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Our biggest problem? We're wasting food

Canada tosses 40 per cent of the food we produce each year.

For a few months now, Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin have been living off “rescued” food.  That is, food they found in a dumpster.

Dining off trash hasn’t been malnourishing at all for this pair of Vancouver filmmakers; they’ve actually gained weight thanks to magnificent hauls from food wholesalers’ garbage bins.

Rustemeyer and Baldwin have found entire pallets of unexpired yogurt, piles of fresh bread loaves and heaps of misshapen but otherwise delicious vegetables. Sometimes they find so much food, they can’t finish it all and so pass it on to friends.

“I didn’t expect to find meat that was still edible but there’s plenty,” Baldwin says. “And bread, it’s one of the biggest wastes. It seems every single bakery needs to maintain the illusion of abundance.”

Baldwin and Rustemeyer have more than a passing interest in food waste. They’re making a documentary about it. Just Eat It, scheduled for release next fall, will no doubt raise interest in one of Canada’s (and the industrialized world’s) dirty little secrets: We waste nearly as much food as we eat.

How much is that? A whopping 40 per cent of what we produce, according to research done by the George Morris Centre, an agri-food research centre in Guelph, Ont. Though consumers are responsible for half of the trash, blame goes all the way down the supply chain.

The overall value of food in Canada that ends up in garbage cans, compost bins and those big dumpsters that Rustemeyer and Baldwin dine from: $27 billion. It’s a staggering number, and it reveals an utter disconnect between Canadians and food.

“How we as a society value food, our idea that it needs to look perfect combined with our desire to pay more and waste more in exchange for diversity of selection and convenience, it’s a mindset that needs to change,” Rustemeyer says.

Of course, wasting food isn’t just a moral problem, it’s an economic and environmental issue as well.

The amount of food Canadians throw away each year adds up to two per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Meanwhile, food requires vast amounts of water to grow and energy to harvest, transport and package. When food is thrown out, all those resources are wasted, too.

Some people reason that because food is organic, it can’t be harmful to the environment when tossed. But that’s not true.

As it degrades, food garbage generates methane, a gas 25 times more damaging to the environment than CO2, says Martin Gooch, director of the Value Chain Management Centre, part of the George Morris Centre. He points out that more greenhouse gases are created from garbaged food than from other culprits, such as plastic packaging.

It’s no wonder, then, that Gooch views a war on food waste as the “next big phase” of the green movement. Tackling the problem has positive implications for both the planet as well as the food industry’s bottom line, he adds. “Those who are out front on this issue stand to gain in every way.”

Reducing the amount of food we throw out is indeed a challenge worth our time. But success won’t be easy, for several reasons.

First, the sources of food waste span the supply chain– from farm to fork. Dealing with each one will require unprecedented cooperation among governments, farmers, manufacturers and retailers. It will also require consumer buy-in.

Another reason it’ll be tough is that a certain amount of waste is hardwired into the food chain–and often for good reason. Farmers, for instance, cannot know ahead of time the size of their bounty in the fall. So they may plant more than needed in spring and if prices later depress, let acres rot in fields rather than lose money bringing the goods to market.

At the retail level, the problem is one of consumer perception.

Shoppers don’t buy from meager-looking shelves. So home-meal replacement sections have more chickens in the rotisserie than they will sell and bakeries have more bread in baskets than will likely be bought. Meanwhile, intense competition among grocers encourages big sales, which inevitably drives consumers to buy more than they’ll eat.

Some of this waste could be reduced through technology, more efficient systems and creative merchandising. Much harder, however, is convincing consumers to throw out less of what they buy. Fifty-one per cent of all food wasted in Canada is tossed at home.

It’s easy to think that much of the food thrown away by households is simply the apple cores and meat trimmings from everyday cooking. It’s not. Studies in the U.K. have found only one-fifth of food thrown out by consumers comprises fruit peelings, cores, bones and the like. The rest–80 per cent–was perfectly edible.

Why do we throw out so much? Several reasons.

First, we’re no longer cooking as many of our meals from scratch. It’s often easier to heat up a frozen pizza in the microwave than it is to figure out a creative way to turn last night’s roast and potatoes into lunch. Eating leftovers is as out of place today in households as black and white TVs.

Consumers also throw away food because they can afford it. A generation ago, in the days of Trudeaumania and plaid pants, food comprised 18 per cent of the average family’s annual spend. Today it’s less than nine per cent.

No wonder a study released this summer called Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 per cent of its Food from Farm to Fork, found that families in the United States throw away 50 per cent more food now than back in the 1970s. A similar increase has likely taken place in Canada since then, too.

Despite overwhelming obstacles, it’s possible to reduce the amount of food we throw out. How do we know this? Simple. Other countries have already started down the path, and with some success. Their governments are getting on board and their businesses, alone and with others, are doing their part to preserve food.

Perhaps the best examples are in the United Kingdom, where industry and government co-operation over the last five years has resulted in food-waste reduction programs such as the smartly named “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign.

At the initiative’s core is, which offers food-waste factoids (“it takes 650 litres of water to produce one chicken breast,” for instance) and tools on how to use leftovers in recipes.

Consumers are encouraged to spread overly ripe bananas on toast for breakfast or use softening berries in a morning smoothie. The site also has a leftover recipe database that’s searchable by ingredient and something called a “perfect portion tool” that helps people better plan meals and reduce over-shopping.

Love Food Hate Waste is the brainchild of WRAP (Waste and Resource Action Program), a non-profit backed by governments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Though rising food prices may also have had an effect, WRAP’s efforts seem to be working. Over the last three years, avoidable household food waste in the U.K., as measured in tonnes, has dropped 18 per cent.

