As landfills overflow and a growing population goes hungry, food waste comes into focus
Ontarians are quickly running out of space to dispose of things they no longer want or need.
The province’s landfills only have the capacity to support 10 to 13 more years of waste, according to Ontario’s 2023 State of the Environment Report. While Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk noted the province has increased the amount of waste diverted from landfills from 19 percent in 2002 to 29 percent in 2020, overall total volume of generated waste remains high, rising seven percent between 2016 and 2020. A surprising jump as the cost of groceries has increased steadily, forcing more and more families to rely on food banks and other services to get enough to eat.
Many Canadians live by the adage of “out of sight, out of mind”. Once something is thrown away, whether that be in the garbage, the recycling or the green bin, many do not give a second thought about where the items ends up after they are taken away by the garbage truck. But the impact of all this waste extends far beyond the curbside.
Ontario produces approximately one million tonnes of food waste per year (this includes waste at the production level). According to the National Zero Waste Council, 47 percent of this waste is created at the individual consumer level. Despite the widespread adoption of organic waste or “green bin” programs in municipalities nationwide which are meant to divert wasted food from landfills, food waste still makes up 31 percent of residential waste sent to landfills.
Each load dumped into Ontario’s bloated landfills creates ripple effects.
When food breaks down in a landfill it produces methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas and source of emissions in Ontario, next to carbon dioxide. According to Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, in 2020, landfills accounted for 23 percent of national methane emissions. These emissions could be significantly reduced by eliminating food and other organic waste.
Composting food scraps and expired food can help reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill which can be transformed into animal feed or garden compost.
(Rachel Morgan/The Pointer)
One of the solutions often touted at limiting the amount of food waste that ends up in landfills is composting — a form of natural recycling. Composting was one of the tactics that the Province previously urged residents to adopt to assist in reaching its food waste reduction goals. According to the 2021 Census, 76 percent of Canadian households composted, a dramatic increase from 23 percent in 1994. However, this uptick was still not enough to reach the Provincial target for municipalities to see a 70 percent reduction in food waste.
In working toward a more sustainable economy, the Region of Peel has set the target of diverting 75 percent of waste from landfills by 2034. This rerouted waste will be reused in some form—municipalities are frequently turning to energy-from-waste programs, like the plan previously abandoned by the Region of Peel—or recycled in any way possible. Currently the Region has a divergence rate of 50 percent, 23 percent of which is food waste from the green bin program and other organic materials. In 2022, the Region collected 68,800 tonnes of green bin items which were subsequently turned into compost.
The Region is faring far better than the Province in meeting its waste reduction targets, thanks in part to more detailed policies and procedures. In 2004, the Province set a goal of a 60 percent waste diversion rate by 2008. It fell well short. As of 2018 (most recent data available), the diversion rate in Ontario was 29 percent, just shy of half of the goal, 10 years after the target date.
Since this utter failure, the Province has set three interim goals: a 30 percent diversion rate by 2020, 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.
In the Province’s Food and Organic Waste Policy Statement, municipalities that provide curbside collection of food and organic waste — including the Region of Peel — are expected to achieve a waste reduction and resource recovery rate for food and organic waste of 70 percent by 2023.
A lot of time and resources go into growing food much of which is wasted when such large amounts are thrown away.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
But the problem of food waste will not simply be solved by urging more people to throw things in the green bin instead of the garbage. Ralph Martin, a retired professor from the University of Guelph and a researcher in the food growth sector, said the emissions that arise from food waste are only the tip of the iceberg; the “waste” from food waste includes all of the resources that went into growing and producing the food.
“If more than 40 percent of food is wasted, then we're wasting all the water that was used to grow that food,” he said. “We're wasting all the energy that was invested to grow that food, we're wasting whatever soil or soil degradation there might have been to grow that food.”
According to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Ontario farms use three percent of the province’s electricity. When food goes to waste, this energy is essentially wasted as well. Research from the University of Guelph in 2019 found that the average household throws out approximately three kilograms of food each week which equates to approximately 23.3 kilograms of greenhouse gasses used to produce the food.
But the consequences of food waste stretch far greater than the environmental impacts. In a province where the cost of living is increasing at unprecedented rates, the number of people who are unable to afford food is also increasing.
According to Canada’s 2023 Food Price Report, the average family of four will spend approximately $16,000 on food this year. If 20 percent of this food goes to waste that would amount to approximately $3,200 per family of four spent on food that ultimately ends up in the trash. And the financial loss could actually be much higher. According to the National Zero Waste Council about 50 percent of the food produced across the globe is never eaten.
