January 09, 2024

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Zero waste is best: Suggestions for helping our planet and climate by reducing food waste - Padma Veeru-Collings


Zero waste is best: Suggestions for helping our planet and climate by reducing food waste

Padma Veeru-Collings

LLM Blog/Fall 2023


Our earth’s population exceeded eight billion in November 2022.[1] As our world’s population grows so does the demand for food. To meet food demands, food production must increase, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions.[2] Unfortunately, most consumers do not often consider the nexus between food production, food waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.


Estimates show that food production is responsible for about twenty-six percent (26%) of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere globally.[3] Conservatively, food loss and waste, which are side effects of food production, account for six percent (6%) of greenhouse gas emissions.[4] Up to forty percent (40%) of food or about one point three (1.3) billion tons of food, enough to feed about three billion people, is wasted each year.[5]


This blog discusses the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and food loss and waste. It advocates that one approach to lower greenhouse gas emissions is to make individuals, that is all of us who use and consume, accountable for the health of the planet! Every consumer should be involved in efforts to reduce food waste and loss because we are the stewards of our world.


Background on Food Waste and Loss

Food waste and loss occur during each stage of food production to consumers, from the initial soil preparation, to harvest, distribution, and consumption of food across the globe.[6] Post-harvest food losses account for over forty percent (40%) of total food loss in underdeveloped countries.[7] Food waste occurs at a rate of approximately forty percent (40%) at the retail and consumer levels in rich countries due to inadequate storage, handling techniques, lack of refrigeration, deterioration in transport and processing, and food thrown away.[8]


Global food waste totals about US $48.3 billion each year.[9] According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in the United States, people throw away about thirty-one percent (31%) of the food they buy.[10] In addition, a third of food thrown out at the retail level by sellers is due to aesthetic reasons. For example, in the United States, about sixty (60) million tons of fruits and vegetables are thrown away each year because they are considered “too ugly” to be sold.[11] Twenty percent (20%) of supermarket food is discarded because it does not meet quality standards, which are generally focused on the appearance of food, rather than nutritional issues.[12] Homes and companies account for eighty-three percent (83%) of all food waste.[13] One-fourth of our global water supply, totaling over US $172 billion, is lost due to food waste.[14] Water loss occurs when rainwater mixes with decomposing waste resulting in leachate, a toxic liquid, which contaminates groundwater and surface water sources.[15]


Food Waste as a Climate Issue

According to a 2021 report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the environmental effects of food waste, the annual food loss and waste in the United States accounts for 170 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.[16] This amount excludes methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from food waste that rot in landfills. An estimated fifty-eight percent (58%) of the methane released in landfills is due to food waste.[17] The EPA data shows that the most often dumped and burned substance in the United States is food waste, making up twenty-four percent (24%) and twenty-two percent (22%) of both landfilled and burned municipal solid waste, respectively.[18]


The World Economic Forum (WEF) maintains that climate goals cannot be reached without first addressing global food production. The WEF adds that even if emissions from fossil fuels ceased, emissions from food production alone would exceed acceptable carbon levels.[19] Thus, reducing and eliminating food waste is crucial to reducing greenhouse gases.


Possible Solutions

While the average consumer may believe they are helpless in the fight against climate change and assume that they cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they do have the capacity and ability to reduce food waste, which in turn can reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.


Studies show that we must lessen the quantity of food waste we generate to affect climate change positively.[20] Efforts to address climate change and food waste have been ongoing for years. In the United States, in September 2015, the USDA and the EPA set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030, but as of October 2023, not much progress has occurred.[21] This is because the EPA and the USDA lack a baseline for food loss that happens during food production and up to but not including the retail levels in the United States.[22]


How can we reduce food waste if concentrated efforts as illustrated above by United States federal agencies have not been effective? Some may argue that passing laws is the greatest way to combat food waste. However, passing legislation is time-consuming at any level of government. When there is an ideological polarization between individuals legislative delays increase. That said in the United States numerous state initiatives and legislation to reduce food waste have been introduced.[23] However, we will not know the effectiveness of these initiatives and legislation until the future since they were recently enacted.


