Recycling food waste: What you need to know

Composting is just the beginning


One in eight households in the U.S. faces food insecurity, yet much of the country’s food supply goes uneaten–and often into the bin.1 Food is squandered throughout both the production and consumption cycle, and plenty of items hit the trash before they can even hit the shelves. Most food waste heads to landfills along with plastic and other junk. In fact, food made up around 24% of all U.S. landfilled solid waste and 22% of all combusted solid waste in 2017, according to an EPA estimate.2

But potential meals don’t have to rot in piles of trash. In recent years, cities and states across the country have begun to embrace innovative ways, including recycling food waste, to give scraps and leftovers a second life.

What are some methods to recycle food waste?

Given the massive environmental footprint of landfilling and burning food waste—along with the dire need for food redistribution—the public and private sectors are ramping up methods to recycle food waste and close the loops in our food system. We don’t need to wait for shiny new innovations to emerge in order to deal with this pressing problem, says Lily Pollans, an urban planner at Hunter College in New York City who researches municipal waste policy. “The technologies that we need to manage food waste all exist,” she says. “We don’t need any magic bullets—we have the tools, and nature helps a lot … it’s just about the will to implement it.”


You’ve heard of composting, one of the most tried and true ways to repurpose food scraps. “There are a variety of pathways for beneficial use of food scraps,” says Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist at Boston College who studies solid waste processing. Composting is the most straightforward method, he says, because it’s “taking advantage of biological machinery already in nature.”

The millenia-old trick works by enlisting naturally occurring microbes like bacteria and fungi, along with other creatures such as insects, to break down grub into a soil-like material called compost. While that decomposition happens naturally in the wild, setting up the right conditions can rev up the process. Ultimately, composting returns nutrients from produce back to the soil to grow new produce. It’s nature’s own form of recycling. 

Some cities churn out compost in industrial facilities at high temperatures, but it can also be done in your backyard. Still, you need to carefully monitor your compost piles and can only add certain organic materials to the mix, depending on your particular setup.


Beyond composting, some municipal facilities can create fuel from old food. Inside massive, oxygen-free tanks called reactors, microbes break down the grub into increasingly smaller parts until they leave behind a mix of gasses called biogas (which is composed mostly of methane), along with a nutrient-rich substance called digestate. This wet, brown mix is made of remaining organic materials that can be used as a fertilizer. 

“The technologies that we need to manage food waste all exist. “We don’t need any magic bullets—we have the tools, and nature helps a lot … it’s just about the will to implement it.”

Lily Pollans, hunter college

Once it’s extracted from the tank, biogas can be harnessed to make electricity, heat, vehicle fuel, renewable natural gas, and even a special type of methane-derived plastic.3 In 2019, anaerobic digesters processed more than 17 million tons of food waste, according to an EPA report.4

Leftover cooking oils and fats can also be recycled. These pipe-clogging materials can instead be turned into products like fertilizer, soap and cosmetics, or even diesel gasoline with the help of a chemical reaction.

Livestock feed

Our food waste can also make meals for farm animals—which then offer new meals for us. While people have used their leftovers to feed livestock for centuries, state and federal officials limited the practice in the 1980s after human disease outbreaks were linked to livestock feed containing animal products. Now, some researchers say that proper safety policies, like heating the feed to deactivate viruses and bacteria, can replace some of the grains often given to livestock.5,6 These grains have a significant environmental impact: Corn production eats up around 90 million acres of land in the U.S., and the majority of it goes into livestock feed.


Cities, nonprofit organizations, and startups are working on ways to distribute still-delicious but bin-bound meals to people facing food insecurity. New York, for example, introduced a law in 2022 that requires certain businesses to donate extra edible food to organizations in need and recycle remaining food scraps if they’re within 25 miles of applicable facilities. 

In January 2023, President Biden signed the Food Donation Improvement Act into law, making it easier for businesses to donate extra food to those in need by protecting them from legal liability for direct donations—so people facing food insecurity can pick up free food from restaurants, schools and grocery stores, or buy it at a reduced rate from nonprofit-run supermarkets.

What are the benefits of recycling food waste?

Recycling food waste helps us save green while being green. Landfilling isn’t cheap: In 2022, it cost an average of $60 per ton to landfill solid municipal waste in the U.S.7 That adds up as we generate hundreds of millions of tons of solid waste every year. By keeping food out of landfills, we could save around $16 billion in municipal waste management costs per year.8 Plus, composting can create two times more jobs than landfills and four times more jobs than incineration facilities.9

And there’s a reason why farmers call compost “black gold.” It’s rich in nutrients for plants, and it saves money by cutting the need for fertilizer use and hauling around waste. When farmers add compost to soil, it even helps the land hold about 20,000 gallons more water per acre. 

There are plenty of environmental pros to recycling food waste, too. By sending more food waste to composting facilities, the U.S. can also reduce carbon emissions by about 30 million tons a year, or the emissions of around two million Americans.10 “It’s really time to reduce our reliance on disposal, and organics [such as food waste] is the area where we have the easiest and, in a way, least problematic options for circularity and we need to be investing in them,” says municipal waste policy researcher Pollans.

