Thinking Outside the Bin: Is there a better way to fight “food waste?”

Marie Mourad

Governments, businesses and community leaders across the United States are building momentum to fight food waste, claiming to simultaneously save money, feed the hungry, and reduce impacts on the environment. But how—and to what extent—can food waste reduction be a “win win win” for everyone?

photo credit: Marie Mourad

Between 30 and 40 percent of the United States’ food supply currently go to waste – with significant environmental, economic, and social impacts. Recent research reveals that food waste—whether it’s called loss or surplus, avoidable or unavoidable—accounts for a share of greenhouse gases emissions equivalent to a medium-sized country and to a grossly unnecessary exploitation of land, water, and other resources.[1] Economically, retail and consumer food waste together may cost the United States around $165 billion a year, while about 17 million Americans live in food insecure households.[2]

Although food waste can occur during farming, processing, storage, and transportation, most international organizations, researchers, and environmental organizations place responsibility for food waste in the industrialized world primarily on consumers. Industry representatives point out that consumers account for up to 50 percent of food waste,[3] and argue that consumer-side responses can thus be more effective than producers’ own actions to optimize production processes, reuse, and recycle excess food. The sociological critique, too, has often focused on the consumer side of production systems. Studies have detailed, for example, how manufacturers pushed more and more products onto consumers, who promptly responded by buying—and wasting—more.[4] Scholars have also shown how recycling took off in the 1960s when the food and beverages lobby pushed consumer-side responses to excess packaging.[5] Responsibility for sustainability was foisted onto consumers instead of placing the burden for disposable, designed-for-obsolescence products on the companies that made them.

But in a move that appears surprising at first, some of the most prominent recent responses to food waste are actions taken by producers and retailers themselves – and they don’t focus primarily on consumer responsibilities: first, on-site recycling or participation in organic waste pick-up programs and, second, donations of extra food to charitable organizations. In 2011, three major trade organizations in the food industry—the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food and Marketing Institute, and the National Restaurant Association—officially embarked on food waste reduction efforts by creating a “Food Waste Reduction Alliance”. Following a first Zero Food Waste Forum organized in Berkeley (CA) by environmental organizations in October 2014, businesses organized a second Forum in Austin (TX) in July 2015, gathering together multiple stakeholders claiming to fight food waste across the United States.

Yet at the same time as they champion new uses of food waste, businesses often do not make serious efforts to reduce the initial production of excess food. Instead, their new initiatives constitute “weak” and marginal changes, focused on improving production and distribution efficiencies, in the way capitalism “acknowledge[s] the validity of a critique and make[s] it its own.”[6] After attention to food waste was originally raised by marginal, anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist movements such as the Freegans, who claim to use dumpster-diving as a strategy to live outside capitalism, industrial producers have now adapted to those critiques and reinforced themselves by integrating food scraps in manufacturing processes and commoditizing extra food. Yet these industrialization and standardization of food commodity chains are the very sources of overproduction and consumer waste. Therefore, a serious fight against food waste is a fight against the dominant paradigms of the entire food system. A “strong sustainability”[7] approach would fundamentally challenge the appropriate levels and patterns of consumption and question the broader economic and social structures that shape individual practices.[8]

Recycling: closing the wrong loop

Recycling has been one of the most widely adopted responses to environmental problems in the United States, and both businesses and advocates explicitly describe it as a model for food waste management. Ninety-five percent of food waste still ends up in landfills, so it’s not surprising that the first initiatives to tackle food waste have aimed at recycling it.[9] Cities like San Francisco or Seattle and the states of Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California have passed disposal bans or mandatory composting schemes that require diverting bio-waste away from landfills.

These proposals flip the widely endorsed “food recovery hierarchy” on its head. Reducing waste ideally starts with optimizing food production to minimize losses, then feeding people, then other vertebrates and, last and definitely least, worms. But diversion policies encourage composting or waste-to-biogas facilities, in the same way non-food waste policies often focus on downstream diversion instead of upstream prevention programs. Indeed, local governments are more likely to fund composting programs than prevention campaigns, for example, in order to show direct measurable results and meet diversion goals.

