Staggering, jaw-dropping, alarming—none aptly describe the scale of food loss and waste in Canada, which amounts to 11.2 million metric tonnes of avoidable food waste a year. Avoidable food waste is the lettuce forgotten in the crisper, the leftovers that got passed over, and the bruised apple in the grocery store that never sold. All in, we generate about $49.5 billion worth of avoidable food waste, or just over half of what we spent on food in 2016.
With the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals including a 50 percent per capita reduction in global food waste by 2030, the pressure is on to find ways to extend shelf life and make better use of our food.
Enter packaging. Shrink wrap on an English cucumber protects these thin-skinned staples from bruising, drying out, or being exposed to too much moisture and rotting. Polylactic acid (PLA), used to make compostable plastic clamshells, improves blueberry shelf life.
But are we trading one problem for another when we opt for produce packaged in plastic to keep it fresher longer?
Possibly. Many of the existing biodegradable or compostable plastics used for packaging end up in landfills because they only break down in specific conditions and often not fast enough for most commercial compost facilities, where turnaround time is one to three months.
Even recycling plastic clamshells can be an impossible challenge, explains Catherine Habermebl, director of waste management services in Ontario’s Niagara Region. “Each plastic is different, and so when you take it to recycle and break it down, there’s different temperatures, there’s a different process,” Habermebl says.
It’s even worse if they have a label on them, notes Alexandra Grygorczyk, a sensory and consumer services research scientist at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre near St. Catharines, Ontario. Those are automatically diverted to landfill because the labels are made of different material than the clamshell and would contaminate recycled plastic.
As a result, Canadians generate roughly 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, according to the federal government, which is seeking solutions for bioplastics, including PLA, to make them more compatible with home and commercial composting systems.
Still, there’s the food waste issue, including the 24.3 million metric tonnes of unavoidable food loss created every year within the Canadian production and supply chains between farm and consumer.
The good news is that unavoidable food waste is ripe with potential, Grygorczyk explains. Government grants exist for startups to convert these waste streams into a new value chain, similar to Loop or Outcast, the Canadian companies upcycling unavoidable food waste into juices and protein powders.
“There are all kinds of grants right now supporting companies that want to set up new processing facilities and initiatives in Canada,” Grygorczyk says. “There’s definitely a lot of positive forces making this into an opportunity.”
In those cases, packaging needed for repurposed produce is both necessary and likely worth it, she notes.
“If you reuse or even reduce—so, prevent that waste from being generated—that’s obviously the best when you look at the hierarchy of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle,” Habermebl says.
Calling all YIMBYs (yes, in my backyard-types)
Backyard composters are a fixture at some homes, especially if a green thumb lives there.
The backyard compost heap is where yard waste, food scraps, and some compostable packaging breaks down into humus, a dark, granular substance that can be added to soil to condition it—and grow more food right outside your door.
One of backyard composting’s greatest benefits is that it’s done at the source, making it more cost-effective than municipal options, says Catherine Habermebl, director of waste management services in Ontario’s Niagara Region. Unlike municipal green bins, however, backyard composters are no place for meat, bones, or animal fats.
Putting those items in the backyard composter can attract pests. It can also harbour pathogens, such as <E. coli>, if the pile is not hot enough to kill them off.
Local versus organic versus natural
It’s enough to make one’s brow furrow. Should you choose food produced locally or go organic? Does it have to be one or the other? And what the heck does “natural” mean?
CSAs = local, organic, and natural
Fortunately, you don’t have to trade food miles to go pesticide free. Throughout Canada, many small-scale certified organic farmers sell seasonal produce through community-supported agriculture (CSA) models. This is where consumers buy a share of a growing season upfront and are paid in dividends of fresh produce as it’s harvested.
Local = environmentally friendlier
Local conventional produce also has its benefits, aside from travelling a shorter distance to get to your table. It often comes with less plastic packaging. Think berries sold in paperboard pints that can be torn up and thrown in the backyard composter or tossed in municipal green bins.
Larger baskets with handles for heavier and hardier items can be reused if they’re wood, or recycled with the handles removed if they’re cardboard. Better still, bring your own reusable bag for farm stand purchases and leave the basket for the farmer to reuse.
And “natural” = …
As for natural food, the US Food and Drug Administration defines it as free of added colour, artificial flavours, or synthetic ingredients. Unlike organic, however, it’s not an entirely regulated term, which can naturally lead to consumer confusion.
There’s an app for that
Innovators hungry to take a bite out of a global problem have put a solution in the palms of smartphone users’ hands by creating apps to connect consumers with retailers selling heavily discounted food nearing its best-before date.
Flashfood provides Canadian grocery stores with a venue to sell food near expiration at reduced prices. It also features imperfect items that can’t fetch the full price on store shelves.
Another Canadian app, Ubifood includes exclusive discounts on food nearing the end of its life in cafés, restaurants, and other specialty retailers, such as bakeries.
TooGoodToGo is a global platform connecting users with stores close to home in an effort to save perfectly good surplus food, and help retailers shrink their environmental footprint while recuperating costs.