How Much Food is Wasted in America?

9.18.17 – Back in 2015, we dove into the topic of Food Waste to learn more about how much, why, and how perfectly edible food winds up in the landfill. Studies have found that 30% – 40% of the food we produce in the United States is ultimately thrown away. But what does that mean? What does it look like? How much is that, really?

We Need More Studies on Food Waste

Before we dive into the dumpster, it’s important to know that the information we have is not perfect. All our knowledge about food waste comes from studies which use various different methods to estimate how much food is being lost or thrown away. Not only do these different studies use different methods to measure food waste, but many studies also have different definitions of what counts as “food waste”.

This past summer, The New Food Economy took a look at some of the studies we have on food waste and suggested that some estimates may be too big, and others, too small. In a recent update to their 2012 report, the NRDC also acknowledged the difficulties of gathering and verifying data.

Rather than discounting the information that we have, we need to see these as reasons to continue investigating the food we don’t eat. We need more studies that measure food loss at all levels of the food chain, and more efforts to standardize our methods and language. In the meantime, we need act on what we do know about food waste. You may be as astounded by some of these numbers as we were.

Tomatoes and cucumbers in a dumpster

Food Waste by Weight

According to a 2014 EPA study, America throws away more than 38 million tons of food every year. That’s the weight of 104 Empire State Buildings, with a bit to spare. Or, to put it another way, that single year’s worth of food waste would be enough to balance a scale with of all the Blue Whales left in the world, multiplied by 10, stacked up on the other side.

One year of American Food Waste = 104 Empire State Buildings

Food Waste by Volume

In his book “American Wasteland,” activist and author Jonathan Bloom estimated that the United States could fill a college stadium with the amount of food it wastes … in a day. Imagine trying to fit 365 Rose Bowls into Pasadena, or any city for that matter, to hold a year’s worth of American food waste.

The Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena CA

Food Waste by Cost

Food waste isn’t just big and heavy. It’s also very expensive. $165 billion / year expensive (Update: the more recent NRDC report placed this at $218 billion / year). For context, that’s almost as much as the State of California’s entire budget last year.

Food Waste by Nutrients

A very recent study attempted to measure food waste not in weight or dollars, but in nutrients. Writing in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the authors estimated that the amount of food thrown away in the United States in 2012 would have been enough to feed 190 million adults every day that year. They went further, looking at the different vitamins and minerals lost with wasted food, and argued that the nutrition lost could have ensured that all women in America could get their Recommended Dietary Allowances of Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, and Fiber.

Food Waste by Footprint

Last but certainly not least, we can look to measure food waste by its footprint and environmental impact. It takes a huge amount of resources (in addition to money) to grow and produce food, and is near impossible to recover those inputs once the food winds up in the landfill. Farmers and producers use around 25% of all of America’s fresh water just to produce the food that nobody eats.

Finally, when we throw away food, the landfill is not the end of the story. Organic waste breaks down at the dump, releasing methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization puts the total carbon footprint of food wastage around 4.4 GtCO2: that’s 4.4 gigatonnes (4.4 billion tons) of carbon dioxide. How much is that exactly? It’s more greenhouse gas than any one country, except for the U.S. and China, emits. That’s right: our collective global food waste is contributing more to climate change than nearly every country in the world.

Food Waste's Environmental Footprint

Wrapping Our Heads Around Food Waste

We hope that, by exploring different ways to think about the amount of food that we throw away in the United States, we can really start to see how literally massive this issue is. This is only the beginning, but it’s important to check how big the pool is before you dive in.

Read More About Food Waste

A Dumpster Full of Eggplant

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16 thoughts on “How Much Food is Wasted in America?”

  1. Max says:

    I am so surprised that how expensive food wastes are!! And also I am very surprised that Japan’s food wastes are much more than a big country like Brazil? A tiny country Japan wastes many many food wastes and contributes a lot of green house gases! But this phenomenon is lead by Free market and capitalism so… When we try to reduce food wastes… a food price…. rises our massive food wastes are refection of our food prices.

  2. Harry Leslie says:

    Although your article was somewhat interesting, it really only showed a few different measurements of the food being wasted. I did not find it helpful regarding how I could help reduce food waste.

