Wasted food is a climate issue — what can be done to decrease it?

· The Pulse

Edmonton's green bin program was started in 2021 to divert tonnes of garbage associated with food from the landfill. But the very act of having people separate organics from their trash may also be an oblique public awareness campaign about the prevalence of food waste, says the director of sustainable waste processing for the city.

"Residents are handling their waste in different ways than they had in the past. As soon as I had to take the kitchen catcher to the green cart, and recognized how often I was doing that, I became aware of how much waste I was creating," Neil Kjelland observed in an interview with Taproot. "And I think in a lot of ways residents are finding that. We're getting a lot of feedback that they weren't aware of how much organic waste they were creating. The hope is that once people have that recognition, they'll maybe make some decisions or steps to avoid doing that."

In the lead-up to the introduction of the green bins, a waste audit indicated that participating households produced an average of 2.6 kilograms of garbage related to food per week. Avoidable food waste made up 16% to 24% of total sorted garbage in the 2018 study.

While the green bins were being rolled out last year, an estimated 35,000 tonnes of food scrap waste was collected, Kjelland said. This year, the city is hoping to increase that to 60,000 tonnes. Composting reduces the environmental footprint of this food waste, but more impact would come from keeping food out of the garbage in the first place.

Globally, food waste accounts for 8% of all carbon emissions – a footprint that includes the greenhouse gases produced by food decomposing in the landfill and the energy consumed in farming, harvesting, processing, and packaging that is lost when food is thrown out.

The city's sustainable waste strategy doesn't encompass restaurants, businesses, and other distributors – for whom there are few systems in place to prevent unnecessarily tossing food, said Farrah So, a graduate research assistant at the University of Alberta who is studying food waste. "In Alberta, from what I know, it's still pretty inexpensive to send organic materials to landfill; those dumping fees aren't as high as other places in the country," she said.

Metro Vancouver introduced a ban on organics entering the waste stream in 2015, a policy that includes fines for businesses and retailers if their garbage contains excessive amounts of organic matter. Penalties like these could be an effective discouragement, both So and Kjelland agreed, but they are only one possible solution.

"I also think that there needs to be more options and cost-effective options for businesses to divert their food waste away from landfill before a system like that was put in place," So added.

One such cost-effective method, So suggested, would be funding or otherwise encouraging organizations like Too Good to Go, Leftovers, and Loop. These organizations all work to rescue food by connecting retailers and restaurants with consumers, community groups, or farmers who will use it.

Overhead shot of a garbage can with food waste

About 58% of food in Canada is lost or wasted at some point in the chain of production. Globally, 8% of all carbon emissions come from food waste. (Gareth Willey/Pexels)

"If there was more information and tools available for businesses, perhaps a directory of donation services and guidelines for how to donate that would encourage businesses to donate, there may be even more with an uptake in those sorts of solutions," she said. "I think it's important to make the strategies to reduce and divert waste also available and cost-effective for businesses, or the current systems that are in place will keep being used."

Consumers can also help on this front by relinquishing unrealistic standards about the aesthetics of food. Demanding natural beauty from our potatoes and carrots ensures that tonnes of produce never even makes it to the shelves.

"When consumers go to a retail store, they go to a restaurant, they expect the food to look a certain way," said So. "And they have a standard for what the visual and the colour and the taste should look like in food. And so that kind of signalling has been sent throughout the supply chain."

If you follow the life cycle of food in Canada from farm to landfill, you'll find significant waste is produced at every stage of production and (non)consumption. In total, an estimated 58% of food in Canada is lost or wasted, according to a 2019 report from Second Harvest, which says edible wasted food amounts to 11.2 million tonnes per year that could have been rescued and redistributed.

The complexity and interconnectedness of the food waste problem may make it daunting. But the scope of the problem also means there are actions you can take to reduce your own impact on many levels:

  • Buy from local producers. Transportation accounts for almost one-fifth of food-system emissions, according to a recent study in Nature Food.
  • Make a list. Most consumers throw food away because it's spoiled. A little planning goes a lot further for the planet than your intentions to eat more veggies. A City of Edmonton survey found that shopping lists not planned around meals generated 3.8 times more garbage.
  • Remember: It's not a deal if you don't eat it. On paper, buying in bulk and shopping for deals is a great way to save money, but it often ends up uneaten and in the trash. The same city survey showed that buying at warehouse-style stores created 1.7 times more food waste. As Second Harvest notes, "we shop 2 for 1 deals but let the second item spoil because we didn't need it."
  • Don't fret best before dates. These dates have more to do with standards established by the company to ensure a quality of taste that promotes their brand than actual expiry. The confusion created by best-before labelling exacerbates food waste, and unless it tastes, smells, or looks off, it's probably safe to eat.
  • Eat the food in your fridge. Seriously. Regardless of how efficiently Edmonton's compost facilities can deal with organics, it doesn't compare to not throwing it out in the first place.

This story is part of Taproot's participation in Covering Climate Now's joint coverage week, running from June 27 to July 1. Find more #CCNow coverage from around the world.