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« 10 Ways to Waste Less Food and Energy | Main | Eat Vegetables and other Plants to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint »

Reducing Food Waste Where It Counts: The Food Waste Effect

The most effective way to reduce food waste is to focus on the types of food that are wasted the most and that take the most energy to produce. Most efforts look at one or the other of these factors. Some even downplay the amount of animal products wasted by splitting up the categories and printing the labels upside down or sideways. (NRDC, I'm looking at you.)  My Food Waste Effect multiplies two factors together:

  • How much of a certain category of food is typically wasted as show in chart 1 below
  • The full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for a food, including production, processing, transportation, cooking, and disposal

I hope combining these concepts will help you and other engaged cooks select ingredients that take less energy to produce and to be careful with types of food that are often wasted. By a beautiful coincidence, doing this will be good for your health and budget and good for the planet.

Chart 1: Wasted Food by Category

This chart shows total food losses in households, retail, and food service, from eggs at 2% to fresh fruits and vegetables at 22%. (Source: Journal of Consumer Affairs.) Plant products make up 44% of the food wasted, animal products 39%, and sweeteners, fats, and oils make up the rest. You might be tempted by this chart to switch from fresh produce to canned or frozen. Please don't until you check the next chart.

Food Waste by Category: Pie Chart shows percent meat, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables wasted

Chart 2: the Food Waste Effect

The Food Waste Effect chart shows the percentage of food wasted in each category as shown in chart 1 above times the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for a food. (Source: Meat-Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health by the Environmental Working Group.)

It shows that the most effective way reduce food waste is to focus on lamb, beef, cheese, pork, and salmon. Either don't buy it at all or make sure to use the little that you do buy. Even small scraps from a restaurant meal are worth bringing home to use as a garnish or flavoring if they replace meat you otherwise would have purchased.

Cchart: Food Waste Effect showing food waste by category and greenhouse gasses produced in a full food lifecycle


I'm glad to see that foods I eat nearly every day are at the top of the list: dried beans, peanut butter, and tomatoes. These are all wildly affordable and healthy too.

Eggs have the lowest Food Waste Effect score because only 2% are wasted and industrial egg facilities are brutally efficient. The crowded hens are often fed the by-products from other operations, including "meal" made from feathers, bone, blood, or fish. Despite the low score, I don't recommend eating eggs for health reasons and out of concern for the chickens, including male chicks who are killed shortly after they hatch. If you do eat eggs, please get them from backyard chickens or from pastured chickens who live on an integrated sustainable farm. Milk also has a relatively low FWE score but raises similar concerns.

Ready to get started? See these related posts:

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