Stopping Food Waste Before It Starts Is Key to Reaching Climate Goals | Civil Eats

Stopping Food Waste Before It Starts Is Key to Reaching Climate Goals

tray full of finished paper dinner plates at a local seafood shack

Brewers turn stale bread into beer. Chefs turn surplus restaurant food into meals for hungry families. A company raises $169 million to turn grocery store scraps into chicken feed. Efforts like these—which redirect existing waste from the landfill to other parts of the supply chain—have been the subject of many flashy headlines in recent years. But the U.S. needs to focus on preventing waste before it happens if it wants to significantly reduce its environmental impacts.

That’s the message the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hopes to urgently convey.

According to a report the agency released last month—the federal government’s first attempt to quantify the amount of food wasted in the U.S. as well as the emissions it creates—the problem is enormous. The researchers found that about 35 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted, and before it even gets to a landfill, that waste results in annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of 42 coal-fired power plants.

“That comparison number is really staggering,” said Nina Sevilla, a program advocate who works on food waste at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), especially because it does not include methane emissions that occur when wasted food decomposes in landfills.

A second report the agency expects to release this spring will tackle that part of the chain, analyzing the impact food has once it’s thrown out and the efficacy of disposal solutions such as composting and anaerobic digestion. But splitting the problem into two parts made sense “to emphasize prevention” in a space where food rescue and reuse gets much more attention, said Shannon Kenny, the senior adviser for food loss and waste in the Office of Research and Development at EPA and a lead author of the report.

And unlike other environmental issues that depend on the small proportion of the population involved in food production to make changes, the researchers found that this problem can be best tackled on a broad level at America’s dinner tables.

“[The report] really reinforced both what we believe about prevention being critical, and about households and restaurants being important places to focus,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED. “Where we have the opportunity to make design decisions to prevent waste, I think we should pursue them.” Those decisions could include reducing portion sizes in restaurants or standardizing sell-by dates so home cooks don’t throw out perfectly good foods.

The report comes at a critical time, as its insights on the most effective solutions will likely guide and inform various proposals now circulating as legislation and policy proposals within the EPA. In 2021, legislators introduced bills to reduce food waste in schools, standardize food date labels, and make food donation easier. Three provisions from an earlier bill called the Zero Food Waste Act are also currently included in the Build Back Better Act, which, if passed, would direct $200 million toward tackling food waste. And the recent White House plan to make federal government operations more sustainable directs federal agencies to reduce food waste by 50 percent.

Launching an Effective War on Waste

According to the report, the U.S. wastes about a third more food than the average high-income country, and its total waste has tripled since 1960. Today, we waste more than 1,000 calories per person per day, enough to feed more than 150 million people each year.

The EPA report divides the food system into four stages: primary production (which includes farming and harvesting), distribution and processing, retail, and consumption. And the research shows that while the primary production phase is responsible for the greatest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, consumers are responsible for the greatest proportion of waste. About half of the total food wasted happens during so-called consumption stage, in households and food service—and preventing that waste could eliminate emissions at every prior step in the chain.

“The more downstream you’re wasting food, the more greenhouse gas emissions have been emitted—by the time you’ve driven it around, you’ve packaged it in plastic, you’ve done all these things that now add to the impact of it,” explained Claudia Fabiano, a specialist on the Sustainable Management of Food Team in the Office of Land and Emergency Management at the EPA, who worked closely with Kenny on the report.

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Within the retail and consumption stages, Fabiano and Kenny found that reducing waste in retail spaces such as supermarkets and institutions such as schools and prisons would have minimal environmental benefits compared to focusing on homes and restaurants. “There just isn’t as much waste there to begin with, so targeting it isn’t going to get you the bang for the buck that targeting households and food service is,” Kenny said.

However, programs that teach students not to waste food in cafeterias, which the School Food Recovery Act would support, may influence how much those children and their families waste at home, Kenny said, and that could be part of a larger solution that experts say has already been shown to work: large-scale consumer education.