Unfortunately, as a result, businesses and individuals are sometimes encouraged to recycle rather than donate, or compost rather than eat, their food. Citizens are also urged to carry out the unpaid labor of sorting their food, rather than industries bearing the costs. Moreover, municipalities and businesses promote recycling as the key for a circular economy and closed-loop systems, without questioning the scale of those “loops.” As opposed to composting food scraps in a backyard, for example, large-scale waste pick-ups and treatment facilities generate larger contamination risks. More perversely, they require long-term investments that indirectly create demand for a constant stream of feedstock – that is to say, waste. We’ve seen this before: a similar phenomenon happened with incinerator projects in the 1980s that contractually obligated municipalities to provide waste in order to offset private investments.[10]>

Redistribution: not such an easy fix

Another popular solution is encouraging food donations. Fostering redistribution seems like an easy fix to both hunger and waste: a third of American food is wasted, which appears to be more than enough to feed the 17.6 million households that experience food insecurity each year. Indeed, waste reduction through donations seems like particularly low-hanging fruit given that businesses still donate less than ten percent of their excess food.[11]

Created as an emergency response to the neoliberal restructuring of the 1980s, food banks are thus becoming a permanent solution: they redistribute supposedly inevitable surpluses to inevitably hungry people.[12] Federal laws encourage food donations through tax deductions for charitable contributions. Several states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Iowa, and Kentucky, provide businesses or farmers with additional tax credits of up to 25 percent of the food’s value.

Such incentives, however, have had mixed results. Not only are they difficult to effectively implement and enforce, they push businesses to donate products of low quality that hunger-relief organizations then have to sort and potentially throw away. Another undesirable effect is that the institutionalization of donations cuts resources for gleaners or dumpster-divers who access food in informal ways and may be deterred by the stigmatization associated with “charity,” such as long waiting lines or means-testing. If motives for dumpster-diving vary from anti-capitalist political action and lifestyle to necessity,[13] the practice is particularly prevalent among the urban poor: dumpster-diving can be a substitute for inaccessible and insufficient food assistance programs.[14]

Even with logistical improvements, the poor are not well-served by the scraps of consumer society, such as hundreds of pumpkin pies dumped right after Thanksgiving.

A bigger question is what would happen if the remaining 90 percent of edible food currently thrown away was actually donated. Many food bank managers say that they already have to discard a significant percentage of the food they receive (although there are no public statistics on food bank waste). Even with logistical improvements, the poor are not well-served by the scraps of consumer society, such as hundreds of pumpkin pies dumped right after Thanksgiving.

Some states implement specific incentives so that farmers donate more fresh produce, which is more appealing and nutritious than scores of birthday cakes. A wave of start-ups and social enterprises also create online platforms and phone apps such as Zero Percent that better connect supply and demand of excess food. But local partnerships can be disrupted when businesses that would donate extra food to grassroots organizations or charities now sell these materials to companies reusing or recycling them at a large scale. Extra food—no longer labeled “waste”—is becoming a commodity on secondary markets where food banks compete for surplus food with discount stores like Grocery Outlet. In a context of thin profit margins, secondary sales also thrive on a growing proportion of low-income consumers in highly segmented markets. Although both manufacturers and retailers have long been reluctant to let their branded[15] products go to “discount” shelves, they are now increasingly willing to sell “overruns” to lower-end stores whenever this constitutes a better economic opportunity compared with what a food bank can offer. They still favor donations when tax incentives make them financially “competitive,” allowing them to reap image benefits without incurring too much cost.

In the end, large-scale redistribution of free food is neither a dignified way to access food nor a sustainable business model for private companies looking for more profitable outlets for their surplus. Perhaps more importantly, why would 17 million households rely on excess—possibly not healthy—food that others do not want? Redistributing “waste”—as opposed to say, food stamps, or, ideally, living wages—cannot be the only mechanism supporting sustainable food access. However, the most recent Farm Bill partly cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (providing food stamps) while increasing it for emergency food programs and redistribution.[16]

“Weak” prevention: the limits of blaming consumers

Composting and redistributing more food may be overdue first steps, but the institutionalization of these practices depends on a constant stream of “necessary” surpluses to generate economic, and supposedly social and environmental, benefits. But what about having less excess food instead? Food waste reduction campaigns—often sponsored by industry—encourage consumers, not citizens, to write down their shopping lists, eat their leftovers, and learn about expiration dates. Large supermarkets like Intermarché in France have also started selling misshapen or “ugly” fruits and vegetables that used to be processed or thrown away. They claim this has a potential to expand farmers’ outlets, reduce surpluses, and make fresh fruit more affordable. But seeing their products sold 30 to 40 percent cheaper, farmers fear an overall decrease in the price of their products as retailers strive to maintain their profit margins. Social activists, moreover, denounce the stigmatization of second-class consumers pushed to buy the blemished fruits. Ironically, an Intermarché store went to trial to prosecute three dumpster-divers accused of “stealing” expired food a few months after the chain’s campaign to reduce food waste.

