An in-depth look at food waste policies and laws

Cities, states, and nations can keep scraps out of the landfill


In the United States, we chuck more than 30% of the food we produce.1 But in recent years, some cities and states have enacted food waste policies and laws aimed at reducing the amount of grub that ends up rotting in landfills and burning in incinerators with other solid waste. Legislation passed in municipalities and states across the country aims to keep this organic waste in use by redirecting it to more sustainable fates such as composting, conversion to a type of fuel called biogas, and feeding it to livestock on farms

Policies on the local scale can prove particularly effective to mitigate food waste and the climate consequences it entails, says Lily Pollans, an urban planner at Hunter College who researches municipal waste policy. While cities don’t control entire electrical grids, they often control waste management and work to ensure it’s eco-friendly. “Cities have a lot of work to do to make up for policy failures at larger scales of government,” Pollans says.

Food waste and recycling laws in the United States

Food makes up around 24% of solid waste in U.S. municipal landfills, outnumbering all other types of trash. Some strides have been made at the national level, namely the USDA and EPA’s 2015 goal to cut food waste in half by 2030 as well as the Food Donation Improvement Act of 2021 which makes donating food easier for restaurant leftovers and grocery products. Still, over the last decade, cities and states around the country have passed legislation to prevent food waste from piling up in smelly, methane-spewing heaps and put it to good use.


In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to require certain institutions, such as supermarkets or food manufacturers, to recycle food waste. Businesses that generate more than 26 tons of organic waste annually can comply in several ways, such as sending scraps to compost or biogas-generating facilities (as long as they’re within a 20-mile distance) and donating leftover edible food to those in need.


In 2012, Vermont passed a law that would progressively ban food waste from trash bins over a period of time. It gradually phased in residents and different types of businesses over the next few years, resulting in a total ban by 2020. Residents can compost in their yards, set food scraps on the curb, or drop off scraps at local facilities. Businesses can donate edible food or send it to farms or composting and anaerobic digestion facilities. Since the law’s passing, food donations have nearly tripled in the state.


In 2014, the Massachusetts government banned businesses and institutions from throwing out organic waste if they generate a ton or more of these materials per week. In November 2022, the state lowered the threshold to a half-ton or more each week. Massachusetts ultimately aims to divert at least 35% of all food waste from landfills.


In 2016, officials began requiring businesses that generate more than 8 cubic yards of organic waste weekly, such as restaurants and supermarkets, to recycle this refuse. Over the following few years, the law expanded to include businesses that generate smaller amounts of waste per week. And since January 2022, the state has required cities to offer food waste recycling to all residents and businesses and send it to composting or biogas-generating facilities. 

While California set a target to reduce organic waste (including food) sent to landfills by 50% by 2020, the state missed this goal and even ended up dumping more organic waste in landfills compared to 2014. It’s also possible it will miss a 2025 goal of diverting 75% of organic waste from landfills. The state hasn’t provided enough funding to municipalities or offered clear guidelines, among other shortfalls, according to a June 2023 report by a California government oversight organization called the Little Hoover Commission.

New York 

Implemented in January 2022, the New York State Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling law requires institutions and businesses that waste an average of two or more tons of food per week to donate extra edible meals and recycle all other food scraps (if they’re located within 25 miles of an organics recycling facility). These often include restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, malls, and universities.


On January 1, 2023, Maryland began requiring individuals, businesses, and cafeterias that create more than two tons of food waste per week to send it out for recycling. The following year, the law extended to those generating one ton or more per week—these facilities include some schools, supermarkets and cafeterias but not businesses like restaurants. 


Officials in cities such as New York, Boulder, Seattle, and Austin have all passed laws requiring that people separate food scraps from other waste. These municipalities offer curbside food scrap collection programs to all or nearly all residents, and that waste is often processed into compost. Some communities are developing their own anaerobic digestion facilities, but this can be a tricky process.2 New York City officials planned to turn some of the local compost into natural gas to power homes and businesses in 2015, but this initiative faced technical hiccups and attracted criticism after a wastewater treatment plant burned off excess compost-sourced gas as carbon dioxide.