How does food waste affect the world?

Once food hits the bin, it can have wide-reaching effects on the environment and human health—so governments, nonprofit organizations, and businesses around the globe are taking action to reduce it.

What are the effects of food waste on the environment?

Industries like air travel get a lot of flack for their hefty carbon footprints. But, wasted food generates a far greater share of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions than our sky-bound wanderlust (roughly 2% versus roughly 8%).

When food sits in landfills or gets blazed in incinerators, it releases atmosphere-warming greenhouse gasses. In the case of the former, bacteria break down food waste and other debris in these oxygen-free environments and emit loads of methane—a gas with nearly 30 times more heat-trapping power in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide.11 Burning food and other solid waste also releases carbon dioxide, along with pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia that endanger the health of nearby populations.12 

By sending more food waste to composting facilities, the U.S. can reduce carbon emissions by about 30 million tons a year, or the emissions of around two million Americans.

“Landfilling and burning organic waste, these are terrible solutions that generate a lot of greenhouse gasses,” Pollans says. These techniques transform ecosystems in really negative ways, she adds. Nearly 80% of incinerators are located in marginalized communities, a result of generations of racial segregation and exclusionary zoning laws that  kept industrial facilities out of whiter and wealthier areas.13,14 Living near these incineration sites may increase one’s risk for conditions such as cancer and birth defects, but scientists haven’t yet found solid evidence for this relationship.15,16  

Local government initiatives to recycle food waste 

Beyond bans passed by a handful of states in recent years to keep food out of landfills, municipalities have taken the lead in cutting down food waste. Over the past decade, cities including Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle have introduced mandatory composting programs. New York City plans to add citywide mandatory composting by 2025, and pilot programs recently came to Pittsburgh, Boston and Jacksonville, Florida.

What can you do to reduce food waste at home?

Since the 1970s, the amount of food waste per capita has risen by around 50%. But you can take simple steps to reduce your organic rubbish.

Planning and shopping tips

Planning meals ahead of time not only reduces cooking stress, but also limits wasted ingredients. Schedule the week’s dishes so you can head to the store with recipes in mind. You can use apps like Paprika, Mealime and Eat This Much, or even ask ChatGPT to whip up some ideas.

Food storage tips

To prevent spoilage and eat safely, make sure to keep an eye on temperatures and use-by dates. Your fridge should be kept between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s crucial to wrap leftovers tightly in foil, plastic, or glass to keep out bacteria (not to mention the culinary horrors of dried-out meals). Freezers need to stay at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and cold storage requires appropriate containers, like rigid boxes made of plastic or glass and flexible bags made from aluminum or plastic.

Cooking and preparation tips

Beyond planning meals ahead and buying only the necessary ingredients, cooking is a key skill for reducing food waste. Look for recipes to use up the things you already have laying around. It’s also helpful to prepare goods with a shorter shelf life first, such as certain greens and herbs, and you can always turn your leftovers into new meals (tonight’s dinner is tomorrow’s brunch). Check out the website SuperCook or MyFridgeFood for some helpful suggestions incorporating what you already have lying around.

What can you do with food scraps?

Beyond composting at home or joining up with a local program, you can get creative with cooking and look for uses for all parts of produce. Broccoli stems and carrot greens can make for “rice,” noodles, hummus, soup, and more. You can also use some process skins and peels to make tea, chips, and vegetable stock.

  1. Data & Statistics on Hunger, Food Research & Action Center, 2022 ↩︎
  2. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2017 Fact Sheet, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017
  3. Can Food Waste be Transformed into Biodegradable Plastic?, FoodPrint, Nov. 2020 ↩︎
  4. Anaerobic Digestion Facilities Processing Food Waste in the United States (2019), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2019
  5. Valorization of Food Waste as Animal Feed: A Step towards Sustainable Food Waste Management and Circular Bioeconomy, Animals, Apr. 2023 ↩︎
  6. Food Waste for Livestock Feeding: Feasibility, Safety, and Sustainability Implications, Global Food Security, Jun. 2018 ↩︎
  7. Tip Fees at MSW Landfills See Highest Increase Since 2018, Report Says, Waste Dive, Jun. 2023 ↩︎
  8. How the US Economy and Environment can Both Benefit From Composting Management, Environmental Health Insights, Oct. 2022 ↩︎
  9. Pay Dirt, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, May 2013 ↩︎
  10. How the US Economy and Environment can Both Benefit From Composting Management, Environmental Health Insights, Oct. 2022 ↩︎
  11. Importance of Methane, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  12. Emissions from Waste Incineration, Intergovernmantal Panel on Climate Change ↩︎
  13. US Trash Incinerators, Tishman Environment and Design Center ↩︎
  14. The Experience of Racial and Ethnic Minorities with Zoning in the United States, Journal of Planning Literature, Dec. 2016 ↩︎
  15. Municipal Solid Waste Management and Adverse Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Apr. 2021 ↩︎
  16. The Health Impacts of Waste Incineration: a Systematic Review, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Feb. 2020 ↩︎