Focused on these marginal adaptations, advocacy campaigns rarely tackle the structural mechanisms that lead various consumers to waste. Advocates continue to take for granted that supermarket shelves “need” to be full and every product—including non-perishables flour or salt—needs to be labeled with a date to protect manufacturers from liability. Retailers continue to advertise and promote overconsumption even as they scold consumers’ carelessness with respect to food.

Consumers’ profligacy is a foil to stores’ own efficiency efforts, even though the former is a condition for the economic viability of the latter: Current models of food production are economically profitable partly because they encourage over-stocking and over-consumption. We don’t know—because such analyses are rarely conducted—whether or how a system that reduces excess food production would be compatible with capitalist agriculture as it is currently practiced.

“Strong” prevention: toward less surplus food?

In order to achieve “strong” sustainability with long-term environmental, social and economic benefits, we must push further alternatives to current market systems, decreasing excess food production and increasing the quality and value of the remainder. This calls for “radical” change—from Latin radix, the root—that addresses the root causes of food waste.

In particular, we cannot reduce food waste in industrialized countries without reducing the quantities available per person in the first place. In the U.S., driven by subsidies, 3,500Kcal per capita are produced daily,[17] while a normal adult consumes only around 2,000 to 2,500Kcal.[18] To put it more concretely, in 2011, “each American had available to consume, on average, 54 pounds more commercially grown vegetables than in 1970; 17 pounds more fruit; 11 pounds more caloric sweeteners; 37 pounds more poultry…and 35 pounds more grain products.”[19] Up to 133 billion pounds of food never get eaten in a year, which accounts for about 429 pounds or $521 per person.[20]

Historically, the post-war United States agricultural system was premised on the redistribution of surplus food to the developing world.[21] As a result of certain farmers’ political power, surpluses were subsequently re-oriented to feed low-income Americans through food assistance or school lunch programs.[22] By means of direct payments or subsidized crop insurance, the current Farm Bill still encourages the (over-)production of commodities—notably corn and wheat—that are major ingredients of unhealthy food.[23] Costs of wheat-based and corn-based products are also artificially low, which leads many stores to over-stock them. Unsurprisingly, these are precisely the products many food charities claim to have too much of even as they lack produce and protein. Despite recent changes in the Farm Bill, small or medium-scale farms are still largely unsupported, and so are the most nutritious and sustainable foods.

photo credit: Jordan Figueiredo
photo credit: Jordan Figueiredo

Radically transforming production and consumption patterns is possible. For example, “ugly” fruits and vegetables would certainly be eaten if most people knew how they grow, bought them directly from a farmer they knew, nay grew these funny-looking carrots by themselves. Indeed, systems like Community Supported Agriculture already allow for buying locally-grown organic products directly from producers at a reasonable price. But although exploratory studies (mostly conducted in Europe) show that reducing the number of intermediaries in food chains would significantly cut food waste and ensures additional environmental, social, and economic benefits,[24] very few public and private organizations invest in such research. Indeed, creating direct links between producers and consumers jeopardizes the very roots of a large-scale, retailer-driven food system. Enduring profits of large players currently depend on standardized procedures, marketing and promotion-driven sales, overworked packaging… and, finally, recycling. In the long run, strong prevention will require cultural and political changes that may not benefit the current dominant actors of the food system.

Beyond the “food waste” movement

In response to rising environmental and social critiques of food waste, companies not only adopt traditional blame-the-consumer strategies but also change their own business practices. Capitalist food systems quickly adapt to their criticism. Yet, by focusing on optimizing processes, reusing, or recycling existing surpluses, they render surplus food both unavoidable and, increasingly, a commodity. Environmentalists themselves often endorse those marginal changes that nonetheless leave unsolved the main problem: overproduction. The challenge facing the “food waste movement” now is to tackle systemic flaws in the food system, including the production paradigm supported by the Farm Bill.

