With Food Waste, the Devil is in the Details

It is encouraging that we are seeing more and more discussion on food waste.  It is becoming a mainstream issue.  The challenge becomes making real progress on food waste.  I believe we spend too much time on diversion (but that’s my next blog post) but reduction is tough and we need to understand what we’re wasting and why we’re wasting it in order to make progress,  This has been a primary focus of our research.

Gooch et al (2014) make a substantial contribution in attempting to quantify the total value of food wasted in Canada.  Their 31 billion dollar number is staggering.  It is difficult for us as individual Canadians to conceive how we can make a contribution to reducing that number.  Making the numbers relevant to individuals provides, in my opinion, the impetus for motivating real change at the household level.

We’re fortunate to have municipal partners in York Region and the City of Guelph who are interested in the details – in understanding what volume is wasted, what is in the waste and what factors contribute to that waste.  This work is ongoing and we will be back in the field again this summer.  If you’re interested the first academic publication is out (Parizeau, K., von Massow, M., & Martin, R. (2015). “Household-level dynamics of food waste production and related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours in a municipality in Southwestern Ontario,” Waste Management. 35.) but I thought I’d just summarize some of the key findings in that and new research.  These details are the key to motivating reduction.  More work is critical to building that understanding.

We found that the households we evaluated threw out more than 4 kgs of food a week.  Part of the problem is that many of us don’t realize how much we throw out.  About a third of that is unavoidable – trim, banana peels and coffee grounds for example.  That means two thirds is aoidable or at least partially avoidable (that distinction is also a future blog post).  Half of the total (and more than 60% of the avoidable) are fruits and vegetables which means we are throwing out a significant volume of some of the healthiest stuff in our kitchens.  This is clearly some of the product that is hardest to keep fresh but food skills and planning can likely quite easily reduce this volume.  This worth understanding and adds insight to reduction efforts.

We also asked households to complete a survey.  We found that both food awareness and waste awareness (separately) reduced the amount of waste.  Waste awareness is simply a consciousness of and concern about waste.  If you think about it you throw less out.  That makes sense.  Food awareness is simply thinking about food.  The more you think about it and value it, the less likely you are to throw it out.

Much of the communication around food waste diversion and reduction is couched in an environmental context – highlighting the environmental costs and impacts of both production and landfilling food waste.  We found that, while environment does matter, economic and social (food security) implications are more resonant for these households relative to food waste.  It is clear that understanding the specific details of what is wasted and why is critical to making real progress on food waste reduction.  We’re excited to be doing this work.

Stay tuned to this blog as more details become available.


You say you want a food waste revolution?

Have you heard about The Real Junk Food Project?

You have to find out about it, because this UK project is revolutionizing the way we think about food waste and how we deal with food insecurity.

What is it…

Growing rapidly in number across the UK, the Real Junk Food cafes receive donations of food that will be wasted by large grocers, wholesalers, bakers, and the like. Inventive cooks create delicious meals on an-ever changing menu, and serve it on a “pay what you can” basis.

How it changes the food charity model…

Many charity food provisioning schemes rely on donated food near its expiry date that would otherwise be “garbage. “ However, this system is criticized as demoralizing for vulnerable, food-insecure recipients and creates a stigmatizing attitude that “beggars can”t be choosers.”

TRJFP, however, upends this idea. Because of the pay-as-you-feel policy, the system “transcends monetary transactions.” Diners can pay as little or as much as they wish, but are also free to “pay” in alternative ways: by trading, or donating skills and time. This breaks down the social stratification dividing communities along class and wealth lines. The cafes serve as hubs for social change by building community, and providing dignified access to terrific food to relieve the burden of hunger and poverty.

It’s a revolutionary take on food waste…

Using this unconventional business model, the RJFP makes no attempt to profit off the broken system, where one-third of food is wasted, totalling $750 billion globally on an annual basis. Rather, the food itself—lacking economic worth to the retailers who donate it—is re-valued when cooked into these gourmet meals. That this food can on one hand be deemed “garbage,” but on another, provide nutritious, wholesome meals to hundreds of diners a day highlights the absurdity of the contemporary food system and the arbitrariness of “waste” definitions.

The RJFP calls attention to food waste in a beautiful way that provides value on countless levels, to individuals, communities, and food systems.

Check out this terrific 10-minute documentary.  Some of the quotes are simply golden! Maybe it’ll be an inspiration? When can we see Real Junk Food Cafes in North America?

2015 food waste bans: West Coast edition

As of January 1st 2015, Seattle and Metro Vancouver have both banned the disposal of food waste in order to increase diversion rates and save landfill space.

Enforcement is one part of the story:

“Recology CleanScapes driver Rodney Watkins issues a red tag — the scarlet letter of food waste in Seattle.” -Amy Radil/KUOW

Education and innovation are equally important strategies, and Metro Vancouver provides many options for different types of waste generators:

“How you can support the ban on food in the garbage” -Metro Vancouver

“Recycle food scraps at your building or business on-site with organics management systems” – Metro Vancouver