International efforts are also worth mentioning. Of note, in December 2015, during the United Nations Climate Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, 196 countries adopted an international treaty— a “legally binding treaty on climate change” or legislation, if you will, to address climate change.[24] COP21 aimed to reduce the average world temperatures down to less than 2° Celsius. World leaders are now pushing to keep global warming to 1.5° Celsius.[25]


Many individuals are calling for food issues to be discussed during the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP 28), which will take place in November and December of 2023, pointing out that it will be crucial to consider food issues as a way to accomplish this 1.5° Celsius goal.

In her introduction to the October 23, 2023, webinar co-sponsored by the Humane Society International, Lewis & Clark Law School, Mercy for Animals, Columbia Global Centers, and Climate Hub Rio de Janeiro, and held before the COP 28 meeting, Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Professor of Climate and Director of the Food for Humanity Initiative at Columbia Climate School stated that food systems contribute to environmental degradation and climate change and that climate change will hurt crop yields and nutritional value.[26] Extrapolated from the core of her message is food waste leads to climate change and climate change leads to adverse impacts on food production.


Another speaker at the Webinar, Tulio Andrade, Head for Climate Negotiation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brazil, argued that this is the moment of truth and that were not at the stage in 2023, we hoped to be in 2015. Mr. Andrade added that many of the risks assessed in 2014 are even higher in 2023. His comments underscore the urgency of the impact of food waste and loss on climate change.[27]


While legislation and global treaties are vehicles forward in efforts to address food waste as a climate change issue, a faster way to effectuate change is through individual consumer awareness and commitment especially, if the consumer knows that individual action on the part of the individual will make a difference. This awareness will also reduce apathy on the part of the consumer. In addition to the altruistic reasons for individual efforts to reduce food waste and reduce carbon footprints, creating an awareness that reducing food waste will help the consumer save money may be another motivating factor to create change in consumer behavior. Modifying consumer behavior through small, and simple tasks can be implemented immediately and have a positive effect on climate change. Educating all groups, especially younger age groups is another powerful tool to lower food waste, reduce greenhouse emissions, and ensure sustainable climate change behaviors.


Advocating for programs in elementary schools to educate children about food waste and its harmful effects on the environment will help children learn new behaviors that are sustainable for the future. They, in turn, become powerful advocates in educating others and effectuating behavior change. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations provides publicly available guides on educating children of various age groups,[28] so elementary schools do not need to build a curriculum to help children learn the necessity of reducing food waste and decreasing their carbon footprint and greenhouse gases. Elementary schools need only incorporate this information as part of their mandatory curriculum.


Other strategies to encourage behavioral changes in individual consumers could involve the following approaches. First, local municipalities, the EPA, environmental groups or individuals banded together should advocate for revision of the USDA food grading metric, where the USDA focuses more on actual safety issues, and not on cosmetic issues. It is noteworthy that the USDA estimates that through its network of food banks, which take in “ugly produce,” Feeding America saves around three point six (3.6) billion pounds of food annually.[29] If Feeding America saves three point six (3.6) billion pounds of food annually by dispersing it to those experiencing food insecurity, and the nutritional quality of the produce is uncompromised, why not revise the USDA food grading metric/standard? Then while waiting for the USDA food grading metric/standards revisions, local municipalities should use public service announcements to promote the purchase and consumption of fruits and vegetables, regardless of their aesthetic appeal. Misshapen fruits and vegetables are typically not found in grocery stores in the United States because of the food grading by the USDA. To encourage the consumption of such produce, municipalities could allow for bins in designated areas of grocery stores and supermarkets for this produce to be offered at a lower price. It is important to emphasize that the nutritional value of misshapen fruits and vegetables remains unaffected by their appearance. Purchasing “ugly produce” is a win-win situation for the consumer because “ugly produce” is typically less expensive than aesthetically beautiful fruit and vegetables, which arguably could be genetically engineered.