Nonetheless, contemporary concerns about food waste present an opportunity. The broader “food movement” against current agro-food systems may benefit from tackling “food waste,” which for many people already carries negative connotations. In the wake of more radical social movements, it is now time to tie food waste to overproduction, agro-food policies and corporate governance of food chains. In France, a bill making it “forbidden” to throw away edible food was approved by the Parliament in July, 2015. This might be the first step toward more coercive measures against overproduction.[25] In the end, reducing excess food should lead to de-commodification processes and question capitalist food regimes as a whole.


Marie Mourad is a PhD student in Sociology in Sciences Po, Paris, and was a visiting researcher at UC Berkeley in 2014/2015. This article is based on more than 90 interviews with government, business and community leaders involved in fighting food waste between 2013 and 2015.


References and Footnotes

  1. Food and Agricultural Organization. 2013. Food Wastage Footprint. United Nations.
  2. Gunder, Dana. 2012. Wasted: How America Loses up to 40% of its Food. NRDC.
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization. 2011. Food Losses and Food Waste; Gunders, Dana. 2012. Wasted: How America loses up to 40% of its food. NRDC.
  4. Packard, Vance. 1962. The Waste Makers. New York: Pocket Books.
  5. MacBride, Samantha. 2012. Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  6. Chiapello, Eve and Boltanski, Luc. 1999.The New Spirit Of Capitalism (p441). London: Verso.
  7. Lorek, Sylvia and Fuchs, Doris. 2011. “Strong sustainable consumption governance: precondition for a degrowth path?,” Journal of Cleaner Production 38: 36-43.
  8. Evans, David et al. 2013.Waste Matters: New Perspectives on Food and Society. Wiley-Blackwell.
  9. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  10. Sze, Julie. 2006. Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  11. Food Waste Reduction Alliance. 2014. Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers, and Restaurants. Available at: http://www.foodwastealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/FWRA_BSR_Tier3_FINAL.pdf
  12. Poppendieck, Janet. 1999. Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. New York: Penguin.
  13. Carolsfeld, Anna Lúcia, and Susan L. Erikson. 2013. “Beyond Desperation: Motivations for Dumpster™ Diving for Food in Vancouver.” Food and Foodways 21, no. 4: 245–66.
  14. In a study carried out in a Minneapolis neighborhood, 19 percent of low-income respondents claimed to have eaten from dumpsters (see Eikenberry, Nicole, and Chery Smith. 2005. “Attitudes, Beliefs, and Prevalence of Dumpster Diving as a Means to Obtain Food by Midwestern, Low-Income, Urban Dwellers.” Agriculture and Human Values 22, no. 2: 187–202.)
  15. Industries’ own brands or “house brand” products for the case of retails
  16. Ed Bolen, Dorothy Rosenbaum, and Stacy Dean. 2014. Summary of the 2014 Farm Bill Nutrition Title. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
  17. USDA, Economic and Research Service (ERS)
  18. US Department of Health and Human Services; UK Department of Health; French Ministry of Health.
  19. USDA, ERS. Food Availability Data System: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-(per-capita)-data-system/summary-findings.aspx
  20. Buzby, Jean C., Hodan F. Wells, and Jeffrey Hyman. February 2014. The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States. USDA, ERS.
  21. Friedmann, Harriet. 1982. “The Political Economy of Food: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar International Food Order.” American Journal of Sociology 88: 248–86 ; Winders, Bill. 2009. The Politics of Food Supply. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  22. DeVault, Marjorie L. and Pitts, James P. 1984. “Surplus and Scarcity: Hunger and the Origins of the Food Stamp Program,” Social Problems 31, no. 5: 545–57; Levine, Susan. 2010. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  23. Environmental Working Group database: http://farm.ewg.org/
  24. France Nature Environnement. 2015. Circuits courts et de proximité : des modes de commercialisation moins générateurs de gaspillage alimentaire ? (Local and short distribution channels: modes of commercialization generating less food waste ?). FNE.
  25. The bill was unanimously approved by Parliament in July, 2015, but remains to be validated by the French Constitutional Council. It includes a “ban” on throwing away food and mandatory donations to non-profits for supermarkets above a certain size. See Mourad, Marie. 2015. France moves toward a national policy against food waste. NRDC (Issue R-15-08-B). Available at: http://www.nrdc.org/food/france-food-waste-policy.asp