Food waste is the number one form of waste—and it’s contributing to climate change

Greenhouse gas from food waste is making climate change worse.

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For every 10 pounds of food that’s grown, harvested, processed, distributed and sold, more than three pounds ends up getting thrown away. That adds up to around 1,000 pounds of food per person every year.

As a society, we need to take giant steps in reducing our food waste problem on a national scale. A lot of food waste happens before people ever even bring their groceries home, wasting water and resources to grow and transport food. But we can also make an effort to reduce our individual waste, which could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.

Where does our uneaten food go?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one-third of all food in the United States goes uneaten. In 2019, 96% of households’ wasted food wound up in landfills, combustion plants or being poured down the train into the sewer system. Food waste is such a huge problem that it’s actually the single largest category of trash. And when it’s buried in landfills, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas that makes climate change worse.

Food waste in a bin
Foerster | Public Domain
Do you know where your food waste goes?

How does food waste contribute to climate change?

Food waste in landfills releases methane, a greenhouse gas composed of carbon and hydrogen and the primary component of natural gas and is responsible for approximately a third of the global warming we are experiencing today.

Not to mention, the global warming potential of methane is about 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide in the 20 years after it’s released into the atmosphere. Without action, global greenhouse gas emissions are projected to rise by up to 13% by 2030.

Methane emissions also harm human and ecosystem health via ground-level ozone pollution, which causes approximately a million premature deaths per year globally, reduces crop productivity and harms natural habitats. 

When it comes to food waste, we know we need to reduce it, compost it and get it out of landfills and incinerators. But we need to get more people on board with these solutions, and encourage people to stop throwing food in the trash in the first place.

A sustainable approach

Much of our country’s food waste happens outside of our homes, in industrial kitchens, food distribution centers, wholesale operations and more. But there is also a lot that individuals can do to address our food waste problems. In order to curb food waste we first have to reevaluate our relationship with food. 

This means buying only what you need, and buying only what you know you’re going to make. Our current shopping habits mean we often buy produce that goes bad before we’re ready to use it, or we throw out edible fruits and vegetables because of a bruise or blemish.

A more sustainable approach to grocery buying could look like more frequent but less expensive trips to the grocery store, buying less in bulk and shopping at local farmer’s markets, if one is available.

If you’re employing sustainable practices when it comes to buying food, it’s just as important to also compost food waste instead of throwing it away. 

4 compost bins in Chicago's food scrap drop-off program
City of Chicago | Public Domain
Does your city have a food scrap drop-off program?

Composting 101

When organic waste such as food scrap decomposes in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas. But if we compost that waste instead, the aerobic decomposition process prevents the production of methane emissions. 

Not only that, but the end product of composting is a nutrient rich soil that can be applied as fertilizer, helping farmers, gardeners and landscapers alike.

According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, more than 50% of typical municipal garbage set out at the curb is compostable, and a whopping 21% comes from food scrap alone.

A 2019 PIRG Education Fund report found that composting all organic waste could eliminate nearly one-third of all materials sent to U.S. landfills and trash incinerators. That’s a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that could be eliminated by properly composting food scraps.

Before you begin, do your research. If you have a backyard, this cheat sheet can help you get started on creating your own backyard compost. 

If you don’t have a yard or are concerned about attracting critters, you can set up a compost bin in your kitchen using these methods here

And if you’re looking for a place to drop off your compost, can help you do just that. 

The Food Date Labeling Act

Another driver of food waste is confusion over date labels, which are not federally regulated in the United States. 

This lack of standardization means consumers, businesses and food banks are confronted with a confusing mix of phrases like “use by,” “best if used by,” “sell by,” or “best before.”

What’s worse, is there’s no real clarity on the question people are really asking: is this food safe for me or others to eat?

That’s why we’re pushing for the Food Date Labeling Act, which would standardize date labels and help ensure that what’s being thrown away is truly expired. 

With the guessing game gone, consumers would have more food on their plates and less in the waste bin. 


Danielle Melgar

Food & Agriculture, Advocate, PIRG

Danielle works to ensure our food system produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone, without threatening our health, the planet, or the ability of future generations to grow food. Danielle lives in Chicago, where she enjoys staying active in the outdoors, trying out new recipes, and writing short stories.

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