Discarded food that ends up in landfills is a major source of methane emissions, the EPA reports. Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Moment / Getty Images
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More than a third of food produced in the U.S. ends up being thrown away, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This not only wastes the food itself, but the resources that were used to produce, process, transport and distribute it. Much of it ends up in landfills, where it breaks down and generates methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
Earlier this month, the EPA released two new reports that quantify methane emissions from food waste in landfills and provide new recommendations for managing food waste, a press release from the EPA said.
“Wasted food is a major environmental, social, and economic challenge,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in the press release. “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.”
The findings of the reports highlight how important it is to reduce food waste and manage the disposal of it in ways that are easier on the environment.
One of the reports, “Quantifying Methane Emissions From Landfilled Food Waste,” said that approximately 58 percent of methane emissions released into the atmosphere from landfills are from food waste, 61 percent of which is not captured, but released into the atmosphere.
A group of local government officials from 18 states have written a joint letter urging the EPA to phase out food waste disposal in landfills by 2040 in order to reduce methane emissions.
“Without fast action on methane, local governments will increasingly face the impacts of warming temperatures, sea level rise, and extreme weather events,” the officials, including the mayors of Minneapolis and Seattle, said in the letter, as Reuters reported.
According to the EPA, about 14 percent of methane emissions in the U.S. come from landfills. In 2020 methane produced a total of more than 60 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Based on its recent findings, the EPA has updated its Food Recovery Hierarchy, which is a tool to help officials understand the best ways to manage the environmental impacts of food waste, the press release said. The new ranking is called the Wasted Food Scale.
Research by the EPA has found that preventing food waste remains most beneficial for the environment. The new EPA reports suggest the focus should be put on diverting food waste from landfills through less waste, which will result in a reduction in environmental impacts.
The new research is the first quantification of methane emissions from landfills by the EPA. The agency found that, from 1990 to 2020, while total emissions from landfills decreased, food waste in landfills produced more emissions. These findings indicate that the diversion of food waste from landfills would be effective in reducing methane emissions from these landfills.
The other report, “From Field to Bin: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste Management Pathways,” looks at the environmental impacts of food waste disposal. It brings together the most recent science on the environmental impacts of common food waste management in the U.S. It completes the study that began in its companion report, “From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste,” an analysis of food waste’s environmental footprint on its journey from farm to consumer.
Food waste will be one focus of the United Nations Climate Change Conference next month in Dubai.