EPA Report: How Environmentally Damaging Is Food Waste?

The right packaging sure can help.

The United Nations has estimated that if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the U.S.

However, packaging waste seems to be greater concern in our nation than food waste. Many people wonder: Doesn’t all that food packaging just exacerbate the problem by creating more waste?

Actually, just the opposite. Studies find that use of packaging greatly offsets the impacts of wasted food. That’s because researchers have found up to ten times more resources (materials, energy, water, etc.) are used to make and distribute food than are used to make the packaging that protects it.

And wasting all those resources has huge impacts. How environmentally damaging is our nation’s food waste?

Imagine growing food in an agricultural space as large as California and New York state combined. Now imagine throwing it all away. Into landfills and incinerators.

Now stop imagining. According to a late 2021 report from EPA (From Farm to Kitchen), that’s what we do as a nation.

It’s not pretty. Some highlights from the report:

  • “Over one-third of the food produced in the United States is never eaten.”
  • The most common material buried in U.S. landfills: food waste.
  • The most common material burned in U.S. incinerators: food waste. (Yes, we’re actually burning food…)
  • Amount of water used to grow wasted food: enough for 50 million homes.
  • Amount of energy used to grow wasted food: enough for 50 million homes.
  • Ready for a really scary stat? Greenhouse gas emissions attributed to food waste: equivalent to annual emissions of more than 42 coal fired power plants.
  • And perhaps most tragically: “[U]neaten food also contains enough calories to feed more than 150 million people each year, far more than the 35 million estimated food insecure Americans.”

Yikes. The report also notes that we’re not making much progress toward our nation’s goal to prevent 50% of food waste by 2030, based on a 2015 baseline.

It sounds sort of bleak. But perhaps the most salient and hopeful message from EPA is:

Significant resources go into growing, processing, packaging, storing, and distributing food. The most important action we can take to reduce the environmental impacts of uneaten food is to prevent that food from becoming waste in the first place.

That’s where all of us can play a role. We can have an impact because “[r]oughly half of this food is wasted during the consumption stage (households and food service), and fruits and vegetables and dairy and eggs are the most frequently wasted foods.”

So, our choices matter.

There are multiple ways to reduce food waste, such as carefully considering whether food that has reached its “best by” date is still OK to eat. And as mentioned, there’s the widely available yet often unsung solution for protecting our food: the right packaging. In particular: thin, lightweight plastic packaging that helps protect food and has a lighter environmental footprint than common alternatives.

The right packaging plays a significant role in reducing food waste in every stage of the production process: farming, processing, distribution, storage, retail, and households. In other words, plastic (and other) packaging is an investment in protecting our food – and the resources we use to produce it. The right packaging can “prevent that food from becoming waste in the first place,” as EPA puts it.

Packaging alone cannot solve our nation’s food waste problem. But the right packaging sure can help.