Wasted: A Failure of Food Waste Reduction and Pollution Prevention


Wasted: A Failure of Food Waste Reduction and Pollution Prevention

By Megan Cronin, Staff Contributor

Americans waste 40 percent of their food,[1] costing the nation over $165 billion dollars every year. [2] Not only is that more food wasted per person than any other country in the world, but Americans waste 50 percent more food now than we did in the 1970s.[3] As a result, Americans not only throw away 25 percent of all freshwater and farmland, [4] but the generating, transporting, and disposing of wasted food also produces 14 percent of the U.S.’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.[5]

When food is disposed of, it is not only an unnecessary drain of valuable resources, but it becomes a pollutant itself. Food waste is the second single largest source of municipal solid waste in the country and the methane it generates in landfills contributes significantly to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.[6]

Preventing pollution in this case is not only economically effective, but required by law. The U.S. has a national policy to deal with pollution, like food waste, that can be minimized. It mandates that pollution shall be “prevented or reduced at the source whenever feasible.”[7] This requirement originates with the Pollution Prevention Act, which effectively institutionalized the tenets of the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle,” as official U.S. policy into what it calls the “Environmental Protection Hierarchy.”[8] This hierarchy prioritizes “source reduction,” or “any practice that reduces, eliminates, or prevents pollution at its source.”[9] However, the Pollution Prevention Act is not binding in any way, which means that federal agencies cannot enforce it.[10]

Agencies encourage businesses and organizations to participate in voluntary food-waste-reduction programs because they lack the authority to require source reductions. On September 16, 2015, leaders from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stood together in New York City to call for the “first-ever national food-waste reduction goal.”[11] The goal calls for a 50-percent reduction of food waste nationwide by 2030. A 50-percent reduction is both ambitious and clearly indicative that the EPA and the USDA have made food waste reduction a national priority. However, every report on the goal fails to answer a vital question: how exactly does the federal government plan to successfully convince these constituencies to cut food waste in half by 2030?[12]

According to the agencies, the reduction can be achieved by leading efforts to form “new partnership[s] with charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, the private sector and local, state and tribal governments[.]”[13] They argue that two main programs will enable them to achieve the goal: (1) a new consumer-education campaign on food waste that will mainly reach Americans through a new webpage; and (2) a nation-wide, volunteer-only program, called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, that encourages food-waste reductions in businesses.[14] The Challenge program hopes to sign up 1,000 participating restaurants and organizations by 2020.[15] However, in a nation that boasts over 630,000 commercial restaurants, [16] and has over 320 million contributors to the food waste epidemic,[17] these programs hardly represent a robust national effort to address what both agencies have publically announced is a substantial environmental resource concern.

Despite the EPA’s public prioritization of food-waste reduction, its pollution prevention policy, and more businesses signing up for the Food Waste Challenge than expected, federal efforts have done little on the “source reduction” front to cut food waste. In part, this is a direct result of federal environmental laws that do not encourage waste reduction, as well as the EPA lacking enforcement authority and funding support for its pollution prevention policy. However, if food waste continues to be costly and devastating to our resource consumption in a magnitude worthy of national concern, then the EPA and the USDA should reconsider their prioritization of the problem as well as strategies to address food waste moving forward.


[1] Dana Gunders, Wasted: How America is Wasting 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill 4 (2012) available at https://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf.

[2] Timothy Jones, The Corner on Food Loss. 46 Biocycle, 7, 25, available at http://www.biocycle.net/2005/07/25/the-corner-on-food-loss/.

[3] Kevin D. Hall, Juen Guo, Michael Dore, Carson C. Chow, The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact. 4 Plos One 11 available at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0007940.

[4] Dana Gunders, Wasted: How America is Wasting 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill 4 (2012) available at https://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf.

[5] Sustainable Management of Food Basics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Dec. 8, 2015, 10:00am), http://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/sustainable-management-food-basics.

[6] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2013 Fact Sheet (2015) available at http://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2013_advncng_smm_fs.pdf.

[7] Pollution Prevention Act § 13101, 42 U.S.C. §133 (1990) available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/13101

[8] Pollution Prevention, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Dec. 8, 015, 10:05am), http://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/sustainable-management-food-basics.

[9] Pollution Prevention Act § 13101, 42 U.S.C. §133 (1990) available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/13101

[10] Id.

[11] USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation’s First Food Waste Reduction Goals (Sept. 16, 2015), available at http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/09/0257.xml. ahttp://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/09/0257.xml

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Number of restaurants in the United States from 2011 to 2015, Statista (Dec. 8, 2015, 10:10 am)


[17] U.S. and World Population Clock, U.S. Census Bureau (Dec. 8, 2015, 10:20 am) http://www.census.gov/popclock/.