4.5 kgs of food a week! Does MY house waste that?

Here at the Guelph Food Waste Research Project, we are most interested in households’ food wasting habits: what you waste, why you waste it, and your beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours around food waste. It’s a fascinating exploration! For two years, we’ve been collecting data on how much and what kinds of food we are wasting at home, and then connecting this data with survey results to discern the reasons why we waste food at home.

Here is a little peek at some of our findings

The average household’s weekly food waste production was 4.5kg. Do you waste this much food? Think about it carefully, because another finding we uncovered was that the more you are concerned about waste, the less food you throw away. 64% of all food waste was avoidable or possibly avoidable. Think next time you want to toss food. Is it actually inedible?

  • Is it leftovers you don’t feel like anymore? Think of the cost that went into producing that meal, and how much more energy it will take you to cook a new one.
  • Is it nearing its best-before date? Toss it in the freezer or fridge to halt that progression of time.
  • Is it more than your family can eat? Next time, plan your shopping so you don’t end up in this situation. Making a list and checking your fridge before setting out is a really simple action that is proven to significantly help you prevent food waste.
  • Is it really “waste”? Why do we cut off the most nutritious parts of apples, potatoes and carrots—their peels? Maybe think twice about chucking beet greens, carrot tops, and bones. All of these can be repurposed into more delicious food!
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Using food scraps to start new sprouts


A photo from our audits of the organic waste stream

50% of avoidable food waste was fresh fruits and vegetables. Come see us at the Green Living Show for a suite of tips/tricks on how to extend the life of your fresh produce. But in the meantime, check out the highly useful storage tips chart here. Who knew apples are finicky bedfellows that cause other types of produce to age faster?

Eating out more means more food waste. You do a big weekly shop, but get busy during the week and end up buying lunch at work, or picking up take-out on the way home. …but then all the food in your fridge remains uneaten, and eventually turns into waste. If this sounds like a problem you have, look here for easy meal planning resources to help you take control of your hectic weeks! Or tell the LoveFoodHateWaste website what you’ve got, and they’ll give you recipes to save you the “what’s for dinner” headache.

The more food-aware and waste-aware our respondents were, the less food waste they created. So don’t stop learning and thinking about food waste, and keep experimenting with new tactics to lower your food waste levels…so you can boast that you are lowering these sobering statistics!


Coffee Pods – a Waste Nightmare

I am amazed at some of the things we see thrown out.  It is unbelievable the types of food we see in the garbage.  As we learn more about food waste there will be things we can do to reduce it.  We will never completely eliminate it but we can definitely make progress.  I am a big proponent of reduction but today’s rant is about unavoidable waste – coffee – and more specifically about individual serving coffee pods.  We can’t reduce it unless we drink less coffee and I won’t begrudge anyone their cup of coffee.  I think though we can do better on making sure that all of those grounds don’t end up in landfill.  Coffee grounds are an unavoidable waste but these coffee pods end up in the garbage stream. Its egregious.  The containers are recyclable and the grounds are compostable but together they end up in the garbage stream most of the time.  Its got to stop.  In out audits we looked at household organic waste production.  We saw a huge volume of these coffee pods in the garbage.  They are rarely separated.  Is the convenience really worth the huge volume of garbage we’re generating?  You’re not saving money.  I hope the municipalities with waste bans enforce them on coffee pods.  I wish we could charge a garbage tax on these sorts of products where they end up unnecessarily in the garbage.

coffee pods

There are starting to be programs through which you can pay a premium and ship the pods back through a recycling system.  That hardly seems sustainable with all that extra shipping.  And are people who won’t separate the plastic from grounds are unlikely to pay extra, store them and then ship them back.  This seems like green washing.

This seems so simple.  It drives me crazy.  I won’t use them.  Do you?

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

“Stop food waste. Feed the planet.”

In November 2014, the Italian Ministry for the Environment, the National Plan for Prevention of Food Waste, and the University of Bologna convened the “Stop food waste. Feed the planet.” conference as an initiative of the semester of the Italian Presidency of the European Union Council. The Bologna Charter Against Food Waste was presented by the Italian Minister of the Environment in order to encourage governments in attendance to pledge themselves to a series of actions to prevent and address food waste.

This powerful video from the conference portrays the high stakes of food waste:

Feeding Nine Billion: A new path to tread toward a food-secure 2050?


