugural Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Report.
If you have any questions about food waste in America, or any of the food waste facts and statistics on this page, you can reach out to Rubicon’s Sustainability team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact our sales team at (844) 479-1507.
Ryan Cooper is a Waste Diversion Manager and the Organics Recycling Lead at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.
Sources: 1, 7, 8, 11, 13, 20) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); 2, 12) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); 3, 19) Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Henderson Institute; 4) World Resources Institute; 5, 10) Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC); 6) U.S. Food and Drugs Administration; 9) Feeding America; 14) Municipal Waste Association; 15) Waste Dive; 16) Reuters; 17) United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); 18) Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News.