From Field to Bin: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste Management Pathways

Over one-third of the food produced in the United States is never eaten, wasting the resources used to produce it – and much of it is sent to landfills, where it breaks down and generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Wasted food is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the United States, comprising 24% and 22% of landfilled and combusted municipal solid waste, respectively, presenting opportunities for increased prevention and recycling. 

EPA prepared the report – From Field to Bin: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste Pathways – to investigate the environmental impacts and contributions to a circular economy of eleven common pathways to manage wasted food – from source reduction to composting to landfill. The report employs two methodologies to assess the pathways: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Circularity Assessment. A review of approximately 250 life cycle analyses helped to determine the life cycle environmental impacts of each pathway, and a qualitative assessment of each pathway’s contribution to a circular economy was performed, focusing on the environmental aspects of circularity. This report synthesizes the latest science on the environmental impacts of how food waste is commonly managed in the U.S. 

Based on these findings, the From Field to Bin report presents a new ranking of the eleven common wasted food pathways, from most to least environmentally preferable. EPA’s new ranking – called the Wasted Food Scale, below – replaces the agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy developed in the 1990s. The Wasted Food Scale reflects the latest science as well as technological advances and changes in operational practices in the wasted food pathways since the Food Recovery Hierarchy was developed. Pathways are grouped into tiers where EPA determined them to have equivalent performance. The Scale emphasizes the importance of prevention and of diverting food waste from the sewer/wastewater treatment, landfill, and controlled combustion (i.e., incineration) pathways.

EPA’s Wasted Food Scale is a curved spectrum showing options for reducing the environmental impacts of wasted food, from most preferred to least preferred. The options are to prevent wasted food, donate food, upcycle food, feed animals, leave food unharvested, use anaerobic digestion with beneficial use of digestate or biosolids, compost, use anaerobic digestion without beneficial use of digestate or biosolids, or apply food waste to the land. Sending food waste down the drain, landfilling, and incineration should be avoided.

In addition to the new Wasted Food Scale, the report drew the following conclusions:

  • Source reduction, donation and upcycling are the most environmentally preferable pathways because they can displace additional food production. The benefits of pathways beyond source reduction, donation, and upcycling are small relative to the environmental impacts of food production; thus, they can do little to offset the environmental impacts of food production.
  • Sewer/wastewater treatment and landfill stand out for their sizeable methane emissions. 
  • Recycling wasted food into soil amendments offers opportunities to make long-term improvements in soil structure and health and help regenerate ecosystems by recovering nitrogen and carbon and returning them to the soil.
  • As the U.S. becomes less dependent on fossil fuels for energy, the environmental value of producing energy from wasted food will decrease.

Download the full report: From Field to Bin: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste Management Pathways (Part 2) (pdf) 

This article is reposted with permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Author: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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