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America’s ‘Supersized’ Energy Waste

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Each day, the average American household throws away a pound and a half of food. And, while this might not seem like much, but, over the course of a year, these pounds amount to the energy equivalent of throwing 350 million barrels of oil into the trashcan. To put it in perspective, this is about twice the amount of energy that Switzerland consumes in an entire year.

According to a study co-authored by University of Texas Professor Dr. Michael Webber and his former student researcher Amanda Cuellar*, American’s could save roughly 2 percent of its total energy consumption in one year if it could significantly reduce or eliminate its food waste. According to Dr. Webber, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and the associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at The University of Texas at Austin:

The amount of energy embedded in the food we throw away is more than all the energy we get from the corn ethanol we produce in a year, so this is a big number and it’s a big, underutilized policy option for us to consider.

The sentiment was echoed in Sheril Kirshenbaum’s article on wasted food and the corresponding energy waste in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen. In her article “A supersized waste of energy” Kirshenbaum writes that:

When asked what contributes to unnecessarily heavy energy consumption, many people envision oversized, inefficient SUVs. They are among the most visible culprits because we regularly observe rising gas prices and feel the pinch on our own wallets at the pump.

What may not come to mind is food production, which is, in reality, an extremely energy-intensive process. Of course, it seems like a necessary sacrifice given we must eat to survive.

But take a closer look at the journey from farm to table, and you’ll see that a tremendous amount of energy gets lost along the way. And at a time when nations around the world are becoming ever more desperate to secure remaining energy reserves, including Canada’s oilsands, it just doesn’t make any sense to be throwing so much of it away.”

With their study, Webber and Cuellar present an interesting summary of what types of food American’s waste. Included is the corresponding amount of energy embedded in that food.

To access the entire report, go here.

*Amanda Cuellar is currently a graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program. She is expected to graduate this spring.


1. Cuellar, Amanda and M.E. Webber. Wasted Food, Wasted ENergy: The Embedded Energy in Food Waste in the United StatesEnviron. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44 (16), pp 6464–6469 DOI: 10.1021/es100310d Publication Date (Web): July 21, 2010

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. CharlieinNeedham 10:24 am 05/17/2012

    Food spoils. Big surprise!

    A slap on the back and congratulations for that that UT prof mentoring her student in this number crunching exercise. What science!?!

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  2. 2. gmperkins 12:39 pm 05/17/2012

    These calculations have merit but I’d find all of this more interesting if there were some proposed solutions on how to use this waste or to reduce the waste. For instance, would it be economical to have a food bin that gets picked up separately and then converted into fuel? I don’t see it as possible for a number of reasons but that is the kind of idea(s) I would hope would accompany such a point.

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  3. 3. BobalongJim 2:49 am 06/3/2012

    I read the full paper. It has lots to do with energy usage, and wastage broken down by type of food, but no indication of how the wastage figures were obtained. There appeared to be one relevant reference,8.
    Kantor, L. S.; Lipton, K. Estimating and addressing America’s food losses Food Rev. 1997, 20 ( 1) 2, which I will try to follow up. It’s the sort of thing I think one would have to rely on people’s opinion of how much they waste.

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