Food Waste: Causes, Effects, and Solutions (2023)

In the last several years, food waste has become an issue of growing interest among activists, scientists, and consumers alike. We are starting to recognize the significance of food waste and the social, economic, and environmental costs associated with it. Understanding and eliminating food waste has increasingly become the aim of scientific study, governments, and nonprofit organizations. This increased discussion may have been instigated in part by a landmark 2009 study, which estimated that America throws away almost 40% of its food. Since then, several reports and studies have sought to uncover this shocking statistic, explore the nature of food waste, and quantify the economic, social, environmental costs of wasted food.

One such study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that these direct and indirect costs (from impacts such as agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and erosion) added up to $2.6 trillion worldwide and annually. Clearly, this issue deserves widespread attention. Examining these costs of food waste more clearly, we can see that many come from resource loss and other environmental impacts of agriculture. Since much of the world’s resources are used to produce food (40% of its land, 70% of its freshwater, and 30% of its energy), every piece of food that is thrown away represents wasted resources: “huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land” (National Resources Defense Council). In the 2009studycited above, it was estimated that about 25% of America’s water is used to produce food that is wasted. Activist and author Tristram Stuart points out that the environmental harms of “deforestation, depleted water supplies, massive fossil fuel consumption, and biodiversity loss” are all implicated in the problem of food waste. Additionally, food makes up the majority of waste in landfills, where its decomposition releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major contributor to climate change. These environmental costs also lead to direct and indirect social costs in the form of food insecurity, health costs from pollution and pesticide exposure, reduced farmer incomes, lost livelihoods, and increased likelihood for conflict and crime because of all the above factors (FAO).

Food Waste: Causes, Effects, and Solutions (1)

This flow chart from the FAO study cited earlier depicts some of the social and environmental costs of food waste along the entire food supply chain from production to consumption.

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In order to address the root problem of food waste, we must first understand where along the supply chain food is being wasted, which varies widely between developing and developed countries. In wealthy, developed nations like the U.S., food is wasted mostly at the consumption stage. There are several intertwined reasons for this. In highly developed countries, advanced technology in agriculture as well as food processing and distribution means that food is plentiful and cheap. Americans spend less of our income on food than most other countries in the world (6% compared to 43% in Egypt). Therefore, we often do not appreciate the true value of food and buy more than we need without much thought. Additionally, we throw away old food that is still safe to eat, relying on ‘best-by’ labels which “are generally not regulated and do not indicate food safety” according to the NRDC. Though there are other factors at work, low food prices are clearly connected to high food wastage. In an industrialized food system with low food prices, consumers often insist on extremely fresh, aesthetically perfect, and abundant foods. Stores over-stock their shelves accordingly and then end up throwing out unbought foods. USDA standards mean that any produce with a blemish or irregularity does not make it into the food supply so farmers are forced to leave unsightly produce to rot in the field. Fruits and vegetables make up the majority of this on-farm food waste, which is a significant contributor to food waste in developed countries.

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In poorer, developing countries, food wastage is more concentrated toward the production side. Lacking technology and infrastructure for transportation and processing means increased losses to pests, spoilage, and weather. Methods to improve shelf life such as pasteurization and refrigeration are almost always absent in places where food is produced mainly by rural smallholders. Unfortunately, there is much less information about food waste in poor nations than in wealthy countries possibly because it is more difficult to gather information about the former. Food waste in developed countries accounts for the majority of worldwide waste, yet in developing countries it is still a huge problem because poorer regions oftenfeel economic costs such as higher food prices and environmental costs such as water depletion more severely than developed areas do.

Food Waste: Causes, Effects, and Solutions (2)

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The above chartfrom a 2010report on food security compares the sources of food waste in developing countries to those indeveloped countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. Each bar represents the total food waste in agiven country, which is divided by color into different categories of food waste. For examplefood wasted during the“transport and processing” step of the food supply chain is shown in red. The chart shows very clearly that food waste which occurs“on-farm” and during “transport and processing”is the largest contributor indeveloping countries, whereas in developed countries “home and municipal” food waste dominates.

In an attempt to mitigate these costswhich food waste incurs ondeveloping countries, governmental and non-governmental organizations bring improved technology and methodology in food production, storage, transport, and marketing. For example, a recent article in National Geographic explained that “after the FAO gave 18,000 small metal silos to farmers in Afghanistan, loss of cereal grains and grain legumes dropped from 15 to 20 percent to less than 2 percent.” This advancement no doubt improved local livelihoods and contributed to a more secure, steady food supply.