Some 53 of the U.K.’s largest retailers and food manufacturers work with Love Food Hate Waste. They have created programs on their own, several of which are deceptively simply but appear to be effective.

The Co-operative, a convenience grocer, now provides instructions on in-store bags that explain how to keep loose fruit and vegetables fresher longer at home.

Warburtons, a bakery, eliminated “display until” dates on bread to reduce consumer confusion about expiry dates. It also came out with a 600 gram loaf of bread for shoppers who found the traditional sizes of bread in Great Britain (400 grams and 800 grams) either too big or too small.

Such programs, aimed as they are at fresh foods, are believed to have the biggest potential impact to reduce food waste. Fresh fruit and vegetables comprise 25 per cent of total avoidable food waste in the home. Bakery products add another 13 per cent.

British retailers are also delving deeper into the root causes of food wastage. Among them: price promotions, which drive up sales but also generate food waste when shoppers buy more items than they can eat.

Tesco, Great Britain’s largest grocery chain, has come out with one novel solution: a “buy one, get one free… later” promotion.

“As an industry we need to be more sophisticated with how we encourage consumers to buy,” says Gooch. “Too often, we treat price as a blunt promotional instrument.”

The Brits are also paying attention to household freezers. The reason, according to WRAP, is that freezers are the best way to preserve food for later use. However, research has found that the typical British freezer is only three-quarters full most of the time.

The majority of consumers, meanwhile, mistakenly believe that food must be frozen on the day it’s brought home. “Given that U.K. households waste around 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink every year, encouraging people to make better use of their freezers makes very good environmental, as well as financial, sense,” Liz Goodman WRAP’s CEO, noted recently.

To help consumers learn their way around the freezer, another top grocer, Sainsbury’s, rolled out labels that let consumers know it’s OK to freeze food up until the product’s "use by date."

If Canada is serious about curbing food waste we’ll have to implement programs similar to WRAP here. Convincing consumers to throw away less of what they buy won’t be easy. But, as the U.K. has shown, it can be done.

A smart government advertising campaign might be the best place to start. Ads could show not just the moral and environmental price tag of food waste but also the dent in household budgets.

The average family of four throws out $1,365 to $2,275 of food annually, according to the U.S. report Wasted. Canadian numbers would likely be similar. An ad campaign that links throwing out less food to saving money would certainly resonate with many Canadians today.

The food industry should then reinforce the government’s message with in-store programs and marketing. Amy Snider-Whitson, president of the Test Kitchen, a food consultancy in Toronto, thinks grocers are in a great position to educate shoppers about best-before and expiry dates.  They can also advise on best practices for storing food so it lasts longer.

“A lot of food waste occurs at home due to expiration dates and a lack of knowledge about cooking leftovers,” she says. If nothing else, she suggests sending shoppers to StillTasty, an iPhone app that gives shelf-life guides and storage tips.

Behind the scenes, retailers, manufacturers, distributors and farmers will need to do their part by attacking food waste with the same zeal they’ve cut overall garbage and energy consumption as part of their recent sustainability strategies.

Here, collaboration will be vital. Studies by the Value Chain Management Centre in Guelph, Ont., for instance, once found that 25 per cent of Ontario’s peaches were wasted due to a lack of co-ordination up and down the supply chain.

“The reasons for lack of co-ordination came down to members of the chain not possessing the desire or ability to communicate with each other effectively. This led to a tendency to play the blame game, rather than seek to solve problems together strategically,” the centre concluded.

Some progress is being made, however. Thanks to greater interest in local food, retailers, manufacturers and farmers are talking to one another more often. We’re also seeing packaging designed with food waste in mind: resealable pouches, half-dozen containers of eggs and smaller cans of pop.

Retailers are turning their attention to the problem, too. Reducing food waste is part of Loblaw’s long-range corporate social responsibility goals, says the retailer’s senior director of CSR, Sonya Fiorini. Meanwhile, in 2011, Loblaw established a chair in sustainable food production at the University of Guelph, one of whose priorities will be to address food waste. 

The good news: Aggressively weeding out food waste can improve efficiency and reduce costs for retailers and manufacturers. “Stores can save a lot of food and put a lot of dollars back on their bottom line,” says Andrew Shakman, co-founder of LeanPath, a food waste measurement and consulting firm in Portland, Oregon.

Shakman recently worked with a small, family-owned grocery chain in Minnesota to reduce its food waste. He found especially egregious things happening in the deli. Here, 48 per cent of food in the hot case was thrown out, 23 per cent of the salad bar and nine per cent of what was in the deli’s meat case.

Looking deeper, Shakman discovered that 86 per cent of waste was caused by overproduction. At the end of a 15-week analysis, the chain, which Shakman didn’t name, was able to put in place changes that reduced waste as a percentage of deli department sales to nine per cent from 16 per cent.

Shakman believes dealing with food waste in stores requires the same corporate culture shift as implementing green strategies. “It’s about motivating and putting incentives in place that get the team thinking about food waste in everything they do,” he says.

Technology, meanwhile, has a huge part to play, too.

Students at Arizona State University, for instance, have created a pilot app called “FlashFood” that co-ordinates a mobile food recovery network. So if a bakery manager has excess food, he can instantly inform a local community organization using the app, which in turn can arrange pick-up while simultaneously alerting food recipients, all using the app.

All of these initiatives couldn’t come at a better time. Food waste is an issue that’s only going to get more attention.

Dumpster divers’ Rustemeyer and Baldwin’s  lm will be out next year but it’s already getting press. Meanwhile, the European Parliament has declared 2014 as the “European year against food waste.” It’s pledged to cut food waste in half by 2020.

Now is the time to tackle the problem in Canada, too. The opportunity is right there. In the trash.

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