While approximately one million tonnes of food goes to waste across the province, in 2022, nearly 600,000 Ontarians accessed food bank services, visiting an estimated 4.3 million times. The year marked a peak in an upward trend that saw food bank use rise for six consecutive years. The trend locally has been the same. The Mississauga Food Bank’s annual Face of Hunger Impact Report determined that visits to the food bank’s multiple locations were up 50 percent from 2021 with almost 250,000 people using its services in 2022.
Food banks across the province are struggling to meet the needs of the increasing number of people using their services.
(The Pointer Files)
While need is increasing, the supply at food banks is not. Meghan Nicholls, CEO of the Mississauga Food Bank, previously told The Pointer that, in 2022, the food bank was not raising as much in terms of monetary or food donations as it usually does, citing economic hardships. For example, during the food bank’s 2022 Thanksgiving food drive, the organization fell short of its donation goal by about half, severely affecting its ability to support the needs of the community.
“My concern is that the need in our communities is greater than we can meet,” Nicholls said. “If the community can’t provide the amount of financial support that we need to meet the needs of the huge number of people that we’re now helping we’re not going to be able to meet the need.”
But Martin stresses that lack of access to food is not a food production problem, rather a poverty problem. He said that whether solutions include increasing minimum wage or having a baseline guaranteed annual income, the underlying problem that needs to be addressed is the poverty crisis. There is more than enough food to supply the population of Ontario, but the problem is one of balancing distribution.
“Our system is designed to produce lots of food, to process it, to put it in supermarkets, leave it sitting on shelves, restaurants — buffets are the worst — have lots of food available that is fresh. And then if people don't eat it, it's wasted,” he said. “Our whole system is designed to produce too much food. And it's intended to be kept convenient, and as a commodity.”
Changing people’s attitudes towards food and creating a deeper sense of appreciation for what is on your plate at each meal, is crucial to solve the problem of food waste, Martin says.
“We forget that food is what connects us to Earth,” he said.
Martin was part of research conducted through the University of Guelph that found that the greater awareness individuals have about food, the less likely they are to have wasted food. This awareness includes anything from having a vegetable garden or having to accommodate certain food allergies or dietary restrictions. The research suggests that one of the major causes for our food waste problem is the fact that as a society we do not tend to give food much thought.
Ontario municipalities began implementing green bin programs in the early 2000s and the popularity of composting has since exploded.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
While the majority of food is wasted at the consumer level, the problem is still relevant at the producer level and the processing level. On the producer level — meaning at the farms it is cultivated — Martin said the concern with food waste is not as dire because it is circulated back into the entire system. For example, in an apple orchard, any apples that fall and are not cultivated, will decompose and supply nutrients to the next year’s crop.
On the processing level, which includes supermarkets and restaurants, a great deal of food is still wasted due to inability to effectively calculate demand. But wasted food is a problem that many major grocery chains are monitoring closely.
Longo’s, a GTA-based grocery chain which has become known for its independent efforts to promote sustainability throughout their stores, is taking major strides to limit food waste through partnerships with larger organizations such as Too Good To Go and Second Harvest. These partnerships exist within a larger plan to reduce emissions and waste throughout the company’s 38 locations.
According to Sara Olivieri, the company’s sustainability specialist, Longo’s follows a five step process for limiting the amount of food that goes to waste. The first step in this process is inventory management. In some grocery stores, shoppers will notice that fresh food items are stocked right up until the store closes, but there is no way that all of these items will be purchased. Longo’s takes a different approach monitoring inventory and supply and demand trends, ensuring that the food on the shelves equates to the food that is expected to be purchased.
“We rely on a handful of tools to manage our inventory,” Olivieri told The Pointer in an email statement. “This helps us forecast for future ordering to minimize the amount of surplus food our stores will have to manage.”
The next two steps in the process involve marking down food that is close to the best before date and upcycling fresh foods into other products that have a longer shelf life.
Most foods are labelled with a best before date which is different from an expiry date. Best before dates determine when a food may be at its freshest, but it does not mean that the food is inedible afterwards. However, in Canada, grocery stores cannot sell foods past their best before date. When foods are nearing this date, they can be donated to food banks to ensure that the food does not go to waste.
In 2022, Longo’s donated over 100,000 kilograms of surplus food to local charities within the communities surrounding their stores.
The final step in their process is waste divergence. Food scraps and food unsafe for consumption are put through the company’s organics program which processes these items into animal feed and compost, Olivieri explained.
The company is leading grocery stores across the province when it comes to limiting waste. Longo’s has set an ambitious target of achieving a 90 percent waste divergence rate by 2025. As of 2022, the divergence rate was nearly 78 percent. While this includes waste diverted from all streams, including recycling and blue bin items, the goal is unprecedented in the industry.
In its attention to sustainability, Longo’s is partaking in the awareness that Martin suggested as one of the most important parts of limiting food waste.
“I think whatever way people can become more aware of food is a good thing,” he said.
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