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Reducing Food Waste in Municipal Solid Waste Streams

food_imageIt’s about a week after the Thanksgiving Holiday here in the U.S. and the season of cheer and merriment is upon us. We have survived the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday – and, more than likely, all of these events were accompanied with food, desserts and beverages. Most of us are gearing up for more of the same over the next four weeks as we attend holiday parties, do more shopping and take Christmas vacations or prepare for visits from family members and friends.

Santa Claus isn’t the only one who is making a list and checking it twice. You are more than likely to find a visible grocery shopping list in many American households, and it has extra items on it as we descend into the holiday season. Most of us think about shopping for groceries and other food items, however, fewer persons pre-plan their shopping lists to minimize the volume of food that is not consumed and thrown away. This posts focuses on food wastes as a part of America’s waste stream.  More specifically, it ties into this year’s theme for the 2015-2016 National Future City Competition.

Working in teams of three, middle school students participating in the Future City Competition have been tasked to design a municipality of the future that includes an innovative citywide solid waste management system that is safe, environmentally sound, and energy efficient. They must also write a 1,500-word essay describing the unique attributes of their city and provide a solution to this year’s waste management challenge: Waste Not, Want Not.

Managing our trash and garbage has proven to be a constant headache for many municipalities for some time. As defined by EPA, Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)—more commonly known as trash or garbage—consists of everyday items we use and then throw away, such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries. This comes from our homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses.


Figure 1: Total MSW Generation in 2013 (by Material) – 254 Million Tons (before recycling)

For calendar year 2013, EPA reports that Americans generate 254 tons of waste before recycling. Figure 1 shows the four largest MSW streams are paper (27%) followed by food (14.6%), yard trimmings (13.5%) and plastics (12.8%). While most people don’t think of food waste as a problem, it is.

Environmentally, food waste leads to wasteful use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides; more fuel used for transportation; and more rotting food, creating more methane – one of the most harmful greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change. Methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The vast amount of food going to landfills makes a significant contribution to global warming. [Ref 1]

In addition to the above, consider these food waste facts this holiday season:

  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
  • Every year, consumers in developed countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
  • The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop (2.3 billion tonnes in 2009/2010).
  • Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labor and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.
  • In the United States 30% of all food, worth US $48.3 billion (€32.5 billion), is thrown away each year. It is estimated that about half of the water used to produce this food also goes to waste, since agriculture is the largest human use of water. (Jones, 2004 cited in Lundqvist et al., 2008)

As a reminder, the theme for last year’s National Future City Competition focused on feeding a projected global population of 9.6 billion people by 2050. Reducing our food waste streams can certainly be one solution for meeting that goal.

Therefore, remember to enjoy the holidays with food and drink, however, waste not, want not.

Tis the Season…


  1. Global Food Losses and Food Waste, presented by Jenny Gustavsson, Christel Cederberg & Ulf Sonesson of SIK – The Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology at the Save Food Congress, Düsseldorf 16 May 2011, http://www.madr.ro/docs/ind-alimentara/risipa_alimentara/presentation_food_waste.pdf


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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