How Does Food Waste Really Impact the Environment?

Deforestation, water consumption, and methane emissions are just the beginning.

Overhead shot of food waste decomposing

Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Getty Images

The U.S. alone wastes 133 billion pounds of food every year. That's $161 billion worth, or 31% of the entire food supply and a quarter of all municipal solid waste. Meanwhile, 38 million Americans are food insecure.

Food waste is not only a missed opportunity for millions of hungry people; it's also a massive climate problem. Thirty-one percent of food wasted means 31% of the energy, water, and materials used to grow, harvest, package, distribute, and store it is also used in vain. The result is the weight equivalent of 5.5 million school buses worth of discarded nourishment, left to fester in landfills where it will emit catastrophic amounts of greenhouse gases.

Here's an overview of where food waste comes from, how it impacts the planet, and what you can do to help out at home.

Sources of Food Waste

Farm workers throwing old cabbage into truck bed

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency evaluates food waste from five generating sectors: institutional, commercial, industrial, residential, and food banks.

Institutional waste is what comes from offices, hospitals, nursing homes, jails and prisons, and universities. Commercial waste comes from supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, and other food sellers. Industrial waste is generated through food and beverage manufacturing and processing. And residential waste is what's produced at home.

The EPA does not evaluate agricultural-level food waste—that is, the food that's left in the field "because of low crop prices or too many of the same crops being available"—which Feeding America notes is also a big problem.

The industrial sector—i.e., food manufacturing and processing—is the largest waste generator of all, accounting for 39%. Roughly 30% is commercial, 24% residential, and 7% institutional.

The waste from food banks is minuscule, according to the EPA's 2018 Wasted Food Report. Of the waste classed as commercial, 55% is from restaurants and 28% from supermarkets.

Where Does Wasted Food Go?

Not all wasted food is sent to landfills and incinerators. Here's how that waste is distributed, according to the EPA's 2018 report.

  • 36% goes to landfills
  • 21% becomes animal feed
  • 10% is turned into biogas and biosolids through anaerobic digestion
  • 9% returns to the soil through land application
  • 8% is incinerated
  • 7% is donated
  • 4% is used to power wastewater and sewer treatment plants
  • 3% is composted
  • 2% is used for biochemical processing

Water Usage

Overhead view of irrigation system spraying water over large crop

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UNICEF says more than 2 billion people "live in countries where water supply is inadequate." By 2025, up to half the global population could live in regions that will be considered "water scarce." 

As the climate warms, we will see more rain shortages, but the World Economic Forum says part of the problem is overuse and poor infrastructure and management.

Nearly a quarter of all cultivated land on Earth is used for irrigated agriculture, the World Bank says, because "irrigated agriculture is, on average, at least twice as productive per unit of land as rainfed agriculture." Agriculture, as a result, accounts for 70% of the world's water withdrawals.

Of course, some crops are more water-intensive than others. Anyone who's watched "Cowspiracy" knows that animal agriculture demands the most water of all. It's been estimated that 660 gallons of water are needed to produce just one hamburger. Add bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a bun to that burger and the total water footprint of it becomes 830 gallons—almost five times the amount a person drinks in a year.

Water Needs of Different Foods

Here's how much water it takes to grow (and feed) common foods.

  • Bovine: 15,415 liters per kilogram (1,847.12 gallons per pound)
  • Lamb: 8,763 liters per kilogram (1,050 gallons per pound)
  • Pork: 8,763 liters per kilogram (1,050 gallons per pound)
  • Chicken: 4,325 liters per kilogram (518.25 gallons per pound)
  • Dairy milk: 1,020 liters per kilogram (122.22 gallons per pound)
  • Nuts: 9,063 liters per kilogram (1,086 gallons per pound)
  • Oil crops: 2,364 liters per kilogram (283.27 gallons per pound)
  • Fruit: 962 liters per kilogram (115.27 gallons per pound)
  • Vegetables: 322 liters per kilogram (38.58 gallons per pound)


Similar to the U.S.'s alarming stats, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a third of the global food supply is never eaten. That would mean that nearly a quarter of the entire world's water withdrawals are used for nothing.

To make matters worse, the FAO warns that if habits don't change now, global demand for water could increase by 50% by 2030.

Embodied Carbon

Tractor plowing soil

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Food starts producing carbon dioxide from the moment the seed is planted or the animal is born—or before that, even. In order to feed 7.9 billion people around the world, forests are often cleared to make room for agriculture. The World Wildlife Fund says beef and soy production is the culprit of more than two-thirds of habitat loss in the Amazon. (The organization also notes that up to 75% of soy is produced for livestock feed.)

Fossil-fueled machinery is used to clear forests and ready the land for planting. What's more, the trees they clear store carbon that gets released back into the atmosphere when cut.

According to a chart created by Our World in Data, the process of farming accounts for a large chunk of many crops' greenhouse gas emissions, from beef to cheese to coffee to olive oil. These are the emissions produced on the farm through livestock flatulence, fertilizers and manures, and machinery. Flooded rice paddies, for instance, produce more methane than fish farms just by existing.

Then, there's the greenhouse gases associated with harvesting food (using machinery), processing it (with an abundance of energy), transporting it (via fossil-fueled trucks and planes), packaging it (often in plastics that produce their own load of GHG emissions), and storing it in temperature-controlled environments.

