How Ontario can fight $12 billion in annual food waste

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on October 30, 2015
a woman tosses food scraps into a waste bin
A new report from the OWMA calls for a comprehensive approach to organic waste.

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Peter Hargreave thinks a good waste system should be like a cherry tree.

“That cherry tree blossoms every year, and you would look at it and say, ‘what a huge amount of waste,’ because it produces these big flowers and all the petals fall to the ground,” says Hargreave, director of policy and strategy at the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA). “Nature’s got a way to take those petals and they become then food for other plants and other parts of nature that help support that tree overall.” It’s this circular type of thinking, he says — turning waste into a resource — that needs to inform the way our province deals with what it throws out.

Hargreave is one of the minds behind a report on the state of organic waste in the province. Rethink Organic Waste, released last week, recommends having a plan to return waste to the environment in a useful way, rather than just storing it in a landfill.

The current system, he says, falls short. Ontarians throw out 12 million tonnes of garbage every year, 4 million of which is organic waste. Of that 4 million — the vast majority of which is food waste — just 25 per cent ends up in the organic waste disposal bin.

Canadians waste $31 billion worth of food annually, according to a report from Value Chain Management, a consulting company. About $12 billion of that happens in Ontario, according to the OWMA.

“If we are wasting 30 per cent of the food that we’re creating, that’s a huge waste of potential resources,” says Hargreave. “It’s not only the food we’re wasting — it’s the energy that goes into producing that food, the transportation to move that food around, the refrigeration requirements.”

The largest proportion of food waste happens in the home, making the problem a difficult one for policymakers to grapple with. The battle against waste is being fought on multiple fronts, trying at once to get people to reduce what they throw out, and to put what they do in the right bin. Researchers at the University of Guelph point to Metro Vancouver, where organic waste is banned in the garbage, as a successful model. The region fines waste collectors who attempt to deliver more than 25 per cent worth of organics to landfills, and collectors in turn can refuse to pick up garbage that contains too much organic material.

“We have good data in Canada that tells us we’re throwing away more and more,” says Kate Parizeau, one of the lead researchers at the University of Guelph’s Food Waste Research Project. She and fellow researcher Mike von Massow are looking at the social and psychological aspects of food waste, particularly what prompts people to decide food is no longer good to eat.

“It’s about the invisibility of waste in general, and particularly food waste. People don’t think about it,” says Parizeau.

The OWMA report is comprehensive, with wide-ranging recommendations. Chief among them is a public awareness campaign about the value of compost. The key is both diverting the waste properly and reducing it, says Hargreave.

Metro Vancouver’s hardline stance on organic waste has been enough to force change in both homes and businesses in a short time.

“In 2