The Anatomy of Food Waste

by | Sep 28, 2011

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Consider this. There is one economic sector that is essential for survival and accounts for a considerable share of our daily expenses and GHG emissions – and some 28 percent of the production in this sector (in the US) is never consumed. If you haven’t guessed it already, that would be the food sector.

Our analysis of USDA’s food loss estimates at the retail and consumer levels for 2009 shows that the avoidable food waste in the US amounts to as much as 50 million metric tonnes annually. The chart below shows the breakdown of avoidable waste that we calculated from the USDA data for most of the common food commodities (after excluding unavoidable waste such as inedible parts of food and cooking losses).



The implications of this waste are significant. At least 123 million metric tonnes of CO2e are added to the atmosphere each year from the production, transport and disposal of the uneaten food – this translates to over 13 percent of all food-related emissions in the US and about 1.5 percent of total US emissions, and most of these emissions come from the production stage. The chart below breaks down these emissions by life-cycle stage and commodity type.

A preliminary cost estimate suggests that consumers and businesses are wasting nearly $200 billion worth of raw food commodities annually. If we were to include other food commodities that are produced and wasted in smaller quantities, as well as other emission sources such as additional processing, packaging and cooking, the overall cost and climate change impact of food waste would be higher than the estimates presented here.



Food and beverage products are unique among consumer goods in that a large slice of production is never consumed. Fresh, perishable foods are wasted in much larger quantities than canned or dry goods. Losses from spoilage, cooking and preparation tend to be higher in households because restaurants and institutions manage their inventories and production much better and use more pre-trimmed/pre-portioned commodities. On the other hand, plate loss is typically higher in a commercial or institutional setting because serving sizes do not necessarily match individual requirements.

Apportioning the food waste burden between consumers and businesses is a difficult task because of limited data and uncertainties. Based on a review of food waste research and food expenditure data, it is likely that pre-consumer food waste represents a tangible opportunity for restaurants, retailers and institutions to save over $30 billion annually and cut national food-related emissions by over 2 percent – about 20 million metric tonnes of CO2e. This could be as big an opportunity on both the financial and environmental fronts as any other initiative currently on the table for the food industry.

A much larger share of the food waste burden rests with consumers, counting household food waste and all of the plate loss away from home. Since consumers do not have the tools and systems to manage their inventories and food preparation, putting a dent in this part of the waste will require a combination of education, the availability of more optimal portion sizes away from home, innovative food packaging/preservation techniques, and perhaps simple web or mobile apps that can help consumers manage home food inventories. Cutting household waste in half could deliver annual savings of $600 per family, plus a further 3.5 percent reduction in national food-related emissions.

So there it is. If reducing GHG emissions is not a sufficient incentive, then let us do it to save money and free up valuable productive resources for better uses.

Kumar Venkat is president and chief technologist at CleanMetrics Corp., a provider of analytical solutions for the sustainable economy.

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