WWF says emissions from the production of food in the U.S. alone is equivalent to that generated by 32.6 million cars. "Embodied carbon" is the sum of emissions your food has created before it even reaches your plate.

Pre-Consumer Emissions by Food Type
Food Type CO2 Equivalent per kilogram
Beef 60
Cheese 21
Chocolate 19
Coffee 17
Palm oil 8
Olive oil 6
Rice 4
Tomatoes  1.4
Soy milk 0.9
Apples 0.3

The Packaging Problem

Cut fruits wrapped in plastic at supermarket

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According to EPA data, an astonishing 82.2 million tons of plastic were generated in 2018 (8% up from 2000 and 56% up from 1980). A reported 54% of it was recycled, 9% incinerated, and 37% sent to landfills.

Plastic is rife in the food industry. At the supermarket, you see it housing everything from beverages to potato chips to bananas. Beyond what you see, though, the material is used heavily throughout food production, to protect the plants themselves from pests and marks that could disfigure them, to cover crops, and to transport produce from farms to factories and, finally, to retailers. 

Plastic is so popular for food items because it's cheap, light, flexible, and sanitary. Unfortunately, it's also nonbiodegradable and can take hundreds of years to break down, depending on the type of plastic. Even worse, sealed plastic containers with uneaten food slow down the food's decomposition, adding to methane emissions.

Plastic packaging is often unavoidable, but the amount of plastic produced could potentially be reduced if it weren't wasted on the 133 billion pounds of food that wind up in landfills annually. Ultimately, saving food from being trashed could also mean less greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production and less plastic pollution.

Emissions From Disposal

Hands throwing food scraps in a garbage bin

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One of the most destructive consequences of discarding 133 billion pounds of food per year is the methane organic materials produce when their bacteria break down. The 36% of food waste that winds up in landfills goes through a process called anaerobic decomposition, meaning it decomposes slowly with little to no oxygen. This process releases 8.3 pounds of methane per 100 pounds of food waste, adding up to 11 billion pounds of methane emitted every year.

Methane is the same greenhouse gas that cows notoriously produce through burps and flatulence. It reportedly has 80 times the atmospheric warming power of its more well-known counterpart, carbon dioxide. Of course, food mainly produces methane when it rots in landfills. Incinerating it, which occurs with only 8% of all domestic food waste, produces other greenhouse gases—CO2 and nitrous oxide (N2O).

If you thought methane was bad, imagine this: N2O has 310 times the potency of carbon dioxide. In the U.S., 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions are nitrous oxide. About 10% are methane and 80% carbon dioxide (and you can blame cars for that). It's estimated that food waste is responsible for up to 8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Large-Scale Efforts to Upcycle Food Waste

Recently, efforts to redirect food waste from its landfill fate have reached industrial levels. Instead of festering in landfills, discarded food is being turned into clothes, beauty products, biofuel, and, yes, more food.

Fashion and Beauty

Glass jar of beauty product surrounded by coffee grounds

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One prominent example of upcycling food waste for fashion comes from the brand Piñatex, which turns pineapple leaves from the Philippines into plant-based leather. This sort of thing is being done across a range of waste sectors, with grape skins from wine production and fibrous coconut shells. It also occurs in beauty. Take the UK brand UpCircle, for example, which started with a small skincare range made of used coffee grounds collected from London coffeeshops. 

Using food waste for beauty formulation is common practice today. There's even a candle brand, Further, that uses purified waste grease from Los Angeles restaurants in its signature product.

Biofuel

Food waste is an opportunity to power entire cities. In fact, some cities—including Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City—are already using (or at least planning to use) biofuel as an energy source. 

Here's how it works: When exposed to high temperatures, the hydrocarbons in wet food waste break down and produce a substance similar to crude oil. This biofuel can then be used as an eco-friendlier alternative to traditional electricity or to power vehicles. It burns cleaner than traditional fuel and comes from a renewable resource.

More Food

The Upcycled Food Association makes certain that perfectly edible food byproducts are turned into something delicious and returned to market. That includes soy and almond pulp from vegan milk production being turned into flour, unsold bread into the yeast in beer, and dried vegetable peels into soups. Foods that meet the association's standards bear the "Upcycled Certified" label.

How to Reduce Food Waste at Home

Jar of home-pickled cucumbers and fresh dill on wooden surface

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According to the EPA, 24% of all food waste is residential. Here are some easy tips for reducing your "foodprint" at home.

  • Plan out meals ahead of time and buy only what you know you will eat.
  • Buy "ugly" produce that isn't likely to be chosen and produce that's going out of date. You can also sign up for a subscription box like Misfits Market or Imperfect Foods.
  • Buy more produce and less packaged foods. When you do need pantry staples like rice, pasta, flour, and sugar, try sourcing them from zero-waste retailers.
  • Pickle, dry, can, ferment, freeze, or cure foods before they go out of date.
  • Learn how to extend the life of certain foods through storage. For instance, herbs should be kept in water like cut flowers.
  • Compost food scraps at home instead of throwing them out.
  • Reduce your consumption of meat—especially beef. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a diet of about 50% meat produces twice the emissions of a vegetarian diet. 

Breakdown of Food Waste by Type

Here's which foods are wasted the most.

  • Cereals, including bread and beer: 25% of total wastage
  • Vegetables: 24%
  • Starchy roots: 19%
  • Fruits: 16%
  • Milk: 7%
  • Meat: 4%
  • Oilcrops and pulses: 3%
  • Fish and seafood: 2%
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