Why Throw Away Almost Half of the Pie? Let’s End Food Waste!

a_food_waste_pie_chart.jpgSpring is in the air and so is the onslaught of house cleaning it often inspires. Inevitably, you’ll start in the kitchen and clear out the ‘fridge. Whoops! You’ve just contributed to the epidemic of food waste...and you’re not alone. Our country wastes almost 40% of its food.

Sadly, we are far from figuring out how to solve this problem, but a recent report by a diverse coalition of partners offers hope. Over 30 food businesses, non-profits, policymakers, and investors analyzed solutions to food waste and found that centralized composting as well as a few other novel approaches could not only reduce waste drastically, but also provide jobs, generate economic opportunity, feed the hungry, reduce water use, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

ReFED started up last year in response to increasing pressure on the issue of food waste—not only environmentally and socially, but also economically. The group estimates that the U.S. spends $218 million a year of food that goes straight into a landfill. That’s 1.3% of our GDP rotting in the ground. In her piece on the ReFED report, Allison Aubrey of NPR quotes Sarah Vared, interim director of ReFED:

Reducing food waste is one of the most tangible ways we can all help contribute to a healthier planet.”

ReFED creates a “roadmap” of how we might solve the nation’s food waste problem, which has never before been done. Part of the difficulty in shrinking the food waste deficit is the complex value chain that makes up our food system. From farm to landfill there are numerous stops along the way that create opportunities for waste. Pile federal, state, and local policies as well as social issues, such as food access, on top of that and things start to get stinky. Howevere, with problems come opportunities, in this case, 27 of them.

Each solution was measured across six different metrics: financial benefit, waste diverted, emissions, reduced, water saved, jobs created, and meals recovered. For a full (and very cool) report on the data, check out their interactive chart here.


The aggregate financial benefit to society (consumers, businesses, governments, and other stakeholders) is minus all investment and costs per ton of food waste diverted. It shows the amount of benefit received per ton of reduction and is calculated as the Economic Value per Ton. Click here to go to the interactive chart.

A big winner in many of those categories measured was “Centralized composting” – like programs currently in San Francisco, San Diego, Park Slope Brooklyn, and other metropolitan areas. ReFED estimates that centralized composting could divert over 5 million tons of waste, reduce over 2 million tons of GHGs, and create 9,000 jobs. Other winners included consumer education campaigns and standardized labeling, which can provide the biggest financial benefit. Waste tracking and analytics could save the most water, and donation tax incentives could recover the most meals.


Overall, the report determined that by engaging every aspect of the food supply chain along with governments, foundations and investors, and an $18 billion investment, we could reduce food waste by 20% in the next five years and by 50% in the next 15 years—numbers we cannot turn up our noses at. Economically they estimate societal benefits to exceed $100 billion dollars over the next decade (and that figure does not include estimates for jobs created or benefits to the environment).

It’s often alarming when we put things in economic terms. Our hearts speak to us of the important moral and environmental argument for improving our food system so that we efficiently feed everyone while regenerating the land that supports us. But pragmatically speaking, that argument doesn’t pay the bills, at least not yet. ReFED has done an important service translating the food waste issue into standardized terms that everyone can understand.


Read all stories by Damon Cory-Watson

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