Over the past two years, academics have started turning attention to the connections between food waste and food insecurity. They are acknowledging that globally, forty percent of food is wasted and that this limits the amount of food available to feed a ballooning population (expected to rise to nine billion by 2050). Interestingly, this acknowledgement provides a robust counter-argument to the common tirade touted by agri-business—that genetic engineering and agricultural intensification is the only option to serve future food needs. Instead, this new research indicates that the puzzle of adequate food production has long been solved. We currently produce enough food to feed 10 billion people—why continue chasing unnecessary goals to increase yields? What we instead need to do is attend to food chain inefficiencies.

While the literature examining food waste in relation to food security provides a much-needed and legitimate alternative to tired agribusiness claims, it is still nascent. The work published so far does not adequately draw out the logic between the two issues. Relating them only cursorily can encourage belief that addressing food waste will automatically resolve the challenge of rising global hunger—a dangerous assumption indeed.

Instead of seeing them solely as problems, there is a growing tendency to frame massive food waste issues as opportunities to ameliorate hunger.

For example, many reason that if less food were wasted early along the supply chain (in production, processing, storage, and transport), more would be available on market shelves. But with little research demonstrating how this would affect economics of supply and demand, we cannot assume that this food would become affordable to those who need it. So lowering levels of waste may not necessarily impact levels of hunger. When the primary cause of hunger is poverty, increasing availability but not affordability will do little to ameliorate levels of food-insecurity.

Food supply chain

A long food supply chain creates many opportunities where food is wasted.

Further along the food supply chain (retailing and food service), “recovery” charities allow us to view food waste as an opportunity for hunger-alleviation. “Recovery” refers to work done by food banks and other charity-based emergency food providers to rescue food as it nears the end of its life, and to redistribute it for free. A related initiative is “gleaning,” where volunteers gather produce left in fields after harvest. These programs provide critical services to prevent some food waste and to provide meals to those with tight budgets, but they cannot keep up. Charity-based, volunteer-run, resource-constrained programs working independently at a small-scale do not have the capacity to reconcile the massive structural issues of food waste and food insecurity.

Both of these examples illustrate how food waste is increasingly being viewed as a food security solution, but in a too-simplistic way. Food waste is inextricably associated with food insecurity, and it is uplifting to see attention swing toward waste reduction rather than intensification as means to cope with the food needs of a burgeoning population. However, academics must not draw a facile equation between potentially available food and hunger solutions. Waste and hunger are two structurally-rooted issues. Solving them requires a systems-shakeup, and equal attention paid to both—not just a vague notion that increasing supply chain efficiency will automatically provide food for the world’s most vulnerable.

That is why we need to take cues from smart partnerships that allow for holistic, multi-scalar approaches to this twofold problem. One example is the powerhouse team here at the University of Guelph. Dr. Evan Fraser, who has devoted his career to the challenge of feeding nine billion hungry mouths by 2050, pairs with Dr. Kate Parizeau, a food waste expert who also devotes much of her academic career to issues faced by marginalized and poverty-afflicted populations. Dr. Parizeau works with Dr. Mike Von Massow, from the restaurant and hospitality industry and a champion of food waste initiatives, as well as Dr. Ralph Martin who is a national leader in sustainable agriculture. They work with municipal government to examine food waste at a household level, so this combination creates a team that sees the whole picture of food waste from production to post-plate, but importantly, through a social lens of global food insecurity and poverty.

We need more work like this. At the recent National Assembly of Food Secure Canada, 450 food security advocates, leaders, and practitioners gathered—yet the negligible conversation around food waste seemed a lost opportunity. Groups such as Food Secure Canada, which bring together a diverse cocktail of food systems actors working from the “grassroots” (community) to the “grasstops” (policy) provide ideal fora for working through this complicated relationship between waste and hunger

In face of complex issues, the emerging literature misleadingly distills the message to “solving food waste will solve food insecurity.” These two wicked problems require partnerships. It is through such partnerships that we can employ realistic, multi-scalar solutions on the ground and with policy to remedy the inappropriate structures upholding food waste and food insecurity. This new direction away from agricultural intensification and toward food efficiency is an exciting, positive new direction to tread toward a food-secure 2050. Keep your eyes on it!

Follow @feeding9billion, @kjhodgins and this blog. Choose your own comfortable spot on the food supply chain to work toward tackling waste, with the concept of hunger-alleviation top-of-mind. Get involved in your food policy councils, or contribute your energies to Food Secure Canada.

One year, One bag of garbage

Stacey Vandermeer, along with her husband Matt and two children, produced just one bag of trash for an entire year. They recycled, composted and changed their buying habits to produce less waste.A family of four near Kitchener Ontario has succeeded in producing a single bag of garbage over the course of a year. The Vandermeer family began the challenge in response to the discovery of the low participation rates and high costs of the region’s Green Bin program. Check out their inspirational story, featured on CBC: