Environmental Protection Agency: Sustainable Management of Food Basics

Sustainable Management of Food is a systematic approach that seeks to reduce wasted food and its associated impacts over the entire life cycle, starting with the use of natural resources, manufacturing, sales, and consumption and ending with decisions on recovery or final disposal. 

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What is Sustainable Management of Food?

Sustainable Management of Food is a systematic approach that seeks to reduce wasted food and its associated impacts over the entire life cycle, starting with the use of natural resources, manufacturing, sales, and consumption and ending with decisions on recovery or final disposal. EPA works to promote innovation and highlight the value and efficient management of food as a resource. Through the sustainable management of food, we can help businesses and consumers save money, provide a bridge in our communities for those who do not have enough to eat, and conserve resources for future generations. Building on the familiar concept of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” this approach shifts the view on environmental protection and more fully recognizes the impacts of the food we waste.

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What is Wasted Food and Where Does it Come From?

The term “wasted food” describes food that was not used for its intended purpose and is managed in a variety of ways, such as donation to feed people, creation of animal feed, composting, anaerobic digestion, or sending to landfills or combustion facilities. Examples include unsold food from retail stores; plate waste, uneaten prepared food, or kitchen trimmings from restaurants, cafeterias, and households; or by-products from food and beverage processing facilities. EPA uses the overarching term “wasted food” instead of “food waste” for food that was not used for its intended purpose because it conveys that a valuable resource is being wasted, whereas “food waste” implies that the food no longer has value and needs to be managed as waste.

  • Excess food refers to food that is recovered and donated to feed people.
  • Food waste refers to food such as plate waste (i.e., food that has been served but not eaten), spoiled food, or peels and rinds considered inedible that is sent to feed animals, to be composted or anaerobically digested, or to be landfilled or combusted with energy recovery.
  • Food loss refers to unused product from the agricultural sector, such as unharvested crops.

EPA encourages anyone managing wasted food to reference the Food Recovery Hierarchy. When the higher levels of the hierarchy are no longer feasible, then the food waste left over should be put to beneficial use such as composted or sent to be broken down through anaerobic digestion. Additional resources on wasted food can be found at Further with Food: Center for Food Loss and Waste Solutions.EXIT

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Why is Sustainable Management of Food Important?

Wasted food is a growing problem in our modern society and an untapped opportunity. In 2018 alone, EPA estimates that about 63 million tons of wasted food were generated in the commercial, institutional, and residential sectors, with about 32 percent being managed by animal feed, bio-based materials/biochemical processing, codigestion/anaerobic digestion, composting, donation, land application, and sewer/wastewater treatment. EPA estimated that in 2018 in the United States, more food reached landfills and combustion facilities than any other single material in our everyday trash, at 24 percent of the amount landfilled and at 22 percent of the amount combusted with energy recovery. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that in 2010, 31 percent or 133 billion pounds of the 430 billion pounds of food produced was not available for human consumption at the retail and consumer levels (i.e., one-third of the food available was not eaten).1

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated in 2011 that approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption worldwide is lost or wasted.2 Taking simple steps in your everyday life can make a difference in addressing this issue. Reducing wasted food is a triple win; it’s good for the economy, for communities, and for the environment.

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Saving Money

When we waste food, we’re not just creating a problem, we’re also missing an opportunity to save businesses and consumers money:

  • Pay Less for Trash Pickup – Organizations might pay less for trash pickup by keeping wasted food out of the garbage. Some haulers lower fees if wasted food is separated from the trash and sent to a compost facility instead of the landfill.
  • Receive Tax Benefits by Donating – If you donate healthy, safe, and edible food to hungry people, your organization can claim tax benefits. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects food donors from legal liability.
  • Waste Less and Spend Less – If you or your organization can find ways to prevent waste in the first place, you can spend less by buying only the food you will use. Preventing wasted food can also reduce energy and labor costs associated with throwing away good food.

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Helping People

Preventing wasted food and recovering wholesome, nutritious food can help you make a difference in your community:

  • Feed People, Not Landfills – Instead of feeding landfills, we should be feeding people in our communities. You can donate a variety of foods to many different types of organizations. Contact Feeding America EXIT or your local food rescue organizations for information about where you can donate and what types of food your local organization is able to accept.
  • Feed Children – In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program provided nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day.4 By redirecting food that would otherwise be wasted to homes and schools, we can help feed our country’s children.
  • Create Job Opportunities – Recovering and recycling wasted food through donation, salvaging, processing, industrial reuse, and composting strengthens infrastructure and creates jobs. Food recycling in these sectors employs more than 36,000 people, supporting local economies and promoting innovation.5
  • Feed the World – According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, from 2012 to 2014 there were about 805 million hungry people on earth. They predict that by eliminating food loss and wasted food we would have enough food to feed all the chronically undernourished. They also expect that we wouldn’t have to increase food production or put additional pressure on our natural resources to do so.3

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Conserving Resources

Reducing wasted food does great things for the environment:

  • Reduce Methane from Landfills – When food goes to the landfill, it’s similar to tying food in a plastic bag. The nutrients in the food never return to the soil. The wasted food rots and produces methane gas.
  • Save Resources  Wasted food wastes the water, gasoline, energy, labor, pesticides, land, and fertilizers used to make the food. When we throw food in the trash, we’re throwing away much more than food.
  • Return Nutrients to the Soil – If you can’t prevent, reduce or donate wasted food, you can compost. By sending food scraps to a composting facility instead of to a landfill or composting at home, you’re helping make healthy soils. Adding compost to gardens, highway construction sites, and poor soils makes great things happen. Properly composted organics (wasted food and yard waste) improve soil health and structure, improve water retention, support more native plants, and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides.

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Sources of Statistics

  1. United States Department of Agriculture. The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States.
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations “Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes, and prevention” (PDF) EXIT(38 pp, 1.6 MB, 2011, About PDF).
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agriculture Development and the World Food Programme, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014. Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition (PDF) EXIT (57 pp, 3 MB, 2014).
  4. United States Department of Agriculture, National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet.
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2016 Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report Methodology.

Science Topics
Conservation & Sustainability, Food Science, Waste
Middle School, High School
6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade, 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade

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