NGOs have also helped to reduce food waste in developed countries like the U.S. These efforts have taken many forms, for example charitiesthatglean unharvested food from farm fields or redistribute unsold food from grocery stores to food shelters. One innovative company called Leanpath produces technology to help retailers monitor their waste, which causesstores to realize the financial cost of wasting food and subsequently leads to decreases in food waste. In the U.K., a huge campaign by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has increased public awareness so that food waste is now a major topic of discussion and thought.

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Food Waste: Causes, Effects, and Solutions (3)

This fall, activist Rob Greenfield rode across the country on his bike and ate only food he found in dumpsters, along the way hosting “Food Waste Fiascos” in which volunteers rescued food from grocery store dumpsters and then gave it away to anyone who needed it. The above photo is from one such gathering in Madison, Wisconsin and shows only a small fraction of the food salvaged from dumpsters there.

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Increased public awareness can help begin to shift strongly ingrained habits and mindsets surrounding the value and consumption of food. Even though a simple public awareness campaign might seem like an overused and unhelpful tactic, I think in this case it is a valid approach when implemented in strategic combination with others. Consumers are the greatest contributors to the food waste problem in developed countries, so we are necessarily a huge part of its solution. Simply appreciating all the work and energy that goes into food helps to value it and pay more attention to purchases and habits.

Still, top-down approaches in policy and regulation can also be extremely effective in combating food waste. In 2012 for example, Belgium passed a law requiring supermarkets to donate unsold products to local charities, using these companies’ surpluses to help meet the food needs of the poor. Rob Greenfield points out the many benefits of grocery stores donating food waste: “stores that donate…gettax write offs which means it’s profitable to donate, they spend less on dumpster fees, and most importantly they are doing what is right for their community.” Relaxinglaws about cosmetic food standards can reduce on-farm waste of ugly but perfectly edible produce. Tristram Stuart’s idea to remove the ban on feeding food waste to pigs in the European Union would help to cycle the wastes of our food system right back into food production.

Combating food waste is an essential part of meeting the food demands of a growing population: just a 15% reduction in food waste in the U.S. could feed 25 million Americans, according to the same 2009studycited earlier. Though many stress agricultural intensification and yield increases as the only solution to problems of food security, reducing food waste is clearly also part of the answer. When the problem is that many people don’t have enough food, we can try to grow more food and achieve yield increases of a few percent per year or we can distribute more effectively the nearly 40% of food that is currently being thrown away. It is extremely encouraging that this second option is already being explored and that so many viable solutions to this huge problem have been proposed and implemented. Through a diverse range of policy measures, cultural shifts, and non-profit efforts, we are slowly reducing food waste and its costs to developing and developed countries alike.

(Video) Reasons and Solutions for the Food Waste Problem

FAQs

What is the solution for food waste? ›

Pickling, drying, canning, fermenting, freezing and curing are all methods you can use to make food last longer, thus reducing waste. Not only will these methods shrink your carbon footprint, they will save you money as well. What's more, most preservation techniques are simple and can be fun.

What are the causes of food waste? ›

Food is lost or wasted for a variety of reasons: bad weather, processing problems, overproduction and unstable markets cause food loss long before it arrives in a grocery store, while overbuying, poor planning and confusion over labels and safety contribute to food waste at stores and in homes.

What are the effects of food waste? ›

When we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. And if food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces methane—a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide.

What is the solution of waste? ›

The best solution is recycling of the solid waste. It is the process of converting waste into some new or usable product thereby preventing waste disposal. Obviously landfill method of disposal has many limitations. Landfills are likely to cause air water and land pollution in spite of utmost care taken.

What are the 5 steps to reduce food waste? ›

Here are my top five tips:
  • Plan your meals. Instead of buying whatever is left on the shelves, try to buy only what you eat, and eat what you buy. ...
  • Organize your fridge for success. ...
  • Learn some new cooking skills. ...
  • Start composting. ...
  • Donate food, or prepare a meal for a neighbor.
20 Mar 2020

Who causes the most food waste? ›

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two countries with the largest populations generate the highest food waste totals, according to the report. China came first with an estimated 91.6 million tonnes of discarded food annually, followed by India's 68.8 million tonnes.

What are the types of food waste? ›

Food waste refers to food such as plate waste (i.e., food that has been served but not eaten), spoiled food, or peels and rinds considered inedible that is sent to feed animals, to be composted or anaerobically digested, or to be landfilled or combusted with energy recovery.

What causes food waste in schools? ›

The foodservice provider emerges as the most significant factor in influencing the generation of food waste at schools; other relevant factors are the amount of food prepared and the serving size, the kitchen location, the food provided for the mid-morning break, the menu composition and the geographical area.

Why does food waste affect us? ›

When food is thrown out and breaks down in the oxygen-starved environment of landfill it generates methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Composting prevents this sort of pollution. For every tonne of food waste not sent to landfill, almost one tonne of CO2 emissions is saved.

