food waste

In 2012, we received some dismal news about food waste in the United States. A staggering 40 percent of food is wasted from farm to fork, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Suddenly, we were all running to our fridges to make soups from wilted vegetables and freezing ripe bananas for future smoothies while others were stuffing Christmas stockings with copies of Dana Gunders’ book, Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. Now that a few years have passed, a clearer picture of food waste is emerging.

A study by the SaveOnEnergy team brings food waste findings to life by putting food waste in the context of energy to highlight the lost opportunity. For example, they found that the average person in the U.S. wastes 231 pounds of food annually. If converted to energy, that’s enough to power a 100-watt bulb for two weeks. Waste-to-energy facilities recycle organic waste through anaerobic digestion to produce biogas (a source of energy).

Infographic: What Food Waste Can Power
Infographic: SaveOnEnergy

It’s striking to see how much food we collectively waste, but it might be even more shocking to see just how much energy could be produced the from the food each one of us individually wastes.

Infographic: SaveOnEnergy
Infographic: SaveOnEnergy

Although wasted food can be converted to energy, preventing food waste in the first place would save a larger quantity of energy. If the U.S. eliminated food waste, we would save 350 million barrels of oil or about 2 percent of our annual energy consumption, according to a 2010 study published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology journal.

Finding Better Uses for Surplus Food

While it’s tempting to take wasted food and turn it into energy, the food recovery hierarchy by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is extremely helpful in prioritizing the most effective strategies to combat food waste. Source reduction of surplus food is the most effective strategy, followed by donating it to feed hungry people, feeding animals, industrial uses, and compost. And then landfill/incineration is the last resort. Ideally, we want to be moving up the food recovery hierarchy and finding better uses for surplus food.

Food Recovery Hierarchy
Infographic: U.S. EPA

Understanding Where Food Is Wasted

According to the SaveOnEnergy study, households waste the lion’s share of food in the U.S., valued at $144 billion annually. Supermarkets come in a distant second by wasting $18 billion of food, followed by full-service restaurants at $16 billion and farms at $15 billion. Many households stock up on food, much of which is discarded. These findings highlight the importance and potential cost savings of preventing surplus food at home and within businesses.

Infographic: SaveOnEnergy
Infographic: SaveOnEnergy

Curtailing Surplus Food at Home

When exploring food waste by category, dairy products, vegetables, and fruit make up more than 50 percent of wasted food. This is logical, given that such foods spoil more quickly than other types of food.

Infographic: SaveOnEnergy
Infographic: SaveOnEnergy

Changing food consumption, shopping, planning, organizing, and storing techniques can all foster progress in this area. We can help prevent food waste by planning meals in advance to prevent surplus food, getting more creative about using up ingredients, properly storing food in the best type of storage container, freezing food for later consumption, and questioning sell-by dates.

It is difficult for households to donate perishable food; careful purchasing is one of the best ways to avoid surplus food. Although not an ideal solution, composting surplus food or feeding it to an animal is a step up from sending it to a landfill or incinerator. Some cities offer compost pickup service to residents, which helps by effectively recycling food scraps and yard waste and reducing the amount of food waste in landfills.

Editor’s note: Originally published on December 9, 2016, this article was updated in November 2019.

By Sarah Lozanova

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.