Can the United States cut food waste in half by 2030?

Data analysis identifies the most cost-effective tactics to reduce food waste.

Fighting hunger and reducing food waste go hand in hand. Forty-eight million families in the U.S. struggle to put food on the table. At the same time, millions of tons of food are being dumped into landfills at an increasing rate each year. Not only does food waste contribute to hunger, but it also has other adverse ramifications, such as environmental degradation and economic inefficiencies. To read more about some of these consequences, see the Michigan State University Extension article Wasted food has multiple consequences for people and the planet.  

According to Feeding America, “Up to 40 percent of the good, safe food produced in America never makes it to people’s plates. Instead 40 percent, or 70 million tons, goes to waste.” Thus, solutions to food insecurity and hunger must start with solutions to food waste. What can be done?

ReFED is a data-based website with a roadmap detailing the most cost-effective strategies and solutions to this question with a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. The website lists 27 key tactics that can be used to reach this goal. The top three solutions, based on cost-benefit analyses are consumer education campaigns, standardized date labeling and packaging adjustments. The ReFED team conducted comprehensive analyses of collected data and determined the financial costs and benefits of each solution, which were then used to determine the overall economic benefit to society. The information suggests that reducing food waste not only alleviates food insecurity by saving meals, but it also generates economic returns by avoiding food costs and creating new businesses. ReFED data suggest that increasing consumer education about food waste could have an overall economic benefit of $2.65 billion. There is the potential to divert 584,000 tons of food waste from landfills and onto our plates.

Largely due to a lack of awareness surrounding the negative effects of food waste, consumers, by far, are the main contributors to food waste in the United States. Increased awareness can result in improved meal planning in a more time sensitive fashion. While this solution, according to ReFED, yields the highest economic benefit, it also comes with significant challenges. It is difficult to increase consumer’s concern and help them perceive the potential remedies to the food waste problem. It is also difficult to track changes in consumer behavior. There are several campaigns underway for those that are interested in learning more: Love Food Hate Waste and Save the Food.

Standardized date labeling also could return a high economic benefit of $1.8 billion per year with a diversion potential of 398,000 tons. Many consumers get confused with date labels on food, causing them to throw away food unnecessarily. For example, someone may confuse a “sell by” date with a “use by” date, which may cause that person to waste perfectly good food. ReFED estimates that 20 percent of consumer food loss is tied to this confusion.

Again, there are some difficult hurdles to jump in order to implement change. There is no regulatory agency with the authority to act on this topic. There are also few incentives for businesses to modify their date labels, because doing so would yield little to no benefit for them. According to ReFED, “Nineteen states restrict sale of products after the date on the label has passed, even though the majority have no safety risk associated with the date. In addition to food waste, this leads to fines when retailers have past-date products in their stores.” Suggested solutions include the Food and Recovery Act and replacing “use by” dates with “freeze by” dates.

The third most cost-effective solution to combating food waste, according to ReFED, is implementing new packaging adjustments. The economic value per ton here is $715 million per year with a diversion potential of 208,000 tons. Studies suggest that changing the way food is packaged, for example, packaging food in smaller containers, can help to reduce waste. Obstacles though include insufficient data, environmental harm and small incentives for manufactures to modify. Some useful examples of packaging adjustments to reduce waste are Little Big Loaf and MIT's Freaky Non-Stick Coating Keeps Ketchup Flowing.

ReFED’s website provides details on 24 other solutions to fight food waste based on cost-benefit analyses that determine not only the financial benefit, but also the emissions reduced, water saved, jobs created and meals recovered. The report offers an assessment of the feasibility of these 27 solutions and provides stakeholders with an optimistic outlook for the future. The endeavor to reduce U.S. food waste by 50 percent will require significant investments of time and money; however, it will yield environmental and economic benefits that greatly outweigh the costs of action. With a multi-stakeholder approach to financing, policy, innovation and education, we can work to achieve this goal and work toward a more sustainable future.

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