EPA Initiatives Help the US Take a Bite Out of Food Waste

Caption US EPA

Food waste piles up, too.

For a long time in the United States, the massive amount of food wasted in this land of bounty was given little thought. But luckily, times have changed. People are now awakening to see food waste as the problem that it is: as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in landfills, an unnecessary waste of money and as a tremendous drain on resources like energy, water and food itself. In 2013, over 37 million tons of food waste was discarded. Overall, roughly 40 percent US food is wasted, which accounts for 21 percent of total waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators, the largest of any solid waste category.

No organization knows the downsides of food waste better than the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency that helps monitor food waste and regulate its management. That's why the EPA created the Sustainable Management of Food program which includes a host of useful and engaging initiatives and tools for those setting out to reduce food waste in their home, school, community, business or in government.

To discover how the EPA is working every day to slice away food waste, read what Rachel Chaput, EPA Sustainable Materials Management Program staff member, has to say.  

Building on the familiar concept of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," [the Sustainable Management of Food] approach changes how we think about environmental protection and recognizes the impacts of the food we waste.

What initiatives has the EPA created to meet the goal of cutting food waste in the US by 50 percent by 2030? 

Sustainable materials management (SMM) is a systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their lifecycles. It represents a change in how society thinks about the use of natural resources and environmental protection. By looking at a product's lifecycle, we can find new opportunities to reduce environmental impacts, conserve resources and reduce costs. The EPA's data has shown that one of the most impactful areas for us to try to encourage conservation is in the area of wasted food. In 2011, the EPA launched the Sustainable Management of Food (SFM) and in 2012 we began the Food Recovery Challenge (FRC).

Sustainable Management of Food is a systematic approach that seeks to reduce wasted food and its associated environmental impacts over the food's lifecycle, from extraction of natural resources and manufacturing, to sales and consumption, and ending with decisions on recycling or final disposal. Through a Sustainable Management of Food approach, the EPA is helping change the way society protects the environment and conserves resources for future generations. Building on the familiar concept of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," this approach changes how we think about environmental protection and recognizes the impacts of the food we waste.

The FRC is a free and voluntary EPA program in which organizations pledge to improve their sustainable food practices, and report their results. Participating organizations are encouraged to follow the Food Recovery Hierarchy to prioritize their actions to prevent and divert wasted food.

[NOTE: GRACE is an official Endorser of the Food Recovery Challenge.]

You can learn about how to join the Food Recovery Challenge and how the program works.

In addition, the US Food Waste Challenge is a joint program launched in 2013 by the USDA and the EPA. The US Food Waste Challenge provides a platform to assess and disseminate information about the best practices to reduce, recover and recycle food loss and waste. You can read and learn more about the US Food Waste Challenge.

How can businesses and organizations be incentivized to reduce food waste? What steps can they take?

Food costs a lot of money, and wasting food is expensive! In 2008, the EPA estimated that food waste cost roughly $1.3 billion to dispose of in landfills. Reducing food waste means saving money. As a participant in the FRC, the benefits include:

  • Reduce your environmental footprint.
  • Help your community by donating nutritious, leftover food to feed hungry people, not landfills.
  • Save money by purchasing less and lowering waste disposal fees.
  • Gain visibility by having your name listed on the EPA's website.
  • Receive recognition through awards and social media.
  • Get free technical assistance in the form of webinars, an online database, and resources to help you plan, implement and track your activities.
  • Get a free climate change report to highlight your positive effect on the environment.

What gaps exist on the federal level to curtail food waste nationally?

There are many data gaps as far as our knowledge of the lifecycle of food, but in particular we lack data about on-farm food losses. The EPA participates in a national measurement team that strives to address some of these gaps. 

The FRC works with organizations of all types: for-profit businesses, nonprofit and educational institutions, even state and local agencies. This leaves out residential food waste. It is estimated that households throw away 25 percent of the food they buy, so there is a lot of room for improvement. The "Food: Too Good to Waste" toolkit is meant to be implemented across a group or community, but the tools are also useful and educational for individual households.  

Is the EPA staff taking the challenge, too?

EPA staff is not an 'organization' per se, and thus is ineligible to participate in the Food Recovery Challenge, but EPA office buildings have begun various efforts to reduce their food waste. In Region 2's New York office, the EPA began a coordinated effort to collect food waste in the office kitchens throughout the building. We collected 3,823 pounds in 2014, and 4,405 in 2015.This food is collected by an off-site composter once per week. 

Stay up to date with the latest from EPA Region 2 and the Sustainable Management of Food intiatives! 

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