Waste Not, Want Not: Reducing Food Waste

December 5, 2012


This past Sunday, I cleaned out my refrigerator of Thanksgiving leftovers. The cranberry and orange relish had fermented. The cheesecake had absorbed all of the odors of the fridge. The roasted vegetables looked like they had passed on to the vegetable garden in the sky. (Luckily, we had consumed the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes – favorites – almost immediately after Thanksgiving.)

Dana Gunder’s recent blog on NRDC’s Switchboard reminds me that the amount of food we prepare, eat, and end up throwing out is particularly ironic at Thanksgiving as the holiday celebrates that our predecessors, the English Puritans, had enough food to survive their first winter. Regardless of the holiday, food waste goes on throughout the year.

In August of this year, NRDC released an Issue Paper entitled “Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill.” NRDC estimate that food requires an amazing amount of precious resources: 10% total of the US energy budget, 50% of US land, 80% of all freshwater consumption in the US, and $165 billion worth per year. Yet we waste 40% of food throughout different stages of the food system – growing, harvest, processing, distribution, retail, food service, and household.

Several decades ago, yard waste was the largest type of trash in landfills. Local governments started curbside collection and composting areas, usually in public works yards, and reused in various plantings in parks and by public buildings. Similarly, paper made up a sizeable proportion of landfilled waste. As recycling became cost competitive with landfilling, more and more local governments started recycling programs; some states and municipalities have passed laws mandating recycling by households and businesses. Today, many municipalities, from large to small, have started single-stream recycling. Single stream greatly increases the amount of waste diverted from landfills as it eliminates sorting recyclable materials, makes it easier for the individual household.

Food waste is now the largest component of household waste and accounts for almost 25% of methane emissions. Maybe food is the next recyclable. Sustainable Jersey identified “re-using food waste” as one of its top 5 food actions for a municipality to take.

When DVRPC released its Food System Plan in early 2011, we included all different aspects of the food system – from farm to plate – but we missed a big part of the food system: waste. We probably overlooked waste at the time as the food system seemed enormous and complicated. Adding another component, of which we were not experts, seemed too daunting. Admittedly, we were short-sighted. As we continue to make connections between the foods we eat and human health, affordability, and environmental and social responsibility, waste is not only a challenge but also an opportunity to make changes throughout the larger system as well as at the individual or household level.


The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Food Recovery Challenge to work with the contributors of the largest volume of food waste – institutions, such as universities, hospitals, and special event venues. EPA does not refer to food as waste (or any type of waste as a waste). It’s a resource. EPA created the Food Recovery Hierarchy [see figure above] to rethink waste. The hierarchy states that the best way to prevent food waste is to reduce the amount first (source reduction). When food is overabundant and edible, donate food to emergency relief agencies. If food is no longer edible for people, use it to feed animals. Oils can be used for fuel in bio-diesel engines and food scraps can be composted in anaerobic digesters (industrial uses). Food can also be composted and create nutrient-rich soil. And the last resort is incineration or disposal.

EPA created a tool, WasteWise Re-Trac, to help different entities track their food waste and costs as well as report how much food they are diverting from landfills. Some registered participants in New Jersey include Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Givaudan Flavors (a food manufacturer), Gourmet Dining (a food services company that serves colleges), Readypac Produce (a food manufacturer), Rutgers University, ShopRite, and Whole Foods. The tool helps these participants reduce their costs by better managing their food purchases and avoiding landfill fees, and decrease their negative environmental impact.

Like healthy eating, reducing one’s own food waste seems like a lot of effort. And like healthy eating, it’s worth the extra effort. Developing personal habits to save food can help our own bottom lines and, on the global scale, reduce the need for increased food production to meet the needs of a larger population in the future. While EPA’s WasteWise Re-Trac tool helps businesses reduce food waste there are a growing number of options for the household.

Maybe the simplest (albeit time consuming) step is weekly menu planning with an eye to using the same ingredients in several meals. Another step is to eat leftovers as lunch. Ambitious household environmentalists are embracing composting and lots of backyard composting kits and bins are available. For those without backyards (like me), one can compost indoors with the help of worms. (I tried this, but I may not be the best ambassador. In the days before YouTube tutorials, my worms were unhappy in their man-made ecosystem and escaped, crawling all over my bathroom.)

One day, composting may be as easy as recycling. As Sustainable Jersey reported, Princeton Township is piloting a curbside composting program. San Francisco has created a mandatory curbside composting program and reduced garbage pick-ups as households are producing less waste. In Philadelphia, several private companies – namely Philly Compost and Bennett Compost – offer weekly compost pick-up for a modest monthly fee. And several companies, such as Organic Diversion, are growing to accommodate large-scale commercial composting.

For many, including me, Thanksgiving has become a holiday of abundance and December a month of indulgences. As 2012 comes to a close, and I start to think of the healthy habits I want to adopt, perhaps reducing my food waste will be at the top of my New Years Resolution list.

Alison Hastings of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and the Commission’s partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog on issues of food policy and regional food systems.

For the complete archive of food systems blog posts, please click here.