partially eaten apple covered in ants

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

Week 37

We've been making low-waste kitchen swaps for a few weeks, but now it's time to start taking a look at how much food waste we produce.

When I started my Tiny Waste Resolution, my primary concern was eliminating the need for single use products that take centuries to break down. As the months passed, however, I discovered that my waste contribution expands far beyond landfill-bound plastics. Some things, like paper and food, actually break down relatively quickly and at the beginning of the year, I assumed it was completely acceptable to toss a half eaten apple or uneaten leftovers in the garbage. Unfortunately, food disposal still includes a waste of resources and when sent to a landfill, it produces environmentally harmful methane emissions. Time to nip that in the bud!

How much food do we actually waste?

Sadly, America wastes about 40% of its food. The EPA estimates that in 2018, we generated 63.1 million tons of food waste, with roughly 68% of that ending up in landfills. Yes, some food waste comes from every level of the supply chain, including farms, manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants. However, households are responsible for a staggering 43% of all food waste. The average American household generates 338 lbs of food waste every year, making up 17% of total household waste. Or you can think of it this way, the average family of four throws away nearly $2000 worth of food every year.

Why is food waste a problem?

This report from NRDC highlights how food waste negatively impacts our environment. For starters, wasting food means wasting the resources it took to produce the food, most notably, water. In fact, 21-33% of U.S. agricultural water use goes towards food that will ultimately be thrown away. Of course, water requirements vary between food products. For example, throwing out one egg wastes as much water as an 11 minute shower, while tossing a pound of beef wastes the equivilent of a six hour shower.

On top of that, food waste in the U.S. is responsible for 2.6 percent of al U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That may not seem like much, but it is equivilent to the emissions of more that 37 million passenger vehicles. These emissions are contributed by every part of the supply chain, from production, to delivery, to disposal. The 68% of food waste that ends up in landfills, is particularly concerning. As the NRDC reports, "As food scraps in landfills decompose, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas up to 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential. Food waste is responsible for a minimum of 11 percent of all landfill-generated methane emissions in the United States"

How can I reduce my food waste?

Major contributors to food waste include: food spoilage, over-preparing, date label confusion, overbuying, and poor planning. Read my next post for 15 helpful tips to reduce food waste.

15 Ways to Reduce Food Waste →