“Following the Roadmap”: Recycle Anything Remaining - ReFED

“Following the Roadmap”: Recycle Anything Remaining - ReFED


“Following the Roadmap”: Recycle Anything Remaining - ReFED

  |   November 12, 2021

ReFED’s Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50% was designed to provide food businesses, funders, solution providers, policymakers, and more with a framework around which to align their food waste reduction efforts. It outlines seven key action areas with related solutions to prevent, rescue, and recycle food at risk of going to waste. Each month in our special “Following the Roadmap” series, we’ll dig deep into one of the key action areas to explore why waste occurs – and what can be done about it.

Recycle Anything Remaining

What’s Happening

Nearly 70% of surplus food is treated as true “waste,” meaning it is either left in the fields after harvest, incinerated, dumped, deposited in the sewer, sent to landfill, or applied to the land – but much of this could have been used for other purposes. In fact, recycling offers one of the largest opportunities for decreasing the amount of food going to waste in our food system.

Action Area Overview 

Recycling anything remaining means capturing nutrients, energy, or other residual value by finding the highest and best use for any food or food scraps that remain. Solutions in this action area range from mature practices of feeding food scraps to livestock, to modern innovations such as insect farming. Solutions that make use of existing food for other creatures are preferable to the next category of recycling, which requires processes including composting, anaerobic digestion, and co-digestion at water treatment plants to break down the materials for their more basic nutrients. Alternatively, innovative markets for waste-derived bioplastics, agricultural inputs, and other industrial uses model the development of circular economies that can capitalize on existing wasted materials for new products, fuels, packaging materials, and more.

Impact of Solutions Adoption 

ReFED’s analysis shows that solutions that recycle anything remaining can reduce food waste by 20.9 million tons each year. It would also cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6.8 million metric tons. The annual net financial benefit of adopting these solutions would be approximately $294 million – relatively low compared to the $2.2 billion investment needed – but this speaks to the importance of public funding to expand waste disposal infrastructure and other solutions, which may provide a public good but are not as economically viable.

Financing Needed 

For the successful diversion of waste, policy has a key role to play by disincentivizing or banning food in landfills, a movement that has gained ground in seven states across the country. Commercial and Government Project Finance can effectively bolster solutions related to infrastructure developments, and combined can cover a majority of the funding needed. Public funding will be critical to incentivize business engagement in new operations and fund local collection programs. Lastly, philanthropic and private investments can be catalytic in bridging the gap for financing specific portions of projects (i.e. purchasing equipment) and investing in the research and scaling of emerging solutions.


Within this and the Roadmap to 2030’s other key action areas are a range of solutions, including those that ReFED has modeled using key data points, promising solutions that we’re still gathering data on, and best practices that many organizations have already worked into their operations.

Modeled Solutions

Centralized Anaerobic Digestion

Industrial-scale collection of food waste that undergoes the anaerobic digestion process at a dedicated central location, typically operated by a dedicated energy generator

Co-digestion At Wastewater Treatment Plants

A process whereby energy-rich organic waste materials (e.g. Fats, Oils, and Grease (FOG) and/or food scraps) are added to dairy or wastewater digesters with excess capacity.

Centralized Composting

Large scale composting facilities that process commercial, residential, institutional, and industrial food waste, managed either by third party waste and compost companies or solid waste agencies.

Home Composting

Maintaining a small compost pile or bin at the residence level (e.g. home, apartment).

Community Composting

Food waste from homes and small businesses diverted to small, community or neighborhood-level compost facilities.

Livestock Feed

Diverting material from the food supply chain (directly or after minimal processing) to use as feed for livestock.

Unmodeled Solutions

Waste-derived Agricultural Inputs

Processes that transform food scraps into liquid or otherwise processed fertilizers or nutrient products.

Insect Farming

Utilizing insects as an intermediary to mass convert food waste into higher value animal feed, as insect-based proteins and fats, or fertilizer.


Taking animal by-product and converting it into stable, usable materials.

Waste-derived Processed Animal Feed

Processing of food waste into pellets or other feed formats and used as petfood or livestock feed.

Waste-derived Bio-plastics

Using food waste to create bio-plastics or compostable packaging materials.

Waste-derived Biomaterials

Transforming food waste into innovative and valuable materials, with uses such as concrete and building materials, textiles, supplements and beauty products.

Best Practices

Enabling Technologies (e.g., depackaging and pre-treatment)

Investment in technologies within the waste recycling phase that can improve quality, consistency, and profit of the final biomaterial product (compost, digestate).

Separation & Measurement

Manual or technology-enabled tracking of waste streams (trash, recycling, and organic waste), and use of the information to adjust decision making and operational practices in order to maximize product use and minimize waste.

Relationships with Waste Haulers

Connections between food businesses and waste haulers that can be leveraged to streamline waste pickups, identify new opportunities for waste destinations if available, and expand conversations for data sharing and more.

Waste Audits by Waste Haulers

Repeatable investigation of waste materials gathered over a period of time to determine information about operational waste habits including the largest driver of food waste or the greatest volume of waste; some waste hauling contracts include at least two free waste audits on an annual basis.

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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