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.

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