Food waste includes uneaten portions of meals and trimmings from food preparation activities in kitchens, restaurants and cafeterias. Food waste is the third largest component of generated waste by weight, following yard waste and corrugated boxes. However, due to a low composting rate, food waste is the largest component of discarded waste by weight.

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., claims that Americans throw away 1.3 pounds of food every day, or 474.5 pounds per year. This is more than twice as high as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., estimates. In response, the EPA has revised its data methodology from the mid-'90s to present, but it did not revise previous data. Nonetheless, food waste's share of the solid waste stream decreased by one-sixth from 1960 to 2000. This is largely due to increased consumption of packaged, processed foods and larger increases in other materials in the waste stream.

Food waste composting still is in its infancy, held back by cost and vermin control concerns.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at:

Food Waste Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 25.9 million tons or 11.2% by weight.*
  • 184.1 pounds per person.*


  • 680,000 tons, a 2.6% recovery rate.*

  • Organic and highly compostable.

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

  • 350 food waste composting sites in 2000. Mostly at institutions, such as prisons or colleges. A small number were off-site composting facilities, usually with yearly throughputs from 5 tons to 100 tons.

  • New Jersey and Minnesota lead in food composting.

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.

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

Composting Costs:

  • Tipping fees usually are charged for incoming food waste.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 25.2 million tons or 15.6% of discarded MSW by weight.*

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

Landfill Volume:

  • 21.4 million cubic yards or 5.3% of landfilled MSW.

  • In a landfill, food waste can decompose into methane.


  • Landfilled food waste is 2,000 pounds per cubic yard.

  • Food scraps, solid and liquid fats weigh 412 pounds in a 55-gallon drum.

Source Reduction:

  • Packaged foods create less food waste.

  • In-sink kitchen disposal units transfer disposal of food waste to the wastewater system.

End-Market Specifications:

  • Each facility has its own specifications. Nonorganic materials, such as metals and plastic, must be kept out.


Biocycle, Emmaus Pa.
Composting Council of Canada, Toronto.
Cornell Waste Management Institute, Ithaca, N.Y.
“Handbook of Solid Waste Management,” Kreith 1994
“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures,” EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2000.
National Recycling Coalition, Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines, Washington, D.C., 1990
U.S. Composting Council, Hauppauge, N.Y.
*2000 EPA estimates.