The role of subsidies in perpetuating food waste

Overall, laws aimed at reducing food waste tend to target disposal methods. But federal subsidies for meat manufacturers and other massive industries actually encourage overproduction. “We live in an incredibly wasteful society and all of the incentives are oriented towards overproduction and overconsumption,” says Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist at Boston College who studies solid waste processing. Subsidies have shaped certain U.S. markets to operate on a food surplus since the New Deal, and nearly a century of status quo is no easy thing to shake up. Grocery stores also tend to order too much stock because they’ve learned that consumers are less likely to buy products from empty shelves, and they tend to toss blemished produce in the rubbish for cosmetic reasons.

Food waste and recycling laws internationally

Compared to the ambitious moves by a handful of U.S. states and cities, other governments around the globe have taken bold action to slash food waste. 

South Korea 

South Korea leads the globe in food waste reduction strategies, and the country recycles around 95% of leftover grub. The government banned food waste from landfills in 2005 and ushered in mandatory food waste recycling in 2013. Families of four pay an average of $6 per month for biodegradable bags, which helps fund recycling services.  Residents can also choose to compost at home and save on fees.

In the capital city of Seoul, residents have access to thousands of high-tech automated bins that weigh food waste and charge residents with ID cards. These machines slashed city food waste by nearly 50,000 tons over six years.


While Canadian officials are looking into ways to reduce food waste, they haven’t yet passed any legislation to get the ball rolling. Some cities have introduced their own programs, such as Calgary’s food rescue and food waste diversion pilot project that ran last year for six months. By the spring of 2024, the city of Montreal will require larger residential buildings in certain neighborhoods to collect food waste.


While the U.K. government hopes to divert all food waste from landfills by 2030, officials haven’t yet enforced this goal. Right now, businesses can choose to report the amount of waste they generate, but the law doesn’t require them to actually disclose or recycle it. In England, mandatory food waste collection won’t arrive until March 2025 at the earliest for businesses and 2026 for households. A new law in Wales, which only applies to businesses, and will go into effect in April 2024. Similarly, Scotland only regulates food waste from businesses. 


Nations throughout the European Union have taken action against food waste. In 2016, France became the first country to ban supermarkets from trashing unsold food, which they must donate to charities and food banks. And in January 2024, Sweden phased in a law that mandates cities to collect food waste so it can be turned into fertilizer and gas.

Broader waste-reduction efforts across the member states haven’t gained quite as much traction. While the E.U. proposed legislation demanding member states in July 2023 cut waste by 10% in processing and manufacturing sectors and 30% overall per capita, the commission ended up tabling these measures.


This tiny, super green citystate enacted a law in 2019 compelling certain industrial and commercial buildings that generate large amounts of food waste to separate it for treatment and reporting. It will go into effect beginning in January 2024. And since January 1, 2021, new building plans are required to include space for on-site food waste treatment systems.

Food waste prevention and awareness events

Absent broad nationwide or global policies or regulations targeting food waste, agencies and nonprofit groups are working to organize initiatives to keep good grub from going bad. 

Food Waste Prevention Week

It’s not legally binding by any measure, but this national U.S. campaign designates April 1–7 of 2024 as a week to raise awareness of food waste and ways to reduce it throughout the supply chain. More than 500 partners around the country and the world participate with in-person and online events and social media campaigns. The campaign began in 2018 in California, where nearly half of the country’s nuts, fruits, and vegetables are grown.

International day of awareness of food loss and waste

Beyond national efforts, this United Nations–designated event on every September 29 calls on public and private actors worldwide to get involved. It began in 2020 to promote the UN goal of halving global food waste per capita at the retail and consumer level by 2030. The U.N. even offers online courses on food loss and how to prevent it.

  1. Estimates of Food Loss at the Retail and Consumer Levels, U.S. Department of Agriculture ↩︎
  2. Potentials and Obstacles for Community Anaerobic Digesters in the United States: Evidence from a Case Study in Vermont, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Mar. 2021 ↩︎