SESYNC - Environmental Impacts of Food Waste

The overall objective of this project is to define and measure the ecological and environmental impacts of food loss and waste within the U.S. food system taking into consideration all sources of impacts from input sourcing in agricultural production through landfill disposal of waste across types of foods. The intent is to provide actionable results that can help target cost-effective food waste reduction efforts under public and private initiatives. Results of the study will lay the groundwork for potential future studies to address the behavioral aspects of food waste. This is a SESYNC Foundations Project, organized by Mary K. Muth at RTI International,

Research Questions

  • What are the key sources of ecological and environmental impacts of food waste and loss along the U.S. food supply chain including production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal?
  • What are the best methods and data sources for measuring the ecological and environmental impacts of food waste and loss by region of the country taking into account all types of impacts throughout the supply chain?
  • What are the key dimensions relevant for measuring the impacts of food waste by region of the country (e.g., type of food system, types of food and degree of processing, types of packaging, and end-users of the food.)
  • How can the economic value of ecological and environmental resources used in the production of food be measured?
  • Based on cost-effectiveness measures, where should initiatives to reduce food waste and loss focus their efforts in different regions of the country?


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted at some point in the food supply chain during production, processing, distribution, preparation, and consumption. Amounts of food loss and waste vary depending on the type of food system, the type of food, the type of processing and packaging, and the population consuming the food. In United States and other developed countries, food loss and waste concerns generally focus more on later stages of the supply chain (e.g., retailer- and consumer-level losses), while in less developed countries, food loss and waste concerns generally focus more on earlier stages of the supply chain (e.g., farm- and processing-level losses).

Concerns regarding food loss and waste are typically motivated by two themes—food security and the environment—both of which relate to the sustainability of the food system. In the United States and other developed countries, food security is less of a motivating driver in efforts to reduce food waste because the supply of food is abundant. However, even with an abundant food supply, ecological, environmental, and economic concerns motivate efforts to reduce food waste. When food is wasted, the land, water, energy, and other resources used in the production and distribution of the food impacts the environment. Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions occur from the food production and distribution process, transporting food waste, and decomposition of food waste in landfills. As the global population increases, pressure to reduce food waste will increase to ensure adequate food supplies given available resources without further impacting the environment.

Several U.S. and international efforts are underway to reduce food waste and increase the sustainability of the food system. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have established the U.S. Food Waste Challenge to call on entities across the food chain—farms, agricultural processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, universities, schools, and local governments—to reduce food waste and loss ( Furthermore, the USDA and EPA established the first national goal to reduce food waste and loss by 50% by 2030 and established the U.S. Food Waste and Loss Champions to recognize businesses that have individually adopted the same goal (   Likewise, in the private sector, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) have formed the Food Waste Reduction Alliance to address waste and shrink the food industry’s environmental footprint and simultaneously address hunger in America (

Beyond the United States, the United Nation’s Save Food - Global Initiative on Food Waste and Loss Reduction aims to raise awareness among consumers and industry and coordinate efforts to reduce food waste and loss globally ( In addition, the E.U. Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimizing Waste Prevention Strategies (FUSIONS) project seeks to work towards a more resource efficient Europe by significantly reducing food waste ( Similarly, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has a specific focus area to prioritize action to tackle the carbon, water, and waste impacts of the food and drink industry in the United Kingdom (

Prior studies have measured the environmental impacts of the food system in general, of food waste in particular, or of changes in food consumption patterns based on the dietary guidelines or other trends. The types of environmental impacts studied include use of land, water, nitrogen, carbon, fossil fuels, and energy, and emissions of greenhouse gases. Approaches used include life cycle assessment, input-output analysis, and other types of modeling or accounting approaches. A synthesis project would contribute to the existing body of knowledge by defining types of impacts, assessing methods, and identifying data sources with a particular focus on how best to prioritize food waste reduction efforts in the United States. While several studies have assessed broad environmental impacts of food waste at a global level, a study focused on the United States can delve into greater depth across regions and address differences in ecological systems, environmental resources, food production and distribution patterns, and institutional structure. Food waste reduction initiatives that focus in specific areas of the country, on specific points in the U.S. food supply chain, or on specific types of foods may be more cost-effective than others.

Effectiveness measures could be assessed relative to each potential type of impact whether from resource use, emissions during production and consumption, or emissions during disposal. Cost measures could be developed based on the ReFED (2016) report, which focuses on providing a roadmap to reduce food waste in the U.S. by 50%, or Hanson and Mitchell (2017), which provides general estimates of selected food waste reduction efforts.

The team comprises individuals with interest and expertise in food waste including environmental science, economics, behavioral science, food and agricultural science, and the food industry. The members of the team are from academia, government, and the private sector to ensure understanding of the science and institutions affecting food waste.


Tentative Schedule (Summer 2017-Summer 2019): A preliminary proposed schedule for the project is shown in the table below. This schedule includes two phases. In the first phase, we will develop a synthesis paper aimed at a multidisciplinary audience and focused on regional aspects of food waste and identifying relevant and feasible measures of environmental impacts. The second phase will focus on a more indepth analysis using available data sources based on the findings of the first phase.


Target Dates

In-person meeting to discuss focus and definition of food waste to be used and plan synthesis paper

November 1-2, 2017

Work on researching and preparing synthesis paper

Fall 2017

In-person meeting to review draft synthesis paper and identify focus of analysis effort

Winter 2017

Complete synthesis paper and continue researching data sources and planning analysis effort

Winter 2017-Spring 2018

In-person meeting to finalize focus of analysis effort and strategy

Spring 2018

Recruit post-doctoral researcher to conduct analysis

Spring 2018

Continue analysis and begin planning manuscript

Fall 2018-Summer 2019

In-person meeting to review analysis results and finalize manuscript plans

Spring 2019

Complete analysis and manuscript

Summer 2019


Food waste


Project Team

  • Sarah Zoubek, MEM
  • Amanda Cuellar, Independent Consultant, Austin, TX,
  • Claudia Fabiano, Environmental Protection Specialist, Environmental Protection Agency,
  • James Galloway, Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia,
  • Mark Freeman, Senior Manager, Global Dining Services, Microsoft,
  • Travis Smith, Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Georgia,
  • Keith Weitz, Director, Sustainability and Resource Management, RTI,
  • Michael Webber, Deputy Director, Energy Institute, University of Texas, Austin, (admin: Sarah De Berry-Carperton,
  • Kristal Jones, Assistant Research Scientist, SESYNC,
  • Jessica Gephart, Postdoctoral Fellow, SESYNC,
  • Emily Cassidy, Science Communications, Coordinator, SESYNC,