“We know that a national, coordinated [consumer education] campaign is needed,” Fabiano said, “[one that] isn’t just about telling people how to better plan or shop mindfully with a list or store their food properly so it lasts longer. This is also on retailers and manufacturers because there are a lot of things that are out of the consumers’ control that lead to them wasting food.”

Packaging design and bulk pricing, for example, can impact how much food an individual buys, regardless of their family size. If a store only sells milk by the half-gallon or prices it much better than a smaller quantity, a person who lives alone will likely end up dumping some down the drain. Packaging can also impact how quickly a food goes bad.

Still, there’s a lot that people can do at home, and the United Kingdom provides an important example. Between 2007 and 2018, the nation reduced its total edible food waste by a whopping 21 percent. In addition to other initiatives like the food industry-focused Courtauld Commitment, a lynchpin of its multifaceted plan has been a consumer education project called Love Food Hate Waste. The campaign provides resources, including an A to Z guide to food storage and a calculator families can use to figure out exactly how much to buy at the supermarket based on the number of portions needed.

Similar programs have been launched in the U.S., but on a smaller scale. For instance, the NRDC ran a national campaign called Save the Food in partnership with the Ad Council for several years, but it has been largely stagnant since 2019. NRDC’s Sevilla said the organization is now working with cities to launch more local initiatives, but she and others agreed that a nationally coordinated effort is still needed to really move the needle.

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Not only can educational campaigns teach real techniques for wasting less, but they can also raise awareness of how food waste contributes to climate change. Putting the issue front and center in the public imagination then has the potential to lead to the kind of larger cultural shift necessary to implement other solutions, Gunders said.

ReFED ranks food waste solutions according to their ability to reduce tons of waste, cut emissions, and save money, among other metrics. The group estimates a consumer education campaign could divert 1.7 million tons of waste, but changing portion sizes in restaurants would be even more effective, diverting 2.4 million. However, restaurants will likely only be willing to make those changes if consumers value being served an appropriate portion size as a means to reduce waste, she said.

“There’s a lot of waste on the business side that is created through trying to meet customer expectations,” she said. “By shifting culture around that, we start to give those businesses the social license to do things a little differently.” Restaurants could cut their food waste—and likely their operating costs—by making tweaks like serving healthy portion sizes or changing the way side dishes are offered if they knew customers were on board with those shifts.

ReFED also ranks standardizing date labels within its top five solutions that can “reshape consumer environments.” The idea is simple: Currently, food companies use different terms—such as “use by,” “best by,” and “sell by”—to indicate a range of conditions, from food simply being past optimal quality to real safety concerns. As a result, consumers are often confused by what those terms mean and end up throwing out food that is completely edible out of fear that it has gone bad.

“This is something that NRDC has been advocating for a while,” Sevilla said, noting that a law introduced in both the House and Senate in December would both simplify the system food manufacturers can use when putting dates on their products and fund efforts to educate consumers on what those new labels mean.

While legislators push those efforts forward, officials at the EPA will be working on the second report, which—by quantifying methane emissions from landfills and other impacts food waste has at the very end of the chain—will fill in the missing pieces to provide a full picture of America’s food waste problem. And while the government has done nowhere near enough to hit the 2030 goal of halving waste, the agency’s new attention to the issue could go a long way toward activating solutions, Gunders said.

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In the meantime, efforts that rescue existing food waste do have a role to play, but they shouldn’t continue to be the center of the action—even if they prove profitable. What’s important, she said, is to prioritize prevention and to make sure rescue and recycling efforts are designed only to tackle the waste that is inevitable after those strategies pay off, and to avoid potential unintended consequences where there’s no longer an incentive to reduce food waste because it’s needed to feed reuse systems like digesters.

But in the end, we’ll need both, because, “we are just nowhere close to a situation where we prevent ourselves out of having enough food to rescue,” said Gunders. “And there will always be banana peels, bones, pits, and spoiled food [to direct away from landfills].”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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