Fighting Food Waste

1/21/2020

Person throwing cooked pasta into a trash bin

Spoiled produce, not finishing your meal at a restaurant or simply buying too much are all consumer behaviors that contribute to “food waste.” Food waste refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers. 

Of the food produced today in the U.S., 40% is wasted, amounting to $162 billion in annual waste. Using the national average, this could serve up to 58 billion meals. There are currently 49.1 million Americans facing food insecurity. 

Waste occurs throughout the supply chain—from farms (16%), manufacturers (2%), businesses (40%) and households (43%). Food waste is about more than what goes into the trash. Getting food from farm to fork takes an enormous amount of resources—energy, land and water. All told, the U.S. spends $218 billion each year to grow, handle, deliver and dispose of uneaten food. 

Food is the largest component of municipal landfills. In addition to taking up space, decomposing food releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. 

However, food waste is a problem with solutions. State and federal laws, as well as efforts by businesses, organizations and consumers, can reduce the amount of food that goes to waste, helping to conserve natural resources, create economic opportunity and feed the hungry.
 

State Action 

The topics below represent only a sampling of state policy options to reduce food waste. In 2019, around 30 bills addressing food waste were introduced in 12 states.

Liability protection

The federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act shields donors and recovery organizations from criminal and civil liability arising from the age, packaging or condition of donated food. All 50 states have passed their own liability laws, many of which include greater protections

Nineteen states protect food banks that charge a fee to recipients. 

Seven states—Arizona, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont—protect donations directly to people in need. 

Three states—California, Nevada and Oregon—provide protection regardless of compliance with certain labeling requirements. 

Massachusetts protects the donation of food that has passed its expiration date.

Tax incentives

Small farmers and businesses bear a significant expense to harvest, prepare and store food for donation that would otherwise be discarded. Though federal tax incentives exist, they can be difficult to claim. State tax incentives can help offset costs for donors of all sizes.

Ten states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia—and the District of Columbia offer a tax incentive for food donations. Arizona offers a deduction; the others provide credits between 10% and 50% of the value of the donated food. 

States can also fund food banks directly. Minnesota’s Farm-to-Food Shelf program received a $1.1 million appropriation from the legislature in 2017.

Date labeling

The labels on food products—sell by, use by, best by, enjoy by—are generally indicators of quality, not safety. Still, many consumers are understandably confused by the dizzying variety of labels, resulting in more food thrown in the trash.

Aside from infant formula, the federal government does not regulate food date labels. States have filled the void with laws that often create more confusion, not less, and some are considering ways to simplify labels and educate the public about what these dates mean. 

California enacted legislation in 2017 (AB 954) requiring the state Department of Food and Agriculture to promote the terms “best buy” and “use by” to communicate quality and safety dates, respectively.

Person placing food waste into a compost binOrganic waste bans

Organic waste bans prohibit entities that generate large quantities of food waste from sending it to landfills. A ban compels food waste generators to reduce their output and better handle the waste they are unable to eliminate, either by donation, composting or anaerobic digestion (the process of turning food waste into biogas).

Six states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington—have passed laws to keep food out of landfills. 

Connecticut was the first state to require food scraps that are generated by large-scale manufacturers be recycled. This was established by passing SB 1116 in 2011. 

In 2012, the Vermont legislature unanimously passed the Universal Recycling Law, which bans the disposal of food waste, in addition to “blue bin” recyclables and yard debris. The law phases in requirements for both residents and businesses, culminating in a full ban by July 1, 2020. Food donations have grown by 40%, according to the Vermont Foodbank.

Massachusetts’ ban applies to businesses that generate 1 ton or more of food waste per week. A 2016 study found the ban has generated $175 million in economic activity and created more than 900 jobs for food waste haulers, processors and recovery organizations.

California’s law mandates recycling. This is part of the state’s commitment to divert 50% of food waste by 2020 and 75% by 2025. California has also pledged to recover 20% of edible food waste for human consumption.
 
Rhode Island’s food waste ban, established in 2016, requires business that produce more than 2 tons of organic waste per week to divert such waste from the landfill if they are located within 15 miles of a composting or anaerobic facility.

Washington state enacted legislation in 2019 that aims to develop and adopt a wasted food reduction plan by October 2020. The goal of the reduction plan is to cut food waste in the state in half by 2030. 

Maryland lawmakers approved a study in 2017 (HB 171) on methods to improve composting infrastructure and divert food waste from landfills.

Federal Action

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030.

The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions with the most benefit. Source reduction is first, followed by donations, feeding animals, industrial uses such as anaerobic digestion and composting.

Congress held the first federal hearing on food waste in 2016 and the Food Recovery Act (HR 3444/S 1680) was introduced earlier that year.

In 2018, the USDA, EPA and Food and Drug Administration created a partnership around food waste and released their plan, the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, to reduce food waste in half by 2030. The initiative focuses on improving coordination and communication across federal agencies and increasing education on reducing food waste and loss to Americans.  

The federal government also supports private sector initiatives. The U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions group includes corporations such as General Mills, Sodexo, Unilever and Walmart, all of which have made a sizable commitment to reduce food waste.

Enacted State Legislation, 2017-2019

State

Bill Number

Summary

California

 

2019 AB 827

Requires a business that generates a certain number of cubic yards of commercial solid waste or organic waste per week, and that provides customers access to the business, to provide customers with a recycling bin or container for that waste stream that is visible, easily accessible, adjacent to each bin or container for trash other than that recyclable waste stream, except in restrooms, and clearly marked with educational signage.

2019 AB 954

Requires the Department of Food and Agriculture to publish information to encourage food manufacturers, processors, and retailers to voluntarily use uniform terms on food product labels to communicate quality dates and safety dates. Encourages food distributors and retailers to develop alternatives to customer-facing sell by dates.

Maine

 

2019 SB 162

Specifies that an individual, organization, or institution that donates food waste to a swine producer for use in swine feed, is not required to verify that the swine producer has a license to feed garbage to swine.

2019 HR 398

Directs the Department of Education to develop a school food sharing policy to encourage schools and food banks to work together to collect whole and packaged school cafeteria surplus or leftover food and share it with the community.

Maryland

2017 HB 171

Requires the Department of the Environment to study and make recommendations regarding certain matters that relate to the diversion of yard waste, food residuals, and other organic materials from refuse disposal facilities, including certain infrastructure.

Minnesota

2019 SB 7

Allocates funding for reducing and diverting food waste, redirecting edible food for consumption, and removing barriers to collecting and recovering organic waste.

New Jersey

 

2019 AB 4707

Directs the Department of Agriculture to establish a public awareness campaign for food waste.

2019 AJR 172

Designates the Thursday of the third week of September of each year as Food Waste Prevention Day.

2019 AJR 174

Urges large food retailers in the state to reduce food waste.

2019 AB 4705

Revises provisions relating to the State Food Waste Task Force. States that the Task Force is responsible for identifying and examining the factors that lead to food waste in the state, and for identifying strategies, policies, and legislative and executive actions that may be used for specified purposes.

New York

2019 SB 1508

Establishes a food scraps hierarchy for the state of New York. It focuses on source reduction, feeding wholesome food to hungry people, repurposing the feeding of animals and recycling.

Washington

2019 HB 1114

Reduces the wasting of food in order to fight hunger and reduce environmental impacts. Establishes state wasted food reduction goals and state wasted food reduction strategy.