Study Finds that Americans Throw Away 40% of All Food

One of Dryden, Ontario's Landfill's. This one ...

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Here’s a new research finding to chew on over the holidays: food waste per person in the United States has increased 50 percent since 1974. That’s 1400 calories of equivalent food waste every day, which adds up to 150 trillion calories a year. 

The study, authored by researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, was recently published in the open access journal PLoS ONE. Researchers conducted a calculation of the difference between the U.S. food supply and what’s actually eaten, which was estimated by using a model of human metabolism and known body weights.  According to the study, about 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. is thrown out.

The study also found that food waste now accounts for more than one quarter of the total freshwater consumption in the U.S. and more than 300 million barrels of oil per year.

To put all of this in context, consider a few equivalencies:

According to the CDC, Americans consume about 2600 calories a day on average.  Based on that estimate, 1400 calories is roughly a meal and a half of food wasted every day (or a Big Mac meal with a large Coke, if you prefer).

According to the USGS, total freshwater consumption in the U.S totals about 350 million gallons per day.  Based on that estimate, the present study indicates that food waste accounts for about 85 million gallons of water a day.  That’s the equivalent of daily water use in the states of California and Texas combined.

300 million barrells of oil is about the equivalent of annual oil consumption in the state of New York, or a country the size of Singapore or Thailand.

Previous research indicated that more than 29 million tons of food is wasted in the U.S. each year, or enough to fill the Rose Bowl every three days, with a cost equivalent of more than $100 billion annually.


13 thoughts on “Study Finds that Americans Throw Away 40% of All Food

  1. Mr. Disalvo,

    I was expecting you to comment on the role of “best if used by dates” on food containers that encourage the disposal of perfectly good food. These completely meaningless dates are the source of a great deal of waste. The UK is considering banning the use of “best if used by dates” because so much perfectly good is ending in landfills.

  2. What, if anything, could change this? It’s another ugly American statistic about mindless consumption/waste when millions of people worldwide are dying of starvation.

  3. Since 1974? That corresponds with Earl Butz and his “get big or get out” Dept. of Agriculture. He handed American food production over to large agribusiness monocultures, essentially destroying the family farm creating the tidal wave of cheap, unhealthy calories in which we now swim.

    Maybe all this waste indicates the real value of what is being thrown away, maybe instead of “food waste” we should think of it as “disposable manufactured calories”?

  4. David – Thank you for that link. I didn’t realize that, but you’re right that it factors into this sad situation.

    Caitlin – I think the only thing that could change this is a cultural transformation. Perhaps this recession will make a dent in the excess, but I doubt the effect will last for long once the economy recovers. I think we’re afflicted with a sense of entitlement that makes people here believe we “deserve” whatever we want. On the flip side, we are a charitable country, but what we do every day is making a bigger and negative impact than our charity.

    Todd – That’s terrific historical context, thanks for adding it!

    Andy – Your god must be quite a vicious tyrant for you to hold that opinion. Perhaps you should find a new one.

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  7. I’ve seen this firsthand through my work in the food industry and it’s truly sickening. These numbers are even bigger than I could have imagined.

    I’ve watched TUBS of un-eaten shrimp and crab legs get thrown out after dozens of banquets. I’ve seen bartenders pour newly opened wine into the sink so as to charge parties for a few more bottles. Working in Sam’s Clubs as an outside vendor, I’ve seen them throw out rotisserie chickens by the dozen after four hours on the shelf (defensible, perhaps) and once was put next to a stinky watermelon display in which most of the melons were rotten and ended up being thrown out simply because a manager forgot about them for a week.

    It’s not American people, it’s American businesses who seek to A) have the best appearance; and B) avoid lawsuits if at all possible.

    Then there is the farm subsidy, which actually creates an incentive for dairy farmers to produce more milk than they actually will sell. Ask a supermarket manager about all the dairy and meat products they throw out each week — food which the producers knew would never sell in the first place. “Get big or get out” exacerbates this.

    Americans aren’t alone — a study came out in Britain last year with similar figures. The worst part is thinking about all the energy wasted in producing and transporting what will go straight into the bin. We could at least give it to those in need or compost it.

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