The typical consumer should also “ban” throwing out food in their home and commit instead to using all of their produce’s components to reduce food waste. Food waste occurs because consumers buy more than they eat. With some simple changes, the consumer can reduce their carbon footprint. These changes may include techniques such as using leftovers to make stock, juicing all portions of produce, freezing, pickling, canning, utilizing fruit and vegetable peelings in bread, muffins, and other baked goods, and donating excess food grown in private produce gardens or bought from supermarkets to food banks. In addition, consumers should buy only what they need, store food at the right temperature to keep food fresh and arrange newer items in the back of the refrigerator and older products in the front.[30] Another strategy is for individuals to establish neighborhood co-ops to exchange food or share food they are not using.

Consumers may also minimize food waste by composting.[31] By diverting organic waste from landfills and open dumping locations, composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions and contamination. This approach minimizes refuse at dump sites and reduces common issues of fires, odors, and rat infestations at the sites. Further, consumers could use garbage cans for organic trash to collect organic waste for composting even if they are not a widespread way to reduce food waste in landfills. Thus, diverting food waste from ending up in landfills.[32] Many cities now provide their citizens with compost bins.[33] Some states have enacted laws to mandate composting. For instance, in 2022, California enacted a new law to reduce food waste in landfills by seventy-five percent (75%), which equates to taking a million cars off the roads each year.[34]



By increasing individual awareness, education, and individual responsibility, and adding legal mandates as appropriate, food waste can be reduced, which in turn will reduce greenhouse emissions. Individual efforts to reduce food waste will have a positive impact on personal empowerment, the environment, and individual budgets and is probably the fastest way to reduce greenhouse gases.


[1] “Day of Eight Billion”, November 15, 2022, https://www.un.org/day of 8 billion; The human race at 8 billion, November 14, 2022, Kight, Stef W., Lysik, Tory, https://www.axios.com/2022/11/14/global-population-8-billion-data-world-human-un

[2] Greenhouse gas is any gas that can absorb and re-radiate infrared radiation that the surface of the Earth releases. When greenhouse gases are expelled into the air, they trap solar heat, which in turn, affects the climate.

www.nationalgrid.com; www.brittannica.com/science/greenhouse-gas

[3] Hannah Ritchie (2019) - “Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https: //ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions.

[4] Hannah Ritchie (2020) - “Food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/food-waste-emissions’

[5] How Food Waste Affects World Hunger, November 15, 2021 (updated July 8, 2022), https; www.wfpusa.org/articles/how-food-wate-affects-world-hunger

[6] “Seeking end to loss and waste of food along production chain” https://www.fao.org/in-action/seeking-end-to-loss-and-waste-of-food-along-production-chain/

[7] “How to reduce postharvest crop losses in the agricultural supply chain” November 18, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/agriculture/our-insights/how-to-reduce-postharvest-crop-loss

[8] “Five facts about food waste and hunger” June 2, 2020, World Food Programme, https://www.wfp.org/stories/5-facts-about-food-waste-and-hunger

[9] “Food Waste Worldwide” updated December 2023, https://thebarbecuelab.com/food-waste

[10] “How much food waste is there in the United States?” https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs See also “How much food are we wasting?” June 3, 2022; https://www.markepyplace.org/2022/06/03/how-much-food-are-we-wasting;

[11] “How Much Food Do American Waste” December 23, 2021, https;//earth.org/how-much-food do American-waste

[12] “Why We Waste: Ugly Food, Expiration Dates, and More” https://foodwastefeast.com/why-we-waste-ugly-food-expiration-dates-and-more

