Leading the Movement to End Food Waste
Food waste is a deeply cultural phenomenon, boosted by food industries whose profits are based on how much food is bought, not how much food is eaten. Food production is resource intensive and discarded food is a significant contributor to climate change. In the U.S., 40% of food grown for human consumption is discarded. Each year, 52.4 million tons of food material is sent to the landfill, and an additional 10.1 million tons remains unharvested at farms. Environmental impacts include nutrient run-off, water pollution from farming practices, and the environmental degradation caused by landfills. Landfills contribute 16% of total U.S. methane emissions; food waste is the second largest contributor to landfill methane, accounting for 14.5% of total municipal solid waste sent to those landfills.
Reducing wasted food in the United States will require a significant cultural shift and systematic changes to support consumers who want to reduce their own level of food waste. Food waste reduction opportunities are classified into three-tiers: prevention, recovery and, recycling. Prevention measures carry the most impact because these interventions stop waste from occurring in the first place, therefore saving the energy, water, and land resources required along the supply chain. Of the $14.5M that philanthropy contributed to food waste-related initiatives from 2012-2014, less than 5% went toward preventative solutions.
ReFED, a nonprofit formed to facilitate food waste reduction in the U.S, identified 27 opportunities among the three tiers to achieve a 20% reduction in food waste nationwide by 2025. ReFED’s analysis (the “Roadmap”) revealed the two most beneficial opportunities to reduce food waste fall in the preventative tier-- consumer education campaigns and standardized food date labeling. These solutions address the systemic drivers of food waste: the cultural forces allowing such extreme waste and unregulated and misleading food date labels.
As the central figure in the U.S. food waste movement, ReFED established a multi-stakeholder Date Labeling Working Group in late 2016 to address the opportunities identified in its analysis. The thirty-plus members of the the Working Group include the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) with the aim to reach industry consensus on date label standards for perishable and nonperishable products. In early 2017, GMA and FMI announced a voluntary standard for date label language, choosing “Best if Used By” for quality-related products and “Use By” for safety-related products. ReFED is leveraging its facilitator role by working with the other stakeholders to help implement this process throughout each organization’s product lines. As progress is made, consumer education plans will be rolled out and areas of additional research will be identified.
The Roadmap demonstrates that 5% to 10% of national food waste could be reduced over the next decade through date labeling work. Collective action over the next 24 months among ReFED and other stakeholders could feasibly trigger a 4% food waste reduction nationwide, equating to about 2.6 million tons of wasted food. This reduction equates to 3.6 million tons of GHG emissions and 320 billion gallons of fresh water.