    What is really needed is a study of where the food is wasted. That is: 1) how much is lost during harvesting or to insects, disease and animals before harvesting. 2) How much is lost during transport to market and at the manufacturing/processing sites. 3) How much is lost when it is thrown away by stores due to expiration (rotting, being out of date, etc.); 4) How much is lost when restaurants throw away food that went unsold; and 5) How much is lost in consumers’ households when it is thrown away for whatever reason.

    I’ll keep searching the net for answers. Until these things are known, it will be impossible to adequately and effectively deal with the problem.

    Thank you

  3. Ernesto says:

    This figures are really mindlowing and wondering if the Government can give some ideas and incentives to big restaurants,to waste the less possible foods.
    This topic is of much interest currently with the actual government trying to put restrictions in the the SNAP Program,making it worse in adding processed food.
    Excellent review,thanks for sharing..

  4. madhavi says:

    will organic farming help reducing food waste?

  5. Djenebou says:

    I strongly believe that food should be free especially fruits and veggies which would cut down food waste and help elimnate many issues we are experiencing with food and hunger. Each country’s government should pay farmers to maintain farms and distribute food to stores which from that point it is availble to everyone. There are millions of people each year who die from toxic sprays and chemicals being added to food to perserve food and keep insect away. Food is necessary to live so why not work as humanity to make sure we get quality food to all people on the planet without charging for many of the fruits and veggies out there. Farmers can enjoy farming the correct way and pay attention to food distribution and harmful chemicals that hurt us all. There is such a waste of food, there are hungry people everywhere and people dying from exposure to chemicals being added or sprayed to food. There is no balance and we are making it worse with the greed of many people out there charging astronomical prices for the food because it has to be packaged and sit on shelves. Something needs to change. We could cure many ailments and eliminate many deaths as well as keep people alive with healthy food which would be circulated through out communities much more often and used quicker I know there are people who may think this sounds nuts but it’s not. We are the cause of our own grief. Humanity doesn’t think anymore becaused everyone is wrapped up in making money from everything whether it is safe or not. Everything is packaged, marketed, and designed to rob humanity. People need quit being greedy and use what they need thinking about others. Start thinking about it. Raw food should be free to all. Cooked or prepared food is something people can pay to have it when they want it from restuarants or stores. We need to use common sense in saving this planet, people, animals, etc. Our own greed is destroying us causing hunger worldwide, diseases, and many more problems. It doesn’t make sense when there are hungry children all over the world yet tons and tons of food being throwed away each day. Humanity needs to work for humanity now more than ever to save lives making healther humans, children, animals, etc. Circulate the food much more and solve hunger and not as much worry about pesticides and insect getting to crops. If it sits on shelves too long it goes bad. If it gets sprayed with junk it causes toxic illnesses and birth defects. There is no balance. People need to think, think, think, and quit this greedy business with food by charging crazy prices for healthy food. We all need it and without it there is sickness, hunger, and many other issues.

  6. Surbhi says:

    how does Government policies promote food waste?

  7. lili says:

    how sad

  8. Myriah says:

    Hi,
    I am writing a research paper on Food Waste in America. Is there a specific author/editor of this article?

  9. JOSEPH CHIARELL says:

    This is shocking!! It is within Every American’s control to reduce food waste. Use up the leftovers. Use for another meal with a salad or combine in another dish. The landfill created, the Greenhouse Gases emitted, the water use to grow, the fuel and labor used to plant and harvest – All wasted!!!!

  10. Aj says:

    Sickening

  11. Aj says:

    This is sickening

  12. Aj says:

    I cant believe this

  13. Aj says:

    im writing to the government about this

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  15. Maegan McDonald says:

    Farmers and producers use around 25% of all of America’s fresh water just to produce the food that nobody eats. A very recent study attempted to measure food waste not in weight or dollars, but in nutrients. Writing in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the authors estimated that the amount of food thrown away in the United States in 2012 would have been enough to feed 190 million adults every day that year. They went further, looking at the different vitamins and minerals lost with wasted food, and argued that the nutrition lost could have ensured that all women in America could get their Recommended Dietary Allowances of Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, and Fiber.

    That is ridiculous.

  16. Mr man says:

    How to reduce food waste?
    Just eat it

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