[13] “Food Waste Worldwide” https://thebarbecuelab.com/food-waste/

[14] “25 Shocking Facts About Food Waste” September 29, 2023, https://earth.org/facts-about-food-waste; See also www.epa.gov/land-research/farm-kitchen; www.nchi.nih.gov/pmc/articles

[15]“How is Food Waste a Problem to our environment” https://www.transformationholdings.com/environment/how-is-food-waste-a-problem-to-our-environment

[16] “Food Waste Research” www.epa.gov/land-research/food-waste-research; “Food Loss and Waste” www.usda.gov/foodlossandwaste/why

[17] “EPA reports quantify methane emissions from organic waste, retire food recovery hierarchy” October 20, 2023, https://www.wastedive.com/news/epa-wasted-food-scale-food-waste-landfill-methane-emissions; See also www.epa.gov/land-research/quantifying methane Emissions from Landfilled Food waste.

[18] “Food Waste Research” www.epa.gov/land-research/food-waste-research; “Food Loss and Waste” www.usda.gov/foodlossandwaste/why

[19] “5 ways we can reduce food emissions to keep global temperatures down” June 23, 2021, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/emissions-food-carbon-budget-opportunities; See also Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, IPCC (2022), 12.4.3, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGIII_FullReport.pdf

[20] “New research urges data-drive action for agriculture and food systems change” December 19, 2023; https://www.fao.org/newsroom/detail/new-research-urges-data-driven-action-for-agriculture-and-food; “SAVE FOOD for a Better Climate Converting the Food Loss and Waste into Climate Action” November 14, 2017, https://www.fao.org/save-food/news-and-multimedia/news/news-details

[21] www.brittannica.com/science/greenhouse-gas linking to the article Americans are still putting way too much food into landfills. Local officials seek EPA’s help; https://apnews.com/article/epa-food-waste-methane; https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/americans; www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/united-states-20230-food-loss-and-waste-reduction-goal

[22] www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/united-states-2030-food-loss-and-waste-reduction-goal; United States 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal | US EPA

[23] For example HB 17989 Washington State; Rhode Island RI H7542; New York A09624; Connecticut CT HB5146; Maryland MD SB124; New Jersey NJ S421

[24] “The Paris Agreement” https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement

[25] Id.

[26] Food in the Global Stocktake webinar held October 24, 2023, by Humane Society International, Lewis & Clark Law School, Mercy for Animals, Columbia Global Centers, and Climate Hub Rio de Janeiro; https://youtu.be/-pLmk4bhjjY?si=J4N9PnQr3L_kHKcm

[27] Id.

[28] “Policy Support and Governance Gateway – Food Loss and Food Waste” https://www.fao.org/policy-support/policy-themes/food-loss-food-waste

[29] “Why should we care about food waste?” https://www.usda.gov/foodlossandwaste/why

[30] “5 Ways to Reduce Household Waste – Bard College” https://leadthechange.bard.edu/blog/5waystoreducehouseholdfoodwaste; “16 ways to reduce food waste at home, school, and more” December 17, 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/howtoreducefoodwaste; “Want to reduce your food waste at home? Here are the 6 best evidence-based ways to do it” September 28, 2021, https://theconversation.com/want-to-reduce-your-waste-at-home-here-are-the-6-best-evidence-based-ways-to-do-it-168561; https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/reduce-food-waste; https://www.epa.gov/recycle/preventing-wasted-food-home

[31] Composting is the process of mixing organic waste with decomposable materials such as woodchips to produce nutrient-rich soil that can be used as fertilizer. “Composting 101” https://www.nrdc.org/stories/composting-101

[32] “Garbage Disposal vs Trash Can? What’s Better for the Environment” February 22, 2021, https://ecomyths.org/sink-disposals-vs.trashcans

[33] “Where to Compost” https://www.litterless.com/wheretocompost

[34] “A new law in California requires food waste to be composted” February 2, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/02/07/1078777253/a-new-law-in-California-requires-food-waste-to-be-composted