How does waste affect us? ›

The more emissions that we produce due to how much trash we generate, affects us long term. One can develop diseases such as asthma, birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular disease, childhood cancer, COPD, infectious diseases, low birth weight, and preterm delivery.

What are the effects of waste on environment? ›

Air pollution, climate change, soil and water contamination

Poor waste management contributes to climate change and air pollution, and directly affects many ecosystems and species. Landfills, considered the last resort in the waste hierarchy, release methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

Why we should reduce food waste? ›

When food is wasted, so are all of the resources used to grow and deliver the food to our tables, as well as to dispose of it. This increases our carbon footprint, contributing to global warming and climate change.

Why we should not waste food? ›

Even our average food portions have quadrupled since the 1950s. When food gets wasted, it also wastes the water, money, and fuel it takes to grow, store, transport, and sell the food we are supposed to consume.

What is the best solution of waste disposal problem? ›

Recycling. Recycling is the most obvious alternative to sending waste to a landfill. A wide range of materials can be recycled at least to some degree, and recycling can even yield potential financial benefits.

How can we stop food waste in schools? ›

The best way to tackle food waste is to make sure students consume what they take. This involves good planning by school nutrition staff, getting students involved in decision-making, and having teachers educate students on the impacts of wasted food.

How much food do students waste? ›

“In our study, we found plate waste ranging from 27% to 53% of the food served.” The food-waste audit conducted by the researchers was unusually thorough, said Costello; they combined direct weighing and digital photography to quantify the amount and specific types of foods wasted.

How much food do we waste? ›

How much food waste is there in the United States? In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply.

How food waste affects the economy? ›

At the consumption stage, food waste is responsible for about 55% of the total environmental costs, and increases food prices at all stages of the value chain by 11%. This causes production and labor loss, which impairs productivity in the economy.

How much food is wasted in the world? ›

Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year - approximately 1.3 billion tonnes - gets lost or wasted.

What is called food waste? ›

Food waste refers to food that completes the food supply chain up to a final product, of good quality and fit for consumption, but still doesn't get consumed because it is discarded, whether or not after it is left to spoil or expire.

What is food loss example? ›

Reasons for this food loss can include poor crop harvest, animal deaths, spillage, transportation issues, and insufficient storage. For example, access to reliable and consistent refrigeration is a major issue for many developing countries, and a huge contributor to lost food.

Where does food waste happen? ›

More than 50 percent of the waste occurs during “upstream,” or the production, yield handling, and storage phase, and the remaining happens during processing, distribution, and consumption stages or the “downstream” phase.

How much food is wasted in a day? ›

Each day in the United States approximately one pound of food per person is wasted. This equates to 103 million tons (206 billion pounds) of food waste generated in America in 2017, or between 30-40 percent of the food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What is in the food? ›

Food is mainly composed of water, lipids, proteins and carbohydrates. Minerals (e.g. salts) and organic substances (e.g. vitamins) can also be found in food. Plants, algae and some microorganisms use photosynthesis to make their own food molecules.

How is food recycled speech? ›

Recycling food has so many benefits. It is better for everyone, if kids don 't eat all their food it should be recycled. There is a lot of wasted food that can be recycled to farms, composted, and that in the end will help save the environment and by using less packaging can save money. …

How will food waste affect the future? ›

The food we waste contributes to global warming. Global warming is a major threat to this planet. According to the estimates, food waste accounts for 8% of the global greenhouse gases (UNEP, 2020). The food we waste ends up in landfills and produces greenhouse gases.

How does food waste affect water? ›

When You Waste Food, You're Wasting Tons Of Water, Too : The Salt Some 45 trillion gallons of water are lost each year with all of the food that's thrown out around the world, according to a report from the World Resources Institute. This represents a staggering 24 percent of all water used for agriculture.

How does food waste affect poverty? ›

For millions of people in low-income countries, this food waste happens at harvest time. Poor storage leads to pest infestations or mold that ruin crops before they can be eaten. Along with chronic poverty, conflict and natural disasters, food waste is one of the root causes of hunger worldwide.

What is organic food waste? ›

Organic waste is any material that is biodegradable and comes from either a plant or an animal. Biodegradable waste is organic material that can be broken into carbon dioxide, methane or simple organic molecules.

What are the causes of waste? ›

Causes of solid waste pollution are many. Every day, tons of solid wastes are disposed of at various landfills.
...
Major Causes of Solid Waste Pollution
  • Commercial establishments.
  • Residential houses.
  • Debris from construction and demolition.
  • Debris from roads (such as asphalt and scrap metal)
  • Scrap from vehicles.
  • Agriculture.
28 Dec 2020

How is waste managed? ›

There are four tiers to waste management to reduce its environmental impact: pollution prevention and source reduction; reuse or redistribution of unwanted, surplus materials; treatment, reclamation, and recycling of materials within the waste; and disposal through incineration, treatment, or land burial.

