Reducing Food Waste Benefits the Environment and Economy

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

A recent report from ReFed shows the reducing food waste 20 percent in the next ten years will create about 15,000 jobs, double the amount of food available in food banks, avoid nearly 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, reduce freshwater use by 1.5 percent, and cost less than one-tenth to implement than the economic costs of business-as-usual. If there was ever a "no brainer," this is it. Everybody wins.

Too much food in the U.S. ends up either rotting in landfills or in fields. Every year, 52.4 million tons of food winds up in landfills, while another 10.1 million tons of food remains unharvested at farms. Rotting food emits methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 30 times that of carbon dioxide. And one in seven Americans is food insecure, lacking reliable access to affordable and nutritious food.

If the country’s waste food grew in one place, the farm would cover around 80 million acres or three-quarters of California, according to an annual report by ReFed. It would take all the water used in California, Texas, and Ohio combined to grow food on that farm. which would harvest enough food to fill a 40-ton tractor every 20 seconds. It would take many trucks to take the food thousands of miles, which would then be stored in refrigerators and grocery stores for weeks. However, instead of the food being purchased, prepared, and eaten by consumers, it would be loaded onto more trucks to take it all to a landfill.

Prevention and recovery of food waste reduces emissions and water use

ReFed releases a report every year about food waste. The goal of the non-profit organization is to achieve a 20 percent reduction in food waste in the U.S. within a decade. Implementing a 20 percent reduction in food waste would generate 15,000 new jobs, double recovered food donations to non-profits (1.8 billion meals a year), reduce freshwater use by 1.5 percent, and avoid almost 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. In other words, food waste reduction is good for people and the planet.

A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study found that the social benefit of a one-ton reduction in carbon equivalent emissions would be $11 to $56 per ton. Using that estimate, ReFed projected that an 18-million-ton emissions reduction would generate a societal value of $200 million to $1 billion a year.

Both preventing and recovering food waste offer other environmental benefits, including avoiding agricultural and livestock impacts. “Prevention and recovery both ultimately impact the demand at the farm level,” the report stated. When a consumer reduces spending on unnecessary food or when a meal donated to a non-profit replaces the need to buy that meal from another source, a net demand reduction occurs for all of the resources that go into wasted food. A two to 10 times larger greenhouse gas reduction occurs when the prevention and recovery of food waste happen compared to recycling one ton of food. Seventy-three percent of the water conservation from food waste reduction comes from prevention, with the rest coming from recovery.

Investing in food waste reduction would yield big economic gains

The country spends more than $218 billion, 1.3 percent of GDP, on food never eaten. ReFed estimates that reducing food waste by 20 percent within a decade will require an $18 billion investment, which is less than a tenth of a penny of investment per pound of food waste reduced. That investment will yield $100 billion in societal economic value over a decade. Consumers will experience the biggest economic benefit, saving $5.6 billion annually just by avoiding unnecessary spending on food never eaten. Restaurants and food service providers could see over $1.6 billion annually in business profit improvement.

That means that consumers will save money during a time of economic uncertainty while restaurants and other businesses that provide food would see their profits improve. It is a clear win-win for consumers and the food industry. 

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