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Why DO We Waste Food

“Common Sense” says we would never intentionally purchase something, only to never use it and relatively shortly thereafter just throw it in the trash. You may ask, “Who would ever do such a crazy thing?” The answer is we ALL do this, and probably every week when we throw unused food we’ve purchased into the trash. Don’t worry, I’m raising my hand as guilty too. But knowledge has helped me tremendously to reduce the amount I toss!

Let’s back up and understand this issue better. Unfortunately, wasting food is very common. Currently in the U.S. about 31% of the food supply produced is lost or wasted (USDA, 2014). Wasted food can happen in the fields if it’s not harvested on time, or in addition if it’s not processed and/or transported in a safe and timely manner. Unfortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for food to become damaged and/or turn bad throughout these steps. Whether food was grown in our own gardens, or was commercially-grown or raised, the original intention is for this food to fill bellies and/or be enjoyed. Sadly, so much never reaches its potential.

Just as important, wasted food reflects much more than just generating a type of “waste”. It also has wasted the fertilizer, fuel, water, land use, human labor, and money that went into its production, packaging, and transportation. Another large impact of this waste is based on what happens to it next. Most of this food, aka “organic matter” will go to a sanitary landfill. This is costly and generates methane gas in this anaerobic environment. Methane is a greenhouse gas ten times more potent that carbon dioxide and while landfills work to manage the methane, it is still challenging. Reducing the amount of organic materials going to landfills should be our first goal. But if that can’t happen, another great way to manage this material is through composting. OK, I’ll save that topic for another article!

So, why do we waste food? Obviously food is both a staple and comfort for our lives. We usually have good intentions when we first purchase items. We like to have stocked cupboards and refrigerators to assure food is available, but we may over purchase. This can happen when we try to be gracious hosts or we’re trying to be thoughtful for others. Think about those pre-COVID days when we gathered together in large groups! Maybe we purchase incorrectly; we want to try new foods but may find out they’re not to our tastes. Or, we may not be able consume everything in a timely way before it turns bad. That makes me wonder about that sour cream container I’ve seen in my refrigerator for a very long time. It’s been pushed way to the back, so I only see it once and a while. I’ll bet it has some very pretty funky mold growing on it, ugh! Rotating food items in your refrigerator, pantry, or cupboards can help remind you of what you have, and maybe help you to avoid finding a funky mold on your sour cream, too.

Date labels on food packaging are also confusing! How often have we thrown something out ‘just to be safe’? What do those dates really mean and are they even required? Here are some common ones.

  • Use-By: This is aimed at consumers to guide them when the product should be eaten, mostly because of quality concerns. Furthermore, some perishable meats may be labeled “Use-By or Freeze-By” a certain date.

  • Sell-By: This is aimed at retailers and their internal operations. It informs them of the date the product should be sold or removed from their shelves. Typically, one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date in consideration for the consumer’s use at home.

  • Best-By: This is a guideline for the consumer for when the product should be consumed to assure its most ideal, or “best” quality. It may still have a safe shelf life, but just not at that highest quality level.

Labeling requirements can vary by state, however the only federal regulation for date labeling is on infant formula. You may also notice that the labels listed above do not use the actual words “Expiration Date”. For more information, here is a document (click here) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (Sept. 2019) about how the USDA and FDA want to help reduce this labeling confusion.

Liability concerns are often brought up by businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, and/or organizations, so they throw out a lot of food as well. Sometimes they may just be misinformed! Food Donor Liability Protections, on both the national and state (Wisconsin) levels, are available as referenced below.

  • Public Law 104-210: Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act

    • Encourages donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals.

    • Protects donors from civil and criminal liability should a fit and wholesome product donated in good faith later cause harm to a recipient.

  • Wisconsin Statute 895.51: Liability Exemption

    • Food Donation, Sale or Distribution, also provides protection.

    • Any person engaged in the processing, distribution or sale of food products, for profit or not for profit, who donates or sells, at a price not to exceed overhead and transportation costs, qualified food to a charitable organization or food distribution service is immune from civil liability for the death of or injury to any individual caused by the qualified food donated or sold by the person.

At Recycling Connections, we have several ideas and resources to help reduce wasted food at all levels, whether you are an individual, business, restaurant, school, or hosting a special event. Feel free to contact us or visit our website to learn more at


Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States,” Economic Information Bulletin, no. 121 (February 2014). This is the most recent estimate available from USDA. The amount and value of the food losses are for 2010. According to USDA’s 2014 report, food loss and waste is the amount of edible food that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason. Food loss includes cooking loss or loss from pests, among other things. Food waste is a component of food loss and occurs when an edible item is discarded, such as when retailers discard food because it has blemishes or when consumers discard food from their plate.

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