Recycling Food for the Future

Bryan Quoc Le, PhD
11 min readJan 9, 2020
Photo: Maria Teneva/Unsplash

The environmental impact of food waste is staggering.

1.4 billion hectares of land, or 34% of the world’s total agricultural land, is used to grow food that’ll eventually end up in a landfill. Most of the food waste that’s disposed in a landfill decomposes anaerobically and generates the powerful greenhouse gas methane, significantly increasing our carbon footprint. Agriculture accounts for 69% of the world’s water usage, and yet one-third of that water is wasted as uneaten food.

Unfortunately, the United States is the largest producer of food waste, with food waste as the leading occupant in American landfills.

In 2017, a study was conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to evaluate the amounts and types of food waste produced by consumers in the United States. Researchers collected food waste from Nashville, Denver, and New York City and categorized the waste across several categories. According to the study, 23% of consumer-level food waste in the United States comes from leftovers and makes up the highest fraction of edible food waste.

Using the 2010 food waste data provided by the USDA as a conservative estimate, that leads to a whopping 30.6 billion pounds and $37 billion worth of edible food.

That’s a lot of economic value going down the drain.

The problem has been further compounded by the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war. Russia is the largest exporter of fertilizer, including mineral and nitrogen sources such as phosphorous, potassium, urea, and nitrates. The United States and other agriculture-intensive nations are now suffering from a severe shortage of these precious materials required for farming, which, in conjunction with inflation, is exerting a price hike in commodity crops like soy, corn, and wheat and, therefore, food in general.

Poor wheat harvests and droughts in the United States are only adding insult to injury during these times.

Photo: Pixabay/Pexels

While composting or re-purposing edible food as animal feed, ethanol production feedstock, or nutrient-rich compost can take food out of the landfill system, most of the…

Bryan Quoc Le, PhD

Author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered | |