Waste Not, Want Not

A $27 billion food problem

Waste Not, Want Not

The statistics on food waste are shocking. Canadians waste $27 billion worth of food annually. Take the Crisper Challenge and reduce food waste.

How’s your fridge today? To find out, take the Crisper Challenge, which is so easy anyone can do it.

Step one: open your fridge.

Step two: pull out everything fresh.

Step three: any older items worth salvaging, think about how you’re going to use them … make soup or juice perhaps?

Step four: any recently purchased items, decide exactly when you’re going to use them … today, tomorrow?

Step five: any food clearly past its prime, compost it, if you’re lucky, as part of a municipal or neighbourhood program, or maybe at home for your own garden plot.

Conducted regularly, the Crisper Challenge will save you money and increase your cooking resourcefulness. It will also cut down on an unappetizing problem in Canada: $27 billion worth of annual food waste.

Considering rising food prices, it’s startling that the equivalent of 40 percent of Canadian-produced food ends up in landfills and composts.

Then there’s water use to consider. A 2009 study in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE calculated that, since agriculture uses about 70 percent of the fresh water supply, one-quarter of total fresh water consumption is used to produce wasted food.

And it’s not runaway apples during transport that causes the most waste. The major contributor is consumer behaviour, according to a 2010 report by the Value Chain Management Centre of the George Morris Centre, an independent agri-food think tank.

Food waste in perspective

Comparatively, $27 billion in wasted food equals 2 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) and is higher than the combined GDP of the world’s 32 poorest countries.

Still, coming up with this figure wasn’t too shocking for Martin Gooch, co-author of Food Waste in Canada and director of the Value Chain Management Centre. Gooch says that $27 billion represents only “terminal” waste, or that which mostly goes to landfills and into composting. If we consider waste throughout the entire food-chain process, the figure is actually considerably higher.

Gooch says studies in other countries reveal similar levels of waste. Europe, however, is far advanced compared to Canada in taking steps to reduce it, and so far succeeding admirably. There is no simple answer, however. “We need to look at the overall food system to determine what level waste comes from,” he says.

Leaky links in the food chain

Fifty-one percent of food is tossed at home, most of which is avoidable. “Look at what’s in your fridge,” is Gooch’s advice. “Look at how you store things. Look at why you buy certain products. Do you buy them on a whim or with a planned approach?”

Retailers often market food cheaply; the next time you’re tempted by a sale, ask yourself whether you’ll genuinely use all your purchases. “Many consumers are driven by low prices rather than how they will use that food,” he points out.

“My colleagues and I haven’t seen a processor where there isn’t an opportunity to reduce waste,” says Gooch. Factors to consider include but aren’t restricted to overproduction, defects in equipment, unnecessary inventory, inappropriate processing, and excessive transportation.

“We need to rewrite the book on current agri-food policy,” he adds. “We don’t even allow many businesses to adapt to market changes. We miss so many opportunities and then we complain that we’re not as effective as we should be. One outfall of that is that we have a system that creates unnecessary waste.”

Discovery Organics, meanwhile, is one company that’s ahead of the game. The Vancouver-based organics distribution company (discoveryorganics.ca) takes significant waste-reduction steps. In its warehouse, food not perfect enough to be sold at retail outlets is, rather than simply thrown out, sorted and set aside for sale to juicers or bakers, perhaps. “We look for alternative resources for food, or we donate it,” says Trish Kelly, director of project development.

Local community kitchen programs and other nonprofits benefit from these giveaways. Anything that the company can’t sell or give to charity is given to four local composters who use it on farms or make something useful out of it. 

Kelly figures that managing their food waste saved the business $25,000 last year. Plus, given that food waste produces significant greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, the company has calculated it prevents 166 tonnes of gases from entering the atmosphere annually.

Still, Kelly notes that despite the company’s efforts, it is forced to waste some food and is searching for more outlets to give it to. Its conundrum reinforces the same need for connectedness that is identified in the Value Chain Management Centre’s report.

The food chain is just that—a chain. From farmer to finished product, the multiple processes that feed into it deserve a critical review. Let’s start with our fridges, and go from there.


Ways to reduce food waste

Rotate the food in your fridge
Put old food in front where you’ll see it and will be more likely to use it. Likewise, rotate the nonperishable food in your refrigerator, arranging everything by expiry date.

Investigate how to best store your food
Invest in good airtight containers, ensure edges of any packaging are sealed properly, and always double-check labels to see if an item should be refrigerated after opening.

Shop with a list
This will reduce the likelihood of purchasing something twice. Double-check your kitchen to see if you already have an item in stock. Sticking to a list also reduces impulse buying.

Embrace the imperfect
“Oranges are a good example,” says Trish Kelly of Discovery Organics. “They could have some scarring but inside be totally beautiful and edible. When there’s no tolerance at the grocery store, we have to find that food a home. If you can allow the imperfection and not look at everything like it should come off an assembly line, we have a lot more food to work with and less waste.”

Make leftovers
What’s your food plan for the next few days? If you think you won’t be able to finish leftovers, freeze them. Be careful not to go overboard; plan in advance just how much you’ll need.

Compost your perishables
The less food you throw away, the less ends up in landfills contributing to greenhouse gases from the methane produced when broken down anaerobically (without oxygen). When food is composted, however, it decomposes aerobically (with oxygen), generating few emissions and an excellent usable product for your garden.

“Compost is much better than any commercial fertilizer,” says Nadine Collison, executive director of the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre. “It’s safer for animals, children, and the environment. In keeping with organic farming principles, you’re adding to the soil, not taking away from it.”

Find helpful fact sheets and tutorials at their website, compost.bc.ca. In other parts of the country, the Compost Council of Canada is an excellent resource: compost.org.

TIP: Spend next summer working on a farm. Guaranteed, you will have a whole new appreciation for where food comes from.


Food waste in Canada

  • home: 51%
  • retail stores: 11%
  • packaging/processing: 18% 
  • transportation/distribution: 3%
  • field: 9%
  • food service including hotels, restaurants, and food outlets: 8%

All of these areas of waste could benefit from a review, thereby saving money and reducing the environmental impact.

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