Policymakers Race to Curb Edible Waste
Striving for 2030 sustainability goals amid the climate crisis
America generates a per-person average of 4.9 pounds of solid refuse daily, and that number is escalating, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food waste remains a major culprit. In fact, our landfills contain more edibles than plastic or paper.
Municipal recycling and composting bring fresh life to about a third of our cast-offs—the carbon-emissions equivalent of taking 42 million cars off the road each year. But the remainder creates serious problems: Organic materials decomposing at dumps generate methane, which is 25 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Concern about wasted food is nothing new. Looking back into antiquity, virtually all major religions encouraged believers to conserve this limited, prized, and often expensive resource.
But in the 20th century, the equation shifted, as mechanized harvesting and improved transportation gave rise to supermarkets. Food prices fell right as urban wages rose, explains New School University historian Andrew F. Smith, author of the book Why Waste Food? In 1901, city dwellers spent 42.5 percent of their take-home pay on grub. A century later, that amount had dropped to just 6.6 percent. Such accessibility diminished our urge to use “everything but the squeal.”
Even with pandemic-era inflation and supply chain issues in 2020, Americans still devoted just 8.6 percent of their disposable income to eating—at home or out—that year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
In other words, we’re not yet suffering enough sticker shock for most of us to lovingly embrace old leftovers, upcycle scraps, and strive for a zero-waste kitchen (although a new generation of apps is making it easier). Thankfully, food waste is gaining big-picture traction at the polls and among policymakers.
In 2015, our federal government pledged to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030, aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3.
Marie Spiker, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, explains, “The UN has identified three steps to help countries achieve this goal—set targets, measure waste, and act. According to a progress report in 2019, many country governments and two-thirds of the world’s 50 largest food companies have set food waste reduction targets, and many of these have also set up systems to measure waste. It remains to be seen to what extent the third step, action, is being carried out!”
Now that we’re at the halfway mark, the US seems more tortoise than hare. The most recent (pre-pandemic) numbers showed no change in the volume of waste (though adjusting for a growing population, that’s actually a 2 percent decrease per capita). Around 35 percent of our food supply still remains unsold or uneaten annually, and 70 percent of that waste winds up in methane-spewing landfills. That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good: 2021 was “a watershed year for food waste policy at all levels of government,” according to Harvard’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. California and Vermont have rolled out the strongest measures to support recycling and ban organic waste, followed by Massachusetts, New York, and Washington State.
“When it comes to moving the needle, legislation can be an effective tool—especially legislation that helps to incentivize or reduce barriers to waste reduction,” Spiker says. It “works at a systemic level, so that we’re not putting all of the burden for change on individual consumers.”
Dana Gunders, the scientist who compiled the Natural Resources Defense Council’s first groundbreaking report on food waste a decade ago, agrees. She’d stumbled on alarming intel about squandered nutrients while digging into research about plastics and farming. That seed grew into a national dialogue, and Gunders is now the executive director of ReFED, a data-driven nonprofit fighting food waste.
“People say, ‘I can’t believe you’ve been working on that for so long. Are you bored?’ But it’s not really one problem. It’s a very different thing if you’re talking about tomatoes going unharvested on a farm versus potatoes not being eaten on a breakfast platter versus the science experiment in your fridge,” she says.
Many people finger-point at residential waste, because that’s the largest and most visible piece of this puzzle. Here’s how the responsibility breaks down in the US, according to ReFED’s Insights Engine (a seriously nifty database).
Food Services—16 percent
But the US needs to tackle all the angles, not just the most obvious one, Gunders says. “We are not on track to meet our goals.”
Many key voices, including ReFED, have now banded together to focus on five areas, elaborated in the Food Waste Action Plan.
Food creates environmental harm in landfills, as it decomposes in an oxygen-free environment, releasing potent greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. But incinerators—a prime alternative to landfills—also cause damage, blasting out dangerous levels of gases, carcinogens, mercury, and lead, often into traditionally disenfranchised and low-income communities. Instead, the plan calls for infrastructure and programs to divert excess edibles via donations and animal feed, plus composting, organics recycling, and anaerobic digestion.
2. Enable more donations
Only 3.5 percent of surplus food is given away, according to ReFED's Insight Engine. Policies can help expand that by creating alternative markets, beefing up regional supply chains, and simplifying rules for sharing excess.
Organizers say Congress and the federal government should drive solutions, such as incentivizing innovation and preventing organic waste in-house.
4. Inform and motivate consumers
Research and campaigns could inspire Americans to change their habits at home, at work, and in schools. Britain cut household waste by almost 11 percent in just three years (part of its overall 27 percent drop). If the US followed in its footsteps, we’d conserve a huge number of calories: enough to fill almost five Empire State Buildings annually.
5. Standardize labels on food packages
Confusion regularly leads to safe, edible grub in the garbage. Some home cooks panic and discard products that have only reached their “sell by” date, even though few items grow unsafe before becoming unpalatable, according to a Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future study. If passed, the Food Date Labeling Act would swap existing language for “use by” and “best if used by,” potentially reducing consumer waste by 5 to 10 percent.
Political wonks should also keep an eye on the Compost Act, 2023’s Farm Bill, and the Zero Food Waste Act, among other federal efforts. But Gunders says, “No one’s really holding their breath from a national perspective. The jurisdiction for waste tends to be state and local. But I think we will see things like extended liability protection, and there’s a chance date labels could get standardized nationally.”
Since January, 14 states have passed some form of food waste legislation. California came out swinging hard, as it often does with environmental policies, citing the climate crisis and its “hotter summers with world-record-breaking temperatures, even more devastating fire seasons, more extreme droughts, and rising sea levels that erode our coastlines,” according to its governmental site CalRecycle. Its goal: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions via statewide organic waste recycling and recovery of surplus foods.
The law rolls out in stages, and the first went into effect this year. Every city, county, and special district that provides waste services now must collect organics. That goes beyond food to include pruning debris, decomposable textiles, and even lumber. And California’s SB 1383 also requires certain food businesses to donate unused calories rather than dispose of them. This includes wholesalers, distributors, and large supermarkets. In 2024, hotels, restaurants, and event venues must do the same.
Washington State also turned up the heat on this issue, passing a landmark bill. Gunders says, “It’s really comprehensive. It’s like they cherry-picked from other state laws out there and put all their favorites into one law.” It has a diversion goal for landfills, expands liability protection for donations, creates a Washington Center for Sustainable Food Management, and implements steps to improve compostables, she explains. “I’m excited to see what this looks like once it gets turned into regulations.”
We may not see climate change solved in our lifetimes, she points out. “But food waste is something we can all do now. We engage so much with our food, making it a positive and productive place to take action.
“And the best thing about reducing your food waste? It’s not even a big sacrifice. It’s not giving up meat or your car. It’s a small step, one we can take every day.”