WASHINGTON – While the majority of food waste generated by U.S. manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers in 2011 was donated or recycled, approximately 4.1 billion lbs of unused ingredients and product were dumped in landfills, incinerators or wastewater treatment plants, according to a study commissioned by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (F.W.R.A.).

Click the infographic to view full-sized:

The report, “Analysis of U.S. food waste among food manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers,” identifies challenges specific to manufacturers and retailers in diverting food from the dump. The analysis was conducted by consulting firm BSR and examined self-reported survey data collected for 2011 from food manufacturers and grocery retailers and wholesalers and extrapolated to represent the entire U.S. food manufacturing and retail and wholesale sectors.

Of the 44.3 billion lbs of food waste generated by the manufacturing sector, 1.6%, or 700 million lbs, was donated to food banks or organizations serving those in need; 93%, or 41.2 billion lbs, was recycled for composting, animal feed or reuse in production; and 5.4%, or 2.4 billion lbs, was disposed. Nearly three-fourths of food waste diverted from landfill was converted to animal feed, and 20% was used in land application.

Retailers and wholesalers generated less waste than manufacturers but disposed a greater percentage. Of the 3.8 billion lbs of food waste generated, 17.9%, or 670 million lbs, was donated; 37.7%, or 1.4 billion lbs, was recycled; and 44.4%, or 1.7 billion lbs, was dumped.

“The findings uncovered by BSR are encouraging, but it’s clear we can and must do better when it comes to reducing food waste,” said Michael Hewett, director of environmental and sustainability programs for Publix Super Markets, Inc., and co-chair of the F.W.R.A., a cross-sector industry imitative led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association. “It’s important to find more ways to keep food and food waste out of our landfills, identify the challenges that prevent us from doing so and develop responsible policies to assist in these efforts.”

Retailers are able to donate more food waste than manufacturers because they have more unsalable but safe product, such as expired items or food with damaged packaging, while manufacturers produce a significant amount of unfinished products, ingredients, trimmings and peels that aren’t suitable for donation.

Conversely, because manufacturers create a high volume of food across relatively few sites, they are able to recycle waste at a higher rate than retailers and wholesalers, whose recycling efforts are complicated by a diverse product inventory and multiple locations. Packaged food waste from grocery stores is more difficult to recycle than raw materials from a manufacturing plant.

Across sectors, barriers to limiting waste disposal include transportation and regulatory constraints, liability and food safety concerns and an insufficient number of options for recycling or storing food waste.

The F.W.R.A. intends to use the data as a baseline with future follow-up studies that also will examine how the restaurant sector handles food waste.

“The primary objective of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance is to reduce the volume of food waste sent to landfill by addressing the root causes of waste and securing pathways to donate safe food or recycle it for use elsewhere,” said Susan Kujava, industry relations director at General Mills, Inc., and co-chair of the F.W.R.A. “This new data not only helps us better understand how industry currently is managing food waste, it gives us a benchmark against which we can measure our progress.”