Why the U.S. is struggling to meet food waste goals

March 18, 2024

4 minutes, 30 seconds read

Why the U.S. is struggling to meet food waste goals

Food waste has been recognized as a contributor to climate change for more than a decade. For this reason, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a joint goal to cut food waste in the U.S. by 50% from 2015 to 2030. Each organization measures progress by a different baseline. 

  • The EPA currently uses a 2016 baseline of 328 pounds of food waste per person sent for disposal. EPA’s 2030 goal is to reduce food waste going to landfills by 50% to 164 pounds per person. This goal was updated from a 2010 baseline of 219 pounds of food waste per person sent for disposal in order to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3. 
  • The USDA uses 2010 data for food loss and waste at the retail and consumer levels, which it measures at 31% of the food supply or 133 billion pounds.

By either metric progress has been poor. In fact, some datasets indicate the amount of food waste produced in the U.S. has increased since 2010. To drive progress demands that entities first uncover barriers to progress and then set a new course for success.  

The scale of the food waste problem

Data from ReFED, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending food loss and waste through the use of data-driven solutions, indicates that food waste has steadily accounted for 38% to 39% of all food produced in the U.S. for nearly a decade. The ReFED says this is equivalent to approximately $444 billion in wasted food. 

Surplus Food Production in the U.S. 

YearMillion tons of surplus food generatedPercent of total food production

Source: ReFED Insights Engine

EPA data paints a starker picture. While the agency’s baseline has changed over time, its data indicates an increase in the amount of food waste people are sending to landfills. 

Pounds of Food Waste Per Person in U.S. 

YearPounds of food waste per person sent for disposal

Source: EPA

The EPA, USDA, and other organizations tracking food waste have broken the problem down by source to better understand barriers. EPA data attributes 40% of food waste to residential households, with the greater 60% of food waste generated by larger food-producing organizations, including foodservice companies, retail organizations, hospitality, and higher-education institutions. A diverse range of solutions is needed to address the needs and concerns of consumers and organizations.

Landfill Data by State

Source: EPA

Why are food waste targets on track to fail? 

To drive urgency around reducing food waste, many localities have begun to implement requirements to compost or otherwise decrease the amount of waste sent to landfills. However, in a survey of household food waste directed by the MITRE Independent Research and Development Program and Gallup, the states with the highest average levels of household food waste (Arkansas, Maryland, and Illinois) and lowest average levels of household food waste (Wyoming, Idaho, and Maine) had few differences in food policy. In fact, Maryland, one of the highest states with the largest amount of food waste, is the only one of these six states to have a food waste law in place.

So, if legislation requiring environmentally responsible organic waste disposal is not enough, what will it take to drive progress? According to ReFED, the number one need to drive progress is greater consumer education. The organization views uncertainty about where food waste occurs, how much food is truly wasted, and the value associated with this waste as the single largest barrier to progress. 

A December 2023 Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics, released by EPA, identifies additional needs. While the draft also prioritizes consumer education, it also encourages development of infrastructure to support organic waste recycling. It further encourages exploration of technology-based solutions to reduce food loss and waste throughout the supply chain and among retailers, manufacturers, and food service providers. 

Fortunately, this multi-pronged approach of investing in infrastructure to manage organic waste, applying technology, and securing data that can be used to enhance education is something that any organization can try today. 

Use data to drive improvements in your food waste goals

Not every organization has access to community infrastructure for disposing of organic waste and on-site composting won’t be feasible for every organization. However, food-producing organizations of any size can reap multiple benefits from investing in an on-site biodigester. 

Biodigesters use natural organisms to break down organic waste in an oxygen-rich process. This sealed equipment can be installed directly in food-producing areas to minimize the labor and change management required by other waste disposal activities. Moreover, units like the LFC biodigesters have a low overall cost of ownership. As a result, organizations can quickly transform their organic waste disposal activities from a cost center into something that adds value to the bottom line. One significant way of adding value is to leverage the data gleaned from a biodigester to educate staff and consumers about waste. Data can be used to identify trends and drive changes in procurement, recipe choices, and serving sizes.  

This data can also be used to help raise awareness among consumers. When organizations publicly share progress on their food waste reduction journey, they shine a light on this issue – and win repeat business from consumers similarly committed to sustainability. 

To discover more of the advantages available to organization through an LFC biodigesters, contact Power Knot today.