Food-waste-disposal-series kickoff: Introduction, background

Americans have quite the appetite. And why wouldn’t we?! After all, we are 320 million strong and growing and in order to meet our own solid (and liquid) fuel consumption needs, our bodies require being nourished on a regular and sustained basis.

That’s but the half of it. The other 50 percent has to do with the portion we don’t eat that gets thrown away. And, believe me, it is not an insignificant amount.

LittleNeck_clams_USDA96c1862[1]So, how much food is thrown away? Of all municipal solid waste (MSW) discarded, food accounted for 37.084 million tons or 14.6 percent of a total 254.1 million tons in 20131, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its distribution Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2013 Fact Sheet, Assessing Trends in Material Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States, June 2015. This means that every American on average discards roughly 0.1158875 tons or 231.775 pounds of food yearly.

And, the amount of that that is recovered, what is that? Some 87 million out of a total 254.1 million tons of MSW.2 Of that which is recovered, food comprises only 2.1 percent which is 1.827 million tons or 3.654 billion pounds.3 Compare this with paper and paperboard, the lion’s share, which represents 49.8 percent of the total or 43.326 million tons (86.652 billion pounds).4 That’s a HUGE difference.

Keep in mind that of the MSW discarded in 2013, 167 million tons represents what wasn’t recovered.5 Food, meanwhile, accounted for 21.1 percent of that or 35.237 million tons or 70.474 billion pounds.6

The silver lining in this is that composting of food nationally went from 1.74 million tons in 2012 representing 4.8 percent to 5 percent or 1.84 million tons in 2013.7

163px-ARS_red_onion[1] According to the EPA also, overall, in 2013, recovered via composting and recycling in the U.S. were north of 22 million tons and north of 64.7 million tons of municipal solid waste, respectively, the equivalent of 0.39 pounds and 1.12 pounds, respectively, per day per capita. Furthermore, in 2013, recovered energy through combustion accounted for 32.7 million tons, and on a per-day-per-capita basis, 2.89 pounds of municipal solid waste ended up either being ignited or going to landfills; that is, apart from what MSW in America either got recycled or was turned into compost.8

Meanwhile, as to the amount of municipal solid waste converted to energy, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that as of the end of last year, the generating capacity from 71 plants in 20 states totaled 2.3 gigawatts, the bulk of those plants located in Florida and the Northeast.

This is important because all of this affects the quality of the air.

More on composting and waste-to-energy operations and what this means to follow in upcoming FWDS (food waste disposal series) posts.


  1. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2013 Fact Sheet, Assessing Trends in Material Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States, June 2015, “Analyzing MSW, Table 5. Total MSW Generation (by material), 2013: 254 Million Tons (before recycling),” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Jun. 2015, p. 7
  2. Ibid. “Table 6. Total MSW Recovery (by material), 2013: 87 Million Tons,” p. 7
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid. “Table 7. Total MSW Discards (by material), 2013: 167 Million Tons (after recycling and composting),” p. 7
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid. “Introduction,” Food (highlighted section), p. 2
  8. Ibid. “Trends in Municipal Solid Waste in 2013,” p. 4


Images: U.S. Department of Agriculture (top); Stephen Ausmus, U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service (middle); Ashley Felton (bottom)

This post was last revised on Dec. 13, 2020 @ 4:26 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

– Alan Kandel