What is the waste problem? ›

Waste is a significant global issue. Increasing volumes of waste are being generated as the global population and living standards rise. The environmental impact is significant, with massive volumes of waste generated annually with only basic or little treatment to minimise its impact.

What are types of waste? ›

Many different types of waste are generated, including municipal solid waste, hazardous waste, industrial non-hazardous waste, agricultural and animal waste, medical waste, radioactive waste, construction and demolition debris, extraction and mining waste, oil and gas production waste, fossil fuel combustion waste, and ...

How can we save food? ›

Here are some easy actions you can take to re-connect to food and what it stands for:
  1. Adopt a healthier, more sustainable diet. ...
  2. Buy only what you need. ...
  3. Pick ugly fruit and vegetables. ...
  4. Store food wisely. ...
  5. Understand food labelling. ...
  6. Start small. ...
  7. Love your leftovers. ...
  8. Put your food waste to use.
29 Sept 2020

What is importance of food? ›

A food is something that provides nutrients. Nutrients are substances that provide: energy for activity, growth, and all functions of the body such as breathing, digesting food, and keeping warm; materials for the growth and repair of the body, and for keeping the immune system healthy.

Why do we need food? ›

Your body needs food for three reasons: food gives your body energy, provides building materials for your body, and helps control body processes. Nutrients are chemicals in food that your body needs, include carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals.

Why should we save our food? ›

Saving food means saving money, but look at the bigger picture, too. Reducing food waste is good for the planet, as it helps slow down global warming. If global food waste were a country, it would be third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US.

What are the ways we can think of to avoid waste of food? ›

1) There should be proper storage of food grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables. 2) Leaving food uneaten in meals should be prevented. 3) Excess food should be refrigerated and then reused.

Why should we reduce food waste? ›

Wholesome food that is currently wasted could help feed families in need. Safe and wholesome food that is currently thrown away could help feed hungry people and reduce food insecurity today. Each year, Feeding America and its network of food banks rescues around 3.6 billion pounds of food.

How can you save food? ›

In this article, learn about how to reduce food waste in the home, at school, and on the go.
  1. Avoid buying too much. ...
  2. Think twice before throwing food away. ...
  3. Always make a shopping list. ...
  4. Organizing the kitchen with FIFO. ...
  5. Store food correctly. ...
  6. Make a weekly menu. ...
  7. Keep a log of spoiled foods. ...
  8. Freeze extras.
16 Dec 2019

Why do we need food? ›

To provide energy needed to keep the body breathing and alive, for movement and warmth, and for growth and repair of tissues.

What are the main sources of food? ›

Plants and animals are the main source of food for all the organisms on earth. Food obtained from animals is the main source of protein and include fish, milk, meat, poultry, and cheese. Whereas plants provide us with fruits and vegetables, which are an important source of fibres, proteins and carbohydrates.

Why do we need to save food? ›

When food is wasted, the land, water, energy, and other inputs that are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing the food are wasted as well. Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Is food waste a global problem? ›

Every year 2.5 billion tons of food ends up being wasted. It's a huge problem which affects the economy, the environment and society - both globally and in your country.

How will food waste affect the future? ›

The food we waste contributes to global warming. Global warming is a major threat to this planet. According to the estimates, food waste accounts for 8% of the global greenhouse gases (UNEP, 2020). The food we waste ends up in landfills and produces greenhouse gases.

How much food do students waste? ›

“In our study, we found plate waste ranging from 27% to 53% of the food served.” The food-waste audit conducted by the researchers was unusually thorough, said Costello; they combined direct weighing and digital photography to quantify the amount and specific types of foods wasted.

What are the 10 ways to reuse? ›

Below are 10 ways to recycle, some of which also help with reducing and reusing.
  1. Use reusable bags instead of plastic. ...
  2. Reuse scrap paper for crafts. ...
  3. Repurpose glass jars and containers. ...
  4. Use cloth napkins and towels. ...
  5. Recycle electronics.
28 Jul 2014

How can we stop food waste in school? ›

The best way to tackle food waste is to make sure students consume what they take. This involves good planning by school nutrition staff, getting students involved in decision-making, and having teachers educate students on the impacts of wasted food.

Videos

1. Reasons and Solutions for the Food Waste Problem
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2. How Food Waste Affect Us
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3. Exploring Food Waste Solutions: Success Stories from the U.S. and Beyond
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4. The Solution To Food Waste
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5. Solutions to food waste and poverty #PlentyToShare
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6. Canadians get creative in solving food waste problem
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