EPA Makes a Major Change to its Definition of “Food Waste” - ReFED

EPA Makes a Major Change to its Definition of “Food Waste” - ReFED


EPA Makes a Major Change to its Definition of “Food Waste” - ReFED

Written by: Minnie Ringland
  |   November 19, 2021

Last month, EPA announced its reinterpretation of the 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction goal

The goal was originally developed in 2015 in partnership with USDA, with the aim of cutting US food loss and waste in half by 2030. While this goal remains the same, a revised 2016 (updated from 2010) baseline now includes any food leaving the human supply chain – which will be measured as any food going to landfill, combustion, sewer, anaerobic digestion, composting, or land application. 

What does this change mean?

Food scraps going to compost and anaerobic digestion are now counted as part of the total that needs to be cut in half, whereas before they were counted as part of the solution, helping to achieve the 50% diversion goal. Similarly, food scraps going to sewer or land application are now counted towards the food waste total, whereas before they weren’t.

This is a significant shift from the previous interpretation, which considered only the food going to landfills or combustion facilities as waste to be cut in half. With the definition of food loss and waste thus expanded, the ambition of the 2030 goal has increased – 2016 data shows about  236 pounds of food waste per person was sent to landfill or combustion. Since then, the volume of food waste sent to those destinations has actually increased, and including the newly added destinations, the estimate for per capita food waste has risen nearly 100 pounds per person1.  Therefore, the EPA goal is now to cut the updated 2016 baseline of 328 lbs/person in half – to 164 lbs/person – by 2030. 

While challenging, this change represents worthy progress when we think about the impacts of food that doesn’t get eaten: each year it accounts for 4% of US greenhouse gas emissions, 14% of freshwater use, 24% of landfill inputs, and is valued at $285 billion.

With this reinterpretation, EPA recognizes that while food waste management practices such as composting and anaerobic digestion “will always be necessary solutions for recycling non-preventable food waste,” the ultimate goal should be preventing food waste from being generated in the first place.

Importantly, this update aligns EPA with international food loss and waste reduction efforts. The UN recently published the Food Waste Index Report to provide guidance on how countries should measure and report progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which is to halve global food loss and waste by 20302. EPA’s ability to measure food loss and waste has improved in recent years, so the agency is now able to track FLW pathways with much greater accuracy to inform progress towards the 2030 goal, in line with UN recommendations.

The reinterpretation also aligns with the Biden administration’s focus on tackling climate change. Targeting waste prevention has the greatest emissions reduction potential and will help us build resilience against the impacts of a changing planet.

We are excited to see EPA’s emphasis on prevention and rescue, and we look forward to seeing how programming will now prioritize those solutions as the agency works with USDA, FDA, state and federal partners, and leaders across the food system to meet the 2030 goal.

To learn more about the EPA’s new interpretation of the national FLW reduction goal, join us for a fireside chat with Claudia Fabiano, of the Sustainable Management of Food Team at EPA, on December 1st!

ReFED Food Waste Action Network | Prioritizing Food Waste Prevention Solutions: A Fireside Chat with EPA and ReFED


12016: 30,680 thousand tons to landfill, 7,480 thousand tons combusted, total 38,160 thousand tons of food going to waste.

2018: 35,280 thousand tons to landfill, 7,550 thousand tons combusted, 5,620 thousand tons to anaerobic digestion, 3,740 thousand tons to sewer, 2,590 thousand tons composted, 260 thousand tons applied to land, total of 54,680 thousand tons of food going to waste.

EPA’s food waste measurement methodology was updated in 2020 to begin capturing the amount of food being sent to these newly considered destinations.

Source: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/advancing-sustainable-materials-management

2Per capita; retail and consumer levels, as well as along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses

ReFED is a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system by advancing data-driven solutions to the problem. ReFED leverages data and insights to highlight supply chain inefficiencies and economic opportunities; mobilizes and connects people to take targeted action; and catalyzes capital to spur innovation and scale high-impact initiatives. ReFED’s goal is a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.

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