Food Waste

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FOOD WASTE. Food waste is the discarding of potentially usable food. Both edible and inedible foods may be considered garbage and therefore wasted. Edible foods are considered inedible when their quality deteriorates until they become unhealthy or noxious. Food deterioration occurs from microbial contamination or from rotting as a consequence of overproduction, storage problems, or improper preparation. Food waste also occurs through food use that returns little nutritional value, like overprocessing and overconsumption.

Edible foods are also wasted when cultural or individual preferences deem food undesirable. For example, some people dislike bread crusts, so they remove them and discard them. Societies with abundant food supplies often consider reusing leftover foods as inconvenient, while less food-rich societies regard food reuse as imperative. Specific parts of animals and plants considered edible in some cultures are considered inedible in others. Animal parts viewed as waste may include bones or shells, skins or scales, fat, blood, intestines, brains, eyes, and stomachs. Plant parts viewed as waste may include cores, seeds, stems, outer leaves, shells, rinds, husks, or peels.

Cultural Variations in Food Waste

Food systems in different cultures vary in the proportion of food waste that is discarded. Cultural variations exist in what is considered garbage, and understanding cultural food rules is crucial in examining food waste. For example, intestines and other internal organs are considered delicacies in China but are discarded as offal in many Western countries. Animal fats are consumed or used as fuel in societies like the Inuit, but in postindustrial nations fats are often trimmed and discarded to reduce caloric intake. Blood is an ingredient in dishes like black pudding in Britain but is discarded in many other societies.

Cultural differences in beliefs about what is edible versus inedible exist more often for animal foods than for plant foods. This may be because animals are similar to humans, so that edibility involves more symbolic meanings. Also, plant food wastes often constitute parts indigestible by humans that therefore have no nutritional value, such as vegetable rinds.

Moral values in most cultures admonish food waste. However, food protests and food riots may intentionally waste food to make ideological and ethical points. Many groups are proud of their efficient use of all parts of a slaughtered animal, such as Cajun claims to use "everything except the squeal" of hogs. Agricultural societies often feed plant food wastes to animals, while many industrial societies process by-products of animal slaughter into livestock feed. Such practices recycle undesired by-products into edible foods and minimize actual food waste. Some societies accept the waste of less-desirable portions of animals and plants as a sign that they have attained a state of affluence and can afford to consume only high-quality items.

Food Systems and Food Waste

Postindustrial societies waste food across all stages of the food system. Food production wastes preharvest food through natural disasters, diseases, or pests; harvested food by inefficient collection of edible crops or livestock; and postharvest food in storage or contamination losses. Food processing wastes food in spillage, spoilage, discarding substandard edible materials, or removing edible food parts in inefficient processing. Food distribution wastes food by offering more food than consumers will purchase and then discarding unsold products. Food acquisition wastes food when consumers purchase more food than they use. Food preparation wastes food by removing edible parts of foodstuffs, spilling or contaminating foods, and rendering foods inedible through improper handling and overcooking. Food consumption wastes food by taking larger portions than can be eaten or by spilling food. Digestion, transport, and metabolism of foods in the body waste nutrients through inefficient absorption, storage, or utilization, thereby failing to use all nutrients that were ingested.

Waste streams in the food system are the by-products of human production and consumption. Garbology, the study of human waste behaviors, identifies food waste as a significant portion of the total human waste stream. Food waste comprises about 10 percent of the total municipal solid waste streams in postindustrial nations and higher percentages in societies lacking mechanized refrigeration and durable packaging.

The four principal methods of disposing of food waste are dumping, burning, minimizing, and recycling. Dumping is the most common method of food waste disposal, but it may create sanitation and landfill problems. Burning food waste is convenient and minimizes the amount of solids needing to be disposed, but burning reduces air quality and is banned in many places. Minimizing food waste occurs through food trades, gifts, donations, and conservation during preparation and after consumption, such as reusing leftovers. Recycling often involves feeding food waste to livestock or composting food refuse. Compost can be used as fertilizer to grow more food, reducing the absolute food waste.

The Cost of Food Waste

Food waste significantly impacts environmental, economic, and community health. The accumulation of discarded food in landfills contributes to air and water pollution, and the burning of food refuse also affects air quality. Economic and nutritional losses are incurred from the calories lost in discarded food as well as from the energy and materials used to transport food waste to landfills. Wasted food means fewer nutrients are available for human consumption, which jeopardizes community food security.

There are also costs associated with the use of salvaged foodstuffs. For example, feeding animal slaughter by-products to livestock has caused outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and hoof and mouth disease in several European nations. Consumption of leftover foods that were not prepared or stored properly is implicated in many cases of foodborne illness.

Historical Changes in Food Waste

Historical transformations have changed the type and amount of food waste generated. Hunter-gatherer cultures often discarded bones as their primary food waste. The development of agriculture added more plant materials to the food waste stream. Industrialized agriculture increased organic waste by-products from large-scale food processing. Increased population growth and urbanization multiplied and concentrated the amount of food waste, which was increasingly dumped as the cities that generated waste became located farther from agricultural areas.

Historical shifts occurred in the conception of food waste. The term "garbage" originated in the French word for entrails and once referred exclusively to food waste. Later the word signified all refuse, since food waste embodies the most unacceptable characteristics of solid waste, putrefaction and attraction of vermin.

Material prosperity reduces the economic necessity for food conservation and reuse, and conspicuous consumption and disposal are demonstrations of social status. Food in postindustrial societies is inexpensive relative to total income, and wasting food is increasingly accepted. Technology that improves the durability of foods, such as plastic packaging, has reduced food waste from spoilage but has created a new waste problem as food packaging contributes more to the waste stream than food itself. Regardless of consumption and disposal practices, the growing world population has increased food waste.

See also Consumption of Food; Meat.


Gallo, Anthony E. "Consumer Food Waste in the United States." National Food Review 3 (1980): 1316.

Kantor, Linda S., Kathryn Lipton, Alden Manchester, and Victor Oliveria. "Estimating and Addressing America's Food Losses." Food Review 20 (1997): 212.

Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999.

Jeffery Sobal Mary Kay Nelson