Food Waste

Food waste is the largest component of discarded waste by weight.

Food waste includes uneaten portions of meals and trimmings from food preparation. It is the second largest component of generated waste by weight and the largest component of discarded waste by weight.

Estimates of the amount of food waste vary widely. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that each of us discards less than a pound a day or 209 pounds a year. But a study by the University of Arizona Garbage Project shows a per-person food scrap rate of 1.3 pounds per day or 474.5 pounds per year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also shows more food waste than EPA.

Over 60 million homes and 500,000 businesses have in-sink food disposers that divert food waste from landfills. Although food waste composting has been held back by cost, siting and vector control concerns, large-scale projects in San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto are breaking new ground.

Food waste's share of the solid waste stream decreased by 9 percent from 1960 to 2007 because of increased consumption of packaged foods and the use of disposers. During the same time period, increased package and paper recycling caused food waste's share of the disposal stream to increase by 23 percent.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail him at: [email protected].

Food Waste MSW Facts


  • 31.65 million tons, or 12.5% by weight.

  • 209 pounds per person per year.

  • Food waste is 70% water, 30% solids.


  • 810,000 tons, a 2.6% recovery rate.

  • Organic and highly compostable.

  • Grocery store food processing trimmings are a prime resource for composting facilities.

  • 50 cities and counties collect food waste for composting.

  • Most of the programs are in California and Washington.

Composting Process:

  • Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic matter by microorganisms into a humus-like product by generating heat and energy to destroy weeds, plants and human pathogens.

  • Tipping fees are usually charged for incoming food waste.

  • Backyard compost piles that include food wastes must be tightly controlled to eliminate pests.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 30.8 million tons, or 18.2% of discarded MSW by weight.

  • Usually the wettest component of MSW, with moisture content of 70% and Btu value one-third that of MSW.

Landfill Volume:

  • 21.4 million cubic yards or 5.3% of landfilled MSW (1997 data).

  • Food waste can decompose into methane in a landfill.


  • Landfilled food waste weighs 2,000 pounds per cubic yard (lbs/cu.yd.).

  • A 55-gallon drum of food scraps and solid and liquid fats weighs 412 pounds.

Source Reduction:

  • Packaged foods create less food waste.

  • In-sink kitchen disposal units divert food waste to wastewater treatment plants. In many cases, these facilities produce fertilizer or biosolid products.

End Market Specifications:

  • Each facility has its own specifications.

  • Non-organic materials, such as metals and plastic, must be kept out.


Biocycle Magazine,

Composting Council of Canada,

Cornell Waste Management Institute,

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition,

“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2007 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2008,

U.S. Composting Council,

Data is from 2007 EPA estimates, except where noted.