In Canada, we throw away more food per year than sub-Saharan Africa produces. This figure may seem shocking, but there's no denying the cost of food waste—nearly $31 billion a year. Learn more about the social and environmental impact of wasted food, and how you can become food-use savvy.
As Canadians, we each toss out the equivalent of two apples a day. It may not sound like much, but if we also factor in kitchen scraps, plus wastage/spoilage in restaurants, hotels, and other food-serving facilities, along with what’s thrown out along the food chain, those two apples become the proverbial barrel.
A massive loss
Worldwide, 1.3 billion metric tonnes (2.9 trillion lb) of food is lost or wasted each year—about one-third of the food produced for us to eat.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations calls food losses “a significant cost to the world economy [that] greatly impacts our ability to feed the world.” The FAO wrote in a recent report that food waste compromises efforts to
- combat hunger
- raise income
- improve food security
In developed countries, wastage usually occurs at the consumer level, meaning that food is thrown out even though it’s still fit for eating.
$31 billion: Just a fraction of food waste
The annual dollar value of Canada’s food waste—without considering associated costs—is $31 billion, according to the consulting firm Value Chain Management International (VCMI). That figure also doesn’t include waste at institutions such as hospitals and prisons or on transient vessels such as cruise ships, which can be the worst waste offenders, notes VCMI.
Throughout the food chain, VCMI argued in a recent report, opportunities exist to prevent waste and improve efficiencies and profits. And the earlier waste issues are addressed, the better. While making food bank donations and using waste to produce bioenergy are positive steps, “they produce considerably fewer financial and environmental benefits than if food waste was prevented in the first place,” the report’s authors wrote.
To prevent that waste, everyone from urban farmers to industry and legislators across Canada are taking action—and we need to follow suit.
What’s being done
For Wesley Hooper, founder of LifeSpace Projects in North Vancouver, prevention means learning to appreciate food by taking the plunge and actually growing it. Hooper’s company constructs self-watering garden boxes that eliminate the task of watering every day.
“Fresh veggies are one of the best things you can have in life,” Hooper says. “Gardening reconnects you with nature, with what’s on your plate. If you’ve seen that tomato or lettuce grow, you won’t let it go to waste.”
He says just getting started is the key.
“If you don’t garden already, it’s one of life’s great pleasures,” says Hooper. “There are so many great groups and resources out there. It’s one of the undercurrents of the world right now that gives you a bit of hope.”
As consumers, we can also revisit our food habits—everything from shopping and storage to disposal. There’s no shortage of resources for people wanting to shape up their fridge and save money (see sidebars).
By industry partnerships
Food rescue also takes place when industry starts thinking about its waste. In April, the organizers of a massive three-day agri-food industry event in Toronto called SIAL Canada partnered with Second Harvest, a Toronto-based charity that collects fresh food that would otherwise be thrown away. SIAL donated surplus food from the event to the charity so it could be delivered to Torontonians facing hunger.
Many regions are taking action against tossing compostable waste. When food and organic materials are thrown in the garbage, they take up precious landfill space and create methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Two entire provinces—Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island—have banned organics from landfill and have legislated organics diversion programs for residential, industrial, commercial, and institutional facilities. Quebec plans to ban organics from landfill by 2020.
The Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador has launched an initiative called Root Cellars Rock (rootcellarsrock.ca) that encourages local food security by educating about food waste and proper preservation. Other provinces have also launched education initiatives.
Some municipalities and regional districts are also banning food scraps from regular garbage. These include
- Whitehorse, Yukon
- Greater Victoria, BC
- Metro Vancouver, BC
Food scraps and other organic matter are, in turn, being composted. Some communities offer curbside pickup of this diverted waste, and residents may be invited to pick up free compost once it’s ready.
Nationally, 61 percent of households are composting either kitchen or yard waste or both in some form, which is up from 23 percent in 1994, but residents of multi-dwelling buildings are less likely to compost across the country.
Entrepreneurs have sprouted up to try to close this gap and offer innovative solutions to food waste for businesses, restaurants, and multi-dwelling facilities.
Hooper of LifeSpace Projects is one of these entrepreneurs. Vancouver’s Nick Hermes is another.
“I wanted to be part of the movement to treat food scraps with a bit more respect,” Hermes says.
Traditionally, Hermes says, we have pushed agriculture outside the city, which means hauling organic refuse away and food back in. But this process wastes time and energy, especially given the growth in urban farming.
Case study: Streamlining urban farming
Hermes’s brainchild, Urban Stream, offers on-site composting and servicing that tightens the food loop by turning waste into a useful farming product right on clients’ doorsteps.
“It’s fun to be part of a movement that is so exciting,” he says. “I really get energized by hearing people talking about how important it is.”
Urban Stream’s first project was a micro-farm built in a shipping container that included a composter and mobile greenhouse. Rocky Mountain Flatbread hosts one such micro-farm at its Kitsilano location in Vancouver, allowing the flagship restaurant to divert organic waste, produce compost, and grow its own fresh toppings for pizzas.
Hermes says people gravitated to the on-site composting idea, so Urban Stream has shifted to focusing on that. He has received queries from across Canada and as far away as Australia.
The company’s composter, designed to eliminate odours and common pests, produces a high-quality, worm-made fertilizer called “worm casting” that Urban Stream removes regularly and puts into the hands of local farmers and landscapers.
“We make sure it gets to someone who values it,” Hermes says. “We see this more as resource recovery than waste management.”
Collaboration is key
A recent report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities lists four key steps to achieving high waste diversion: convenient options, policy and legislation, education and promotion, and partnerships and collaboration.
Hermes of Urban Stream and Hooper of LifeSpace Projects have discovered the power of partnership first-hand: they are collaborating on the Rocky Mountain Flatbread micro-farm. For Hermes, including Hooper’s self-watering planter in the farm made sense.
“Collaborating has been a breath of fresh air,” says Hermes, “allowing us to do it affordably and package our solutions. It’s a win all around.”
“What Hermes does closes the food loop,” Hooper says. “Even when you’re growing food, there will still be damage, still be waste. You can’t avoid it. With his composter … you can make sure every bit is used.”
We are increasingly surrounded by efforts to reclaim and protect our food. Let’s join in with individual efforts.
We waste as much food as Africa produces
- Total annual food waste of industrialized countries, including Canada: 222 million tonnes (444 billion lb)
- Net annual food production in sub-Saharan Africa: 230 million tonnes (460 billion lb)
- Food wasted annually by Canadian consumers: 95 to 115 kg (210 to 250 lb) per consumer
- Food wasted annually by sub-Saharan African consumers: 6 to 11 kg (13 to 24 lb) per consumer
Hidden Costs of Food Waste
Loss of production, transport, and storage inputs including
- nonrenewable resources
- human resources
Effects on food quality and safety
- economic development
- the environment
- food prices
We spend half as much on wasted food as on health care
The FAO suggests that the “face value” of food waste is only 29 percent of the true cost of food waste. By this formula, the true cost of Canada’s food waste is $107 billion. That’s half as much as we spent as a country on health care in 2014.
Conserving in the kitchen
Simple changes to daily habits can have a huge impact on reducing food waste.
Buy it with bruises
Who says produce has to be perfect? Consumer demand for aesthetically pleasing fruits and vegetables results in wastage.
Cook before you buy
Tempting as it is to shop for a new meal, there’s nothing wrong with leftovers. A charitable UK project called lovefoodhatewaste.com is a resource for creative meals using leftovers.
Do a weekly fridge audit
Who hasn’t bought something with good intentions only to find it wilted and brown in a fridge drawer a week later? By regularly checking on what you’re stocking, you’ll likely reduce waste and your food budget.
As a family, take the “Are you a waster?” quiz at foodwastemovie.com/quiz-js/, the website for Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story (Peg Leg Films), a 2014 award-winning Canadian documentary.
Store it right
Grandma always said you could make bananas ripen more quickly by paper-bagging them with an apple— and she was right. Bananas are sensitive to ethylene gas, which apples produce during ripening.
A handy rule of thumb for longer-term food storage is to keep ethylene-producing fruits and veggies away from those that react to ethylene.
- ripe kiwi
- unripe bananas
- cruciferous vegetables
- green and wax beans
- leafy greens
Beginner compost care
Composting benefits you, your yard and garden, and the environment by keeping food scraps and yard waste out of landfills. It’s simply nature’s way of recycling organic matter into soil. Composting turns those unwanted grass clippings and orange peels into a cheap, useful addition to your garden. Compost stimulates soil health and promotes healthy plant growth, reducing your need to buy fertilizer and—if you pay for trash removal—cutting down on your garbage bill.
Pick your place
If you’re working with leaves or grass clippings only, a simple pile in your yard—perhaps shaped by chicken wire or scrap wood—may suit. But if you’re adding food waste, using a bin will deter rodents and raccoons—especially if you add wire mesh around the bottom and sides and ensure air vent holes are smaller than 2/5 in (1 cm) in diameter.
Check with your city to see if it sells discounted bins. Bins can also be purchased in garden shops and online in a variety of sizes.
Flies and gnats buzzing?
Cover your pile with garden soil or brown materials such as shredded paper, cardboard, dried leaves, or twigs.
Decipher those smells
Pee-ew! A rotten egg smell means there’s either not enough air or excess moisture. An ammonia smell means the pile has too much nitrogen. In either case, the solution may be to turn (mix) the pile more frequently and add in coarser brown materials such as sawdust or dried leaves.
You’ll want to turn your pile every couple of weeks or so. The composting process can take six weeks to a year. Once done, compost should resemble dark and crumbly soil.
To learn more, visit compost.org.
Vive la France’s food waste law
In May, France scored a major coup in the fight against food waste. The French National Assembly voted unanimously to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food. Instead, large grocery stores must donate edible food to charities and allow inedible food to be used for animal feed or compost.
Community-building with compost
If your residence or neighbourhood doesn’t yet offer a food waste recycling program, consider this a prime opportunity to educate your neighbours and/or local politicians about this important issue.
How about starting a community compost? Ask your city hall about local resources; you may be surprised at what’s available. Research the possibility of local grants for such nonprofit projects. Turn the results of your compost pile into a giveaway.