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EPA tackles food waste and associated landfill methane emissions

Reports reveal the impacts of food waste on landfill methane emissions and provide updated tips for managing food waste

February 23, 2024 — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released two new reports quantifying methane emissions from landfilled food waste and updating recommendations for managing wasted food. Over one-third of the food produced in the United States is never eaten, wasting the resources used to produce, transport, process and distribute it — and much of it is sent to landfills, where it breaks down and generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Graphic courtesy of EPA

Wasted food is a major environmental, social and economic challenge. These reports provide decision-makers with important data on the climate impacts of food waste through landfill methane emissions and highlight the urgent need to keep food out of landfills.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan

The reports’ findings emphasize the importance of both reducing the amount of food that is wasted and managing its disposal in more environmentally friendly ways. Based on these findings, EPA is releasing an update to its Food Recovery Hierarchy, a tool to help decision makers, such as state and local governments, understand the best options for managing food waste in terms of environmental impacts.

The release of the new ranking — called the Wasted Food Scale — marks the first update since the 1990s, reflecting more recent technological advances and changes in operational practices. EPA’s research confirms that preventing food from being wasted in the first place, or source reduction, is still the most environmentally beneficial approach. The second step emphasizes directing food that has already been produced but is either unsellable or not being used by the consumer to those who need it or to companies that can process it in a different way.

Image courtesy of EPA

Evidence in these reports suggests that efforts should focus on ensuring less food is wasted so that food waste is diverted from landfills, which will reduce environmental impacts. The research announced represents the first time EPA has quantified methane emissions from landfilling. This novel work published modeled estimates of annual methane emissions released into the atmosphere from landfilled food waste, giving a cost of landfilling food waste in terms of the impact on climate change.

EPA conducted an analysis to estimate annual methane emissions from landfilled food waste from 1990 to 2020 and found that while total emissions from municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are decreasing, methane emissions from landfilled food waste are increasing. These estimates indicate that diverting food waste is an effective way to reduce methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas, from MSW landfills.

The EPA reports released in late 2023 include:

From Field to Bin: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste Management Pathways, which examines the environmental impacts of disposing of food waste. This report synthesizes the latest science on the environmental impacts of how food waste is commonly managed in the U.S. This report completes the analysis that began in the 2021 companion report, From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste , which analyzed the environmental footprint of food waste in the farm to consumer supply chain. 

Quantifying Methane Emissions from Landfilled Food Waste represents the first time EPA has published modeled estimates of annual methane emissions released into the atmosphere from landfilled food waste. More food reaches MSW landfills than any other material, but its contribution to landfill methane emissions has not been previously quantified. 

These reports will support future EPA efforts to reduce food waste. EPA’s food waste research provides a better understanding of the net environmental footprint of U.S. food waste.

Learn more about EPA’s food waste research and the agency’s work on the sustainable management of food at EPA.