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NC State Extension

Resource & Waste Recovery

Food–whether you are growing, harvesting, preparing, serving or consuming it—always creates waste, so you should plan ahead for dealing with it. Many people are surprised that the largest category of waste being thrown away in the U.S. is food residuals—over 21 percent of the total! Discarding food residuals in the trash or down sink drains causes problems downstream. Instead of throwing food waste away, you can take steps to follow this hierarchy from most to least preferred:

  1. Source Reduction/Prevention (prevent food waste before it is generated)
  2. Feed People (donate food to those in need)
  3. Composting and Vermicomposting (recycle food scraps into a valuable soil amendment)
  4. Feed Animals (provide food to livestock farmers)
  5. Industrial Uses (fats, oils and grease can be composted or turned into biofuel)
  6. Anaerobic Digestion (turn food waste into energy and a soil amendment)

Each of these actions is described below along with links to more information. 

Step 1: Source Reduction/Preventing Waste

Several things may be done to prevent the creation of food waste, including:

  • Determine the amounts and types of food waste and why they are being generated
  • Buy and prepare less of those foods the next time
  • Redesign menu cycles for secondary use of food (leftovers)
  • Use food parts as raw materials to create other products
  • Improve inventory control to reduce excess and out-of-date inventory
  • Offer smaller portions for those who want to eat less
  • Order supplies in bulk
  • Ensure proper storage techniques
  • Go trayless at cafeterias and dining halls

Food Waste Reduction and Prevention Resources

Step 2: Feed People

Donating food to the hungry should be the first step for handling excess food. There are three types of charitable food donation programs: 1) food banks; 2) prepared and perishable food programs (PPFPs); and 3) produce distribution facilities. To protect food donors, “Good Samaritan” laws were enacted in all fifty states (North Carolina’s was enacted in 1989).

Step 3: Composting and Vermicomposting

Food scrap composting and vermicomposting—by households, schools, municipalities, and businesses–is increasingly common in North Carolina and throughout the United States. Compost and vermicompost incorporated into soil increases the organic matter content, improves the physical properties of the soil, helps roots penetrate better, holds moisture, provides aeration to plant roots, suppresses some diseases, and supplies some essential nutrients.

Step 4: Feed Animals

Collecting food scraps for use as animal feed (particularly for pigs) was once a widespread food recycling tradition. Regulations vary from state to state on what types of food discards can be used to feed animals. In North Carolina, permits are issued to farms with swine, cattle, goats or sheep that meet the criteria for feeding garbage to animals. For information about feeding food waste to livestock in North Carolina, contact Dr. Tom Ray, NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Resources, phone: 919-733-7601 or e-mail:

Step 5: Industrial Uses

Fats, oils, and grease (FOG) can clog pipes and pumps in public sewer lines and in wastewater treatment facilities. FOG can be sent to the rendering industry to be made into another product, converted to biofuels, or sent to an anaerobic digester.

Step 6: Anaerobic Digestion

Food waste can be converted via anaerobic digestion into biogas and a solid residual. Biogas can be used as a source of energy similar to natural gas. The solid residual can be land applied or composted and used as a soil amendment.