Food Waste in the 21st Century
We think we throw it “away” – but there is no away to throw it to. Well, actually we throw it IN, mostly into municipal landfills. In 2010, the EPA estimated that Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted over 85 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.1% recycling rate. On average, we recycled and composted 1.51 pounds out of our individual waste generation of 4.43 pounds per person per day.
Before recycling and composting, about 13.9% of the municipal waste stream consists of food waste. Multiplying that back against our “individual waste generation” indicates that Americans each dispose of about two-thirds of a pound of food waste daily.
Let’s take another run at this. The USDA estimates that each person wastes about 350 pounds of food annually, the FAO estimates consumers waste between 200 and 250 pounds per year, and the EPA estimate of food in the solid waste stream is approximately 225 pounds. Using the EPA percentages of solid waste, food waste, and recycled/composted waste from food scrap collectors, we also compost about 76 pounds of food waste a year.
Like any statistical averaging, the numbers disguise the fact that active composting is disproportionate depending on location and circumstances: households living in their own homes with the space to compost may have the opportunity to do so, yet we are finding the number of home owners actively composting is decreasing in reflection of the convenience of curbside food and yard waste bins.
Regional Handling of Solid Waste, Including Food Waste
Looking at all these numbers in aggregate causes us to miss some important details. As we try to dig into the numbers to find out what might be happening to food waste in the municipal system, we find that 10 of the 50 states and District of Columbia either have no composting system for organic waste or roll their composting numbers into their recycling numbers. The State of Garbage in America report, conducted every two years by Columbia University, tells us that nationally we compost just over 6% of our solid waste.
And the amount of waste – including food and yard waste – that is composted varies greatly from region to region. From as little as 2% in the South and Rocky Mountain regions to 11% in the Western region, which includes Hawaii and Alaska. Washington State, for example, recycles and composts about 8.6% of the municipal solid waste generated.