Organics: What is Food Waste?
Updated: Sep 19
Food waste is not just uneaten leftovers. Food waste is actually a much broader category of waste, and includes not only food from individual households that goes to waste, but also food left uneaten on farms, damaged in transit, and expired food on store shelves. This guide breaks down the different types of food waste, where they occur, and how to reduce food waste across the entire system.
Definition: Food waste is any food that is not used for its intended purpose, i.e. goes uneaten. There are many kinds of food waste, and every part of the food system creates waste.
Why does food waste matter?
Every year, up to 40% of the food grown and produced in the United States is wasted. In fact, food waste makes up the biggest type of waste in landfills—almost 25% of waste. There are many problems with putting food waste in the trash. Food that is grown but not consumed wastes valuable resources such as fertilizer, land, pesticides, energy, and water. Runoff of these inputs can cause pollution that harms people, plants, and animals.
In particular, putting food waste in landfills or incinerating it:
Generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change
Prevents critical nutrients from returning to the soil, making it more difficult to grow crops
Does nothing to help feed hungry people
Types of Food Waste
There are a number of categories within food waste. These categories may happen at only one stage of a food system or throughout multiple stages.
Food scraps include parts of food that are technically edible, but aren’t typically eaten. This type of food waste usually occurs during food preparation and cooking. Examples of food scraps include stems, peels, rinds, seeds, trimmings, cores, and more.
Wasted food is edible food that does not get eaten for some reason. This includes plate scraps, or what is scraped off of plates, food that goes bad before it can be eaten, or uneaten leftovers. Some examples of wasted food include spoiled milk, moldy bread, excess sauce on your plate, and leftovers left at a restaurant.
Food By-Products are kinds of food created during food processing or cooking. Some of this food may have edible uses, but other kinds do not. Examples of by-products include whey from cheese making, wheat bran, pasta water, and more.
Excess food is food that is grown or prepared that is still safe to eat and could be used to feed people. Examples of excess food include short dated food on store shelves, bakery products that don’t sell in a day, or extra soup prepared for a restaurant.
Food loss is when products on farms and agriculture go to waste before even making it to processing or retail. This can be due to weather problems like drought, pest infestations, logistical issues, and even crops that go unharvested due to not enough demand.
Where does Food Waste Happen?
Food waste occurs throughout the entire food system, including during production, processing, distribution, retail, and consumption. Combined, the US food system produces over 54 million tons of food waste every year.
Farms & Agriculture
Almost a third—27%—of food produced never even makes it off the farm. According to the USDA, there are a number of causes of food waste on farms. Fresh produce is most frequently wasted due to problems with ripeness or rot. Issues with demand and seasonality can also create challenges for farms. If too much produce is ready at the same time, lack of demand can drive prices too low to justify harvesting. Lack of labor to harvest crops also can create challenges. And finally, weather events or insect and disease outbreaks can damage large swaths of crops or livestock.
Transportation & Retail
Because the food system spans large areas, transporting food creates many waste challenges. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, 14% of food is wasted between harvest and retail. Improper storage of food during transport, distance traveled, and any delays in transporting can all lead to food going bad before it reaches processors and households. In addition to concerns about whether food is still edible, retailers may also reject entire truckloads of food if they lack space to display it, meaning that nearly 20% of food is wasted at the retail level. Because many consumers prefer to purchase items with the longest date, stores may also pull food from shelves before it even expires.
Processing & Manufacturing
An additional 7 percent of food is wasted during commercial processing and manufacturing. While some of this waste may be food trimmings or by-products, some of the waste may be due to issues with contamination, infectious disease, or quality-control. There are options to minimize the waste from processing, including using by-products to make animal feed or land application as fertilizer.
Restaurants & Commercial Establishments
Another common source of food waste is from retail and commercial food establishments, which generate just under 20% of food waste in the United States. Waste from the food service sector often comes in the form of food scraps and uneaten food, but some waste is due to challenges in estimating demand to prepare enough food in advance of peak demand times, meaning that excess food is sometimes discarded. Food rescue organizations that collect and serve excess prepared food are often one option to reduce this kind of food waste.
Households & Individuals
Although the other sectors create more combined waste, households and individuals are the largest single source of food waste generation—almost 40% of all food waste in the United States. In fact, the average household throws away 220 pounds of food each year, wasting roughly $1500 in the process. By reducing their food waste, individuals and households can have a real impact on total food waste in the United States.
What You Can Do
There are many ways to reduce food waste at the individual level and beyond. By planning out meals in advance and making sure to use short-dated food before it expires, you can limit the wasted food in your household. Composting food scraps and inedible food can prevent critical soil nutrients from being wasted. You also have purchase power—buying local, seasonal produce can help cut down waste at the farm and retail stages of the food system. And supporting restaurants and businesses that have established food waste reduction practices can also help reduce food waste. For more tips on how to reduce food waste, visit our Reduce/Reuse page or follow us on Instagram.
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