Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sealed Air Sponsored Series

The Problem with Food Waste

Food Waste Numbers Improve, Slowly

By Sarah Lozanova

The Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) shocked the nation in 2012 when it released its report, Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. How could we actually waste such a large amount of food, and have so little national awareness of the issue? Suddenly, we were all rummaging through our refrigerators to repurpose leftovers or make soups out of wilted vegetables.

According to the report, getting food "from farm to fork" consumes 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and claims 80 percent of its freshwater. While 1 in 6 Americans lack food security, we are disposing of the equivalent of $165 billion in wasted food. Sadly, this wasted food ends up in landfills, where it rots away and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Reversing this trend requires a triple-bottom-line solution, bringing together companies, consumers and the government.

Now, three years later, TriplePundit spoke with Dana Gunders, the author of the report and staff scientist in food and agriculture for the NRDC. What has changed in the last three years regarding food waste?

"In terms of it becoming a priority, there has been a lot of progress," she told us. "There is increased awareness of food waste. I think we have made a lot of progress in airing the issue and getting it out there and we have made an incremental bit of progress in the actual amount of food that we’re wasting."

Cultural shift

Many cultural factors are at play, causing food to end up in landfills. Americans waste 50 percent more food than we did in the 1970s. What has changed since then?

"In restaurants, portion sizes have grown a significant amount," Gunders explained. "Either we are eating that extra food, and that is an issue, or we are not and food is getting wasted."

We spend less of our income on food today than we did 30 years ago. Food is relatively cheap in America, and therefore undervalued. Throwing out food doesn't seem to take a large toll on household budgets, so it is widely done without a second thought.

It is also now common to load up on food at Costco and other warehouse stores, for convenience and bulk discounts. "We shop in bigger quantities than we used to," Gunders continued. "We have lots of big-volume stores, and I suspect that makes us waste more. We now have bigger refrigerators, cars and shopping carts – leading us to buy more food.

"Over the years, consumers have been conditioned to expect every food choice to be available in the grocery aisle at all times, so grocery chains are fully stocking every choice," added Janice Neitzel, principal of Sustainable Solutions Group. "This has led to food waste, as perishable meat, milk, eggs and produce expire quickly. But out-of-the-box thinking like donating food and composting can reduce food waste."

There is also a very high aesthetic standard in grocery stores for fruit and vegetables, and many pieces don't make the cut. It is common for perfectly edible produce to have little blemishes or deformities, but this imperfect produce rarely ends up on supermarket shelves. Farmer's markets offer an opportunity to reduce such waste, by selling irregular produce at a discount.

The Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign embraces the inconsistencies in produce that Mother Earth provides, working to shift our cultural view on the need for uniform produce. This organization seeks to cut back on the 26 percent of produce that never makes it to grocery shelves.

In an effort to close the gap between awareness and actions at home, Gunders wrote the "Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food." This book is packed with information on efficient storing techniques, smart purchasing tips and recipes.

Capturing business opportunities

Reducing waste and opening up new revenue streams can benefit the bottom line. Savvy companies can identify food waste in the supply chain and find opportunities to reduce costs.

For example, bent carrots can be cut into baby carrots, or stray grapes that fall off the vine can be packaged into single kid servings of grapes or added to a fruit salad. Restaurants can more efficiently store perishable foods and use waste management technology to assist in planning.

Government action

Shifting around market forces to encourage sustainable practices, however, can help slow down the food-to-landfill pipeline. Because companies typically do not pay the true cost of waste disposal, other market forces need to compensate to encourage sustainable practices. For example, most businesses don't pay for the carbon emissions generated from waste hauling -- or for the methane emissions from decomposing organic waste.

A few states have commercial food bans, with Massachusetts leading the nation. In 2014, it enacted a ban mandating 1,700 of the state's large commercial food waste generators to divert organic waste from landfills. Such legislation encourages corporate food donations, composting, re-purposing waste into animal feed and other creative solutions.

Improved tax incentives for donating food would help minimize food waste and increase food security for low-income Americans. Feeding America is calling for stronger tax incentives to boost food donations.

As Neitzel pointed out in her new white paper on sustainable sourcing for private brand owners, there are some market forces that encourage food donations that are already in effect. "While some private brand owners remain hesitant about sending their private brand to food banks because of liability or consumer concern issues, there is U.S. legislation offering brand owners liability protection in the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act," she wrote.

The Obama administration recently announced a goal to reduce food waste in the United States by 50 percent by 2030. "That is not a legislation, but it goes along with the social progress of the issue [by demonstrating increased awareness]," Gunders told 3p. "It indicates real progress on the issue, as the USDA and the EPA are examining what they can do with their influence to reduce food waste."

Image Credit: 1) Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture 2) Flickr/Alex Juel 

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova