Sustainable America Blog

7 Exciting Findings from ReFED’s Food Waste Report

One solution to food waste is developing the market for imperfect produce

Photo: lukestehr via Flickr

On Wednesday, a group of the country’s foremost experts and business leaders concerned with food waste convened in Stanford, Calif., for the release of a report that could be a turning point in the movement to reduce food waste in the United States. The report, A Roadmap for Reducing Food Waste by 20 Percent, looks at the problem of food waste through an economic lens. It analyzes the costs and benefits of various solutions to the problem and offers up strategies for putting the solutions into action.

The first report of its kind, the Roadmap was developed by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), a coalition of over 30 business, nonprofit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste at scale. It is a guide the entire food community can use to move forward with purpose to reduce the 62.5 million tons of food that’s wasted annually. Here are some of the most exciting findings.

62.5 million tons of food is wasted annually in the United States

1. Food Waste is a solvable problem. The report concludes that food waste is a problem we can solve. An investment of $18 billion over 10 years can reduce U.S. food waste by 20% and yield $100 billion of economic value to society. With an expected diversion of 13 million tons of food waste from landfills and on-farm losses, the investment would boil down to less than a tenth of a penny per pound of waste reduced. This investment would also put the nation on track to meet the government’s goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. Considering that food waste is currently costing farms, businesses and consumers $218 billion annually, according to the report, we can’t afford not to take action.

2. Fighting food waste can drive profits, create jobs, relieve hunger and benefit the environment. We already knew these things, but the ReFED report backs it all up with data. Here’s a visual rundown of the benefits we’ll reap from putting a comprehensive food waste reduction plan in place — billions of meals rescued, trillions of gallons of water saved, millions of tons of greenhouse gases reduced and thousands of jobs created.

An $18 billion investment in 27 solutions to food waste will yield $100 billion in societal economic value

3. Consumers stand to gain billions every year. Approximately 43% of known food waste occurs in homes. That translates to $144 billion that consumers spend on food that is never eaten. Strategies like investing in a consumer education campaign on the scale of Smokey the Bear and standardizing date labels that confuse us into tossing food that’s still safe to eat will help consumers save $5.6 billion annually, according to the report.

Consumers spend $144 billion on food that is never eaten

4. The number of meals recovered to feed the hungry can double. There is tremendous opportunity to streamline and scale up the food recovery ecosystem, which is good news for food banks and food rescue organizations around the country. To make it happen, legislation is needed to maintain and expand tax incentives for business donations, as well as to standardize safe food handling regulations. For instance, health regulations currently vary by city and state, which hampers national companies from developing uniform food donation policies, the report states. Another big opportunity for food recovery comes from farm surpluses. Solutions like donation-matching software; improved donation transportation, storage and handling infrastructure; and value-added processing can help save perfectly good produce from getting plowed under.

5. Restaurants and foodservice facilities will profit from reducing food waste. The report found that restaurants and foodservice facilities have the largest opportunity to profit from food waste prevention and reduction. They stand to gain $1.6 billion annually through actions like tracking and analyzing waste to inform operational changes, switching to smaller plates or “trayless” dining, and incorporating “imperfect” produce into their offerings. Seeing those numbers will hopefully go a long way toward convincing the restaurant industry to make reducing food waste a top priority.

Food recycling is the most scalable way to reduce food waste, representing nearly 75% of the total potential, or 9.5 million tons per year.

6. Scaling up food recycling in a few large cities can prevent millions of tons of waste. According to ReFED’s analysis, recycling is the most scalable way to reduce food waste, representing nearly 75% of the total potential, or 9.5 million tons per year. However, recycling solutions like centralized composting and anaerobic digestion also require heavy upfront investment and the development of reliable supplies of waste and healthy markets for the end products (compost, renewable natural gas). The report zeros in on the Northeast, Midwest and Northwest as regions with the most promise for scaling up centralized composting, and the Northeast and Northwest for anaerobic digestion.

7. Collaboration is necessary — and happening already. One of the report’s key findings is that the success of many of the solutions, like standardizing date labeling, improving donation transportation and upgrading water resources recovery facilities to include anaerobic digestion, relies on multiple stakeholders from different sectors working together. But if the coalition of leaders involved in publishing the report is any indication, it seems that there are plenty of stakeholders willing to collaborate on pushing these solutions forward. ReFED is going to continue to act as a facilitator among key groups in order to make progress on many of the solutions.

We are grateful to ReFED for publishing this report, which will inform Sustainable America’s efforts to reduce food waste, like I Value Food, our consumer education campaign; our work helping businesses and organizations waste less food; and our investments in companies like EcoScraps and California Safe Soil that are recycling food waste into valuable products. Together, we can make a difference.

4 Surprising Findings About Food Waste
Top 5 Food Waste Trends of 2015
Quiz: How Much Food Do You Waste?

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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