Tossed Out

An Abundance of Waste

Farmers and growers have made gigantic advancements in food production over the last century, ensuring more food flows from farm to table than at any time in human history. Yet, some estimates say as much as 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten.

Food waste is the single-largest source of waste in municipal landfills. An incredible 35 million tons of food were thrown away in 2012, according to the EPA. As it decomposes in landfills, the waste releases methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, 1 in 6 Americans struggles with hunger and the world wonders how to address the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050.

NET Nebraska and Harvest Public Media are exploring the problem of food waste in America.

And tune in to your local public television station for an in-depth look at “Tossed Out: Food Waste in America.” Check your local listings.

Or watch the videos below.

Inside a Landfill

Studying a Family's Food Waste

Trash to Glass

Pat Aylward / NET News

It’s a hot summer day outside of Lincoln, Neb., and Jack Chappelle is knee-deep in trash. He’s wading in to rotting vegetables, half-eaten burgers and tater tots. Lots of tater tots.

“You can get a lot of tater tots out of schools,” Chappelle says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s elementary, middle school or high school. Tater tots. Bar none.”

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a wet, grey day in Grinnell, Iowa, the rain beats a rhythm on the metal roof of a packing shed at Grinnell Heritage Farm. Crew member Whitney Brewer picks big bunches of kale out of a washing tank, lets them drip on a drying table and then packs them into cardboard boxes.  

Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

The long line of semi-trucks waiting to get in the gates of the Farmland Foods plant could simply wait around for a few hours to head back, fresh products on board.

The trucks are loaded with hogs from several confinement operations near this factory in Milan, a small town in northeast Missouri. Within just 19 hours, those pigs will be slaughtered, butchered and boxed into cuts that consumers see in the grocery store and in restaurants.

But that effort will use only about half of the animal.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

Grocery stores and restaurants serve up more than 400 million pounds of food each year, but nearly a third of it never makes it to a stomach.

With consumers demanding large displays of un-blemished, fresh produce or massive portion sizes, many grocery stores and restaurants end up tossing a mountain of perfectly edible food. Despite efforts to cut down on waste, the consumer end of the food chain still accounts for the largest share of food waste in the U.S. food system.  

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Lunch time at Harris Bilingual Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colo., displays all the usual trappings of a public school cafeteria: Star Wars lunch boxes, light up tennis shoes, hard plastic trays and chocolate milk cartons with little cartoon cows. It’s pizza day, the most popular of the week, and kids line up at a salad bar before receiving their slice.

Cassandra Profita / Harvest Public Media

Wasting around 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. certainly has its drawbacks: It’s not feeding people in need, it’s expensive and it does a lot of environmental damage.

But across the country, cities, towns and companies are finding food waste doesn’t have to be a total loss. In fact, it can be quite valuable – in making fertilizer, electricity or even fuel for cars, trucks and buses.