Food waste in landfills: What you need to know

Landfills are already at near capacity in the U.S.–and food waste isn’t helping


There’s an incredible amount of food that’s thrown away every day in the United States—as much as 40%. Food can be lost anywhere along the farm to plate pipeline: farms may throw out produce exposed to pests, goods might be damaged in transit or expire in a grocery store, families might overbuy certain groceries and throw them out, or you might leave food on the plate at a restaurant. All of this waste has to go somewhere—usually a landfill. In 2020, approximately 62.5 million tons of food waste wound up in landfills.1

Where does food waste go?

Food waste can go to a lot of different places. It might go to compost sites, anaerobic digestion facilities that generate biogas for energy, or landfills and combustion facilities. But we do need better analysis to know precisely how much is going through which pathways, says Yvette Cabrera, the director of food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

As far as landfills, specifically, estimates vary, but we do know they’re where the majority of tossed goods wind up. The EPA estimated that in 2019, about 60% of food waste went to landfills. But individual states and municipalities run things differently. One New York State report estimated that of the 3.9 million tons of food waste generated by the state each year, 3.8 million tons of that went to landfills and combustion sites—that’s 97%.2 Feed for America says the amount of edibles that end up in U.S. landfills every year could make up to 149 billion meals.

How much of landfills is food waste?

The EPA estimates that 24% of landfill content is food waste.3 “It’s super high,” says Cabrera. “Many experts and advocates for a long time have been saying that methane from food waste and landfills is a much bigger problem than we think it is.” 

Does food decompose in landfills?

Food does decompose in landfills, but with a big caveat. As waste gets dumped into those trash heaps, the scraps are sandwiched in between mounds of other materials. The trapped food has little or no exposure to oxygen, creating what’s called an anaerobic environment. In these conditions microorganisms decompose the organic material very slowly, releasing methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas with a much higher potential for warming that carbon dioxide. 

EPA findings also show that an estimated 58% of methane emissions released into the atmosphere from landfills are from food waste.

The pace at which this happens depends on several factors, including how much air the food waste is exposed to. According to a 2023 Environmental Protection Agency report, it takes about three and a half years for just half of the carbon in food waste to be converted to methane.4 But even that pace can depend on many factors, including what kind of food it is and the climate of the landfill. “A lettuce head can take up to 10 years to decompose,” says the NRDC’s Cabrera. “But it’s so variable.” 

How much methane comes from food waste? 

Municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions from human activities in the U.S., according to the EPA.5 That waste emitted approximately 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2020—that’s equivalent to the emissions of more than 14 coal-fired power plants. EPA findings also show that an estimated 58% of methane emissions released into the atmosphere from landfills are from food waste. And about 61% of methane from food in landfills is not captured by landfill gas collection systems, which means it is released to the atmosphere.

How does food waste affect the environment?

About 6% of all U.S. emissions are from food surplus, says Asch Harwood, who leads the research and engineering team at ReFED, a nonprofit focused on finding solutions to food waste and loss. Think of all the resources it takes to grow, package, transport, refrigerate, and cook food. Labor, water, materials, and energy are all needed to get food from farms and factories to our grocery stores and homes, says Harwood—so wasting food is also a waste of those scarce resources. 

Once food waste gets to a landfill, it creates a multitude of problems, says the NRDC’s Cabrera. Food waste not only generates methane emissions, but it contributes to all the pollution—to the air, water, and soil—that landfills are responsible for generally. Landfills can leak hazardous leachate into ground and surface water, for example, harming local habitats. 

How to reduce the amount of food waste in landfills

In 2015, the USDA joined with the EPA to set a goal to cut the country’s food waste by 50% by 2030. The way to tackle food waste is by addressing all the parts of the pipeline before that food even becomes waste. The EPA’s “Wasted Food Scale” shows different methods for dealing with food, ordered from best to worst:

  1. Only produce, buy, and serve what is needed. Cook with imperfect foods. Reuse peels and leftovers rather than throwing them out.
  2. If it’s safe to eat, rescue and redistribute food to people who may want it via organizations like food pantries or soup kitchens.
  3. Repurpose, or “upcycle” food scraps for an alternate purpose. For example, barley from beer brewing can be included in granola. 
  4. Turn food waste into feed for livestock.
  5. Farmers can leave crops on the field, which will decompose and renourish the soil.
  6. Compost waste into a supplement for soil. You can do this on a local level, in a community garden, or participate in bigger industrial composting programs that may exist in your city. 
  7. Anaerobic digestion facilities break down wasted food in a way that allows them to capture biogas for energy. The process can also produce a food waste slurry that can be used to deliver nutrients to soil. 
  8. If all else fails, food can be sent down the drain, to the landfill, or incinerator. 

It’s important to note that funneling food waste to the “better” strategies does not necessarily eliminate every problem. The majority of emissions from food take place before that food becomes waste, says Harwood. From the growing to the packaging to the shipping and beyond, “that damage has been done.” Composting is certainly less bad than sending food waste to a landfill, but if you care about this, he says, preventing food waste generation in the first place will get you “the biggest bang for your buck.” 

What is the food waste policy in the U.S.?

Though there is no nationwide food waste regulation or law in the U.S., the federal government does play some role in dictating food waste policy in the U.S. For example, in January of 2023, Congress passed the Food Donation Improvement Act to expand protections for businesses and make it easier for them to donate food. But ultimately, a lot of how food waste is managed—that is, how it’s transported or processed—is determined at state or local levels.

But there are plenty of other regulations or policies that could help governments at either the federal or state levels prevent food waste. For example, date labeling is a big one, says Harwood. Confusion over what expiration or “best by” date labels mean is a significant factor for creating unnecessary waste.6 

Organic waste bans

Since so much waste management is decided at the state or local levels, a big priority is to get those states or municipalities to institute organic waste bans, says Cabrera of the NDRC. Organic waste bans include any law or regulatory requirement that in any way limits the amount of organic waste, including food waste, that can be disposed of in landfills or incinerators.

Regions with organic waste bans in place often have yard or food scrap collection mandates, where organic waste is collected and taken to municipal composting or to waste management facilities. So far nine states, and a handful of other cities, have organic waste bans in place. “We think of this as the golden model for keeping food waste out of landfills,” she says.

  1. Quantifying Methane Emissions from Landfilled Food Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oct. 2023 ↩︎
  2. Benefit-Cost Analysis of Potential Food Waste Diversion Legislation, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Mar. 2017 ↩︎
  3. Quantifying Methane Emissions from Landfilled Food Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Jan. 2024 ↩︎
  4. Quantifying Methane Emissions from Landfilled Food Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oct. 2023 ↩︎
  5. Quantifying Methane Emissions from Landfilled Food Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Jan. 2024 ↩︎
  6. Consumer Knowledge and Behaviors Regarding Food Date Labels and Food Waste, Food Control, Sep. 2020 ↩︎