What Do The Economics of Recycling Mean For Food Waste?

In a recent episode of NPR and WBUR's Here & Now, Bucknell University Economist Thomas Kinnaman asks some important questions about the environmental and economic consequences of life cycles associated with different materials commonly recycled.


Bottom line: "some of the benefits associated with recycling are not as strong as we once thought."

Economics, defined by the American Economic Association as "the study of how people choose to use resources," will determine how we prevent or capture lost value in our waste streams.  Kinnaman describes some of the economic factors impacting recycling decisions, focusing on raw materials such as aluminum, paper, and plastics.  His comments are well worth 11 minutes of listening.  

But what about food waste?

According to Duke University's Center for Sustainability and Commerce, "Food and yard waste accounts for 27% of our annual waste."  In a September 2014Washington Post Article, reporter Roberto Ferdman tells us that Americans 'now throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, or glass."

So what's the life cycle of food waste and what are the associated environmental and economic consequences?  The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) tells us that "Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten."

A full grasp of the economics of food waste might be even more alarming than John Tierney's recent assertion in a New York Times article that the "recycling movement is floundering" and that burying garbage in landfills is "still the easiest and cheapest solution."