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A Walk Through the EPA's Food Recovery Hierarchy

The Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes the actions organizations and individuals can take to prevent food waste. From the most to least preferred, each tier focuses on management strategies to tackle food waste.

The six tiers include:

  • Source Reduction
  • Feed Hungry People
  • Feed Animals
  • Industrial Uses
  • Composting
  • Landfill/Incineration

Source Reduction

The best to prevent food waste is to simply use less. Reducing the amount of food you use not only cuts down on food waste, but also decreases methane emissions and pollution associated with food production.

What can businesses do? Conduct a waste audit to identify what items are consistently wasted and measure the amount, type and reason for the waste. Armed with this information, businesses can focus on implementing better habits such as proper food storage, modifying menus to better comply with customer preferences in restaurants and being creative with kitchen excess.

Feed Hungry People

Organizations and households alike can donate to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters. Oftentimes food banks will pick up large or frequent donations free of charge.

As long as the donor has not acted with negligence or intentional misconduct, corporate donors are protected from liability under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.

Food banks will accept a variety of items based on their needs and space requirements. Contact your local food bank to learn more about specifics and inquire about donating.

Feed Animals

Utilizing food scraps for animal feed can help farmers and companies save money. It is often cheaper to feed animals with scraps than to pay disposal costs to have the food waste landfilled.

The Swine Health Protection Act can be referenced for information on properly handling food scraps. Additionally, Leftovers for Livestock: A Legal Guide for Using Excess Food as Animal Feed offers suggestions to food scrap generators and animal feed operations.

Regulations vary state to state. While some states ban specific food groups, others are more relaxed.

Industrial Uses

Once it has served its purpose or is no longer usable in another form, food can be used as an alternative energy source.

Anaerobic digestion is a process during which microorganisms break down organic materials and produces biogas and soil amendment. Wasted food can be processed at dedicated facilities or co-digested at wastewater treatment plants and manure digesters.

Fats, oils and grease are food products that must be handled separately otherwise they can clog pipes and sewer lines. These products should be rendered, transformed into another product, converted to biofuel or sent to an anaerobic digester.


Liquid fats and solid meat products can be used as raw materials in the rendering industry and ultimately converted into products like animal food, cosmetics and soap. Companies will often provide storage barrels and pick up materials free of charge.


Biodiesel is an alternative fuel source produced from renewable resources such as waste cooking oil and other biowaste materials. Along with reducing food waste, biodiesel reduces greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide and soot.

Anaerobic Digestion

As mentioned, anaerobic digestion is another way to process food waste into valuable resources. Fats, oils and grease can be added to anaerobic digesters at wastewater treatment plants and can be transformed into biogas.


Composting offers an ideal solution for certain inedible parts of food that also nourishes the soil and improves water quality.

Compost is created in a three step process that includes:

  • Combining organic waste such as wasted food, yard trimmings and manures
  • Adding bulking agents such as wood chips
  • Allowing the finished material to fully stabilize and mature

Learn more about building your own worm bin in our previous posts.

Compost is a solution that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, decreases the amount of organic waste landfilled and associated pollution and promotes a higher crop yield.

Landfill and Incineration

Landfill and incineration are last resorts and result in the least benefit to the economy and environment.

Hungry for more?

Join us Thursday, July 27 from 5:30 - 8:00 PM for our annual Food Waste Forum. This year’s forum will be guided by the Food Recovery Hierarchy with presenters from each tier. Register for the event here.

This article is adapted from the EPA's guidelines for the sustainable management of food.

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