Food Waste Diversion: Defining Terms

Food Waste

Food waste is sorted and collected separately.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of MSW Managment.

Lawyers like words—defined terms—as you have probably experienced. When discussing food waste diversion, words have different meanings.

You may remember using defined terms such as “yard waste” or “green waste” in early source separation programs; then more broadly, “organic waste” as we developed different types of composting and processing facilities, and now adding “food waste” as we move on to food waste diversion programs. What is the trend for defining “food waste”? Or for “food waste diversion”, or “food waste recovery”?

Here is assigned homework: compare and contrast the definitions for all food-related words used in your state, and notice how they are used in context (permitting, emissions, incentives, public programs).

  • Federal law, regulation, and permits (EPA, USDA, USDHHS)
  • state law, regulation, and permits (solid waste management, resources, public health, agricultural codes);
  • local codes or ordinances, regulations and permits; and
  • contracts for your solid waste management services (collection, composting, recyclables processing, AD, or WTE facilities).

As you envision reading volumes of law, you are no doubt asking: Is this exercise really necessary? Yes, it is. It’s prudent. It can prevent future snafus, frustration, and expense.

  • First, context matters. The general public can’t (or won’t) participate with a program that doesn’t employ user-friendly terms. A simpler definition may be appropriate for a residential source separation program, but a more detailed description necessary for a facility feedstock commitment. In non-technical contexts, beware of embedded definitions that incorporate another defined term, which then leads you on to progressively more and more words that have explicit, regulatory meaning.
  • Second, enforcement of program mandates or permit conditions is difficult if terms lack clarity or precisions.

Below are some examples of the food-related words for different purposes, and consequently, different definitions. Some are user-friendly, some cumbersome, and some navigate the golden mean between deficiency and excess.

The UN Food and Agricultural Department uses:

  • food “loss” with respect to production, post-harvest, and processing; and
  • food “waste” with respect to retail and consumer reduction.


The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Economic Research Service (ERS) defines “food loss” as:
” …the edible amount of food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason, including:

  • cooking loss and natural shrinkage (for example, moisture loss);
  • loss from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; and
  • “food waste”: the component of food loss that occurs when an edible item goes unconsumed, as in food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance and plate waste by consumers.

Remember the Alamo, and remember your word-context: Your definitions must be manageable for mandated public programs such food waste collection. For example, in its US Food Waste Challenge to the public, the USDA defines “food waste” more succinctly:

“Food waste” means reductions in edible* food mass anywhere along the food chain.

* “Food waste” excludes non-edible (by humans) parts of food such as banana peels, bones, and eggshells.

In some food statistics and programs, the term is even simpler:

“food waste” means edible food that is not eaten.

This is EPA’s implicit definition for its Food Recovery Challenge. Contrast the definition in the sidebar (posted at the end of this article), which includes a chain of embedded defined terms. MSW_bug_web


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