EPA Unveils Food Waste Landfill Emissions, Management Recommendations

EPA's model for ranking food waste management strategies

(Credit: EPA)

by | Nov 1, 2023

The EPA has released two reports, identifying that the majority of methane emissions caused by landfills come from wasted food and providing insights into alternative, environmentally-friendly food waste management strategies.

The EPA estimates that 58% of methane emissions in landfills derive from decaying food waste. Its first report, Quantifying Methane Emissions from Landfilled Food Waste, analyzed methane emissions released from landfill food waste between 1990 to 2020, finding that while total emissions from solid waste landfills have decreased with time, methane emissions have increased.

Methane emissions are known for being particularly harmful. They are found to be 80 times more potent than carbon emissions in terms of global warming, and methane exposure causes about 1 million premature deaths every year according to the UN Environmental Programme. The International Energy Agency (IEA) also recently released findings that reducing methane emissions must be prioritized to limit global warming to Paris Agreement levels. According to the IEA, the impact of reducing methane emissions is larger than taking all cars and trucks in the world off the road.

Data from the EPA study confirms that diverting food waste from landfills is crucial to reducing landfill methane emissions, and its second report identifies common pathways for managing wasted food through circular models.

Study Ranks Wasted Food, Diversion Strategies

A major cause of landfill methane emissions is the sheer amount of food wasted in the United States — over a third of all food produced in the country is never eaten.

The EPA has identified a number of ways to change this with its second report, From Food to Bin: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste Management Pathways. The report explains the importance of both reducing food waste in the first place and managing its disposal with environmentally-friendly strategies. The EPA ranked 11 common wasted food pathways, from most to least environmentally preferable.

Research found that source reduction, donation, and upcycling were the most environmentally preferable waste management pathways. Wastewater treatment, or sending food down the drain, and landfilling were found to have the most sizeable methane emissions, therefore making them the least desirable options.

EPA Prioritizes Strategies Avoiding Additional Food Production

Also notable is the report’s emphasis on the environmental impact of food production. Even though the most environmentally friendly waste management pathways are beneficial, they can reportedly do little to offset the environmental damage of the industry at present. Producing food depends on energy, water, nutrient inputs, and land use, and food systems account for over a third of global emissions, according to the UN. Therefore, the top waste management pathways are most effective since they may displace additional food production.

Other ranked strategies included anaerobic digestion, using food waste as animal feed, composting, controlled combustion, and land application, respectively.

“Wasted food is a major environmental, social, and economic challenge,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “These reports provide decision-makers with important data on the climate impacts of food waste through landfill methane emissions and highlight the urgent need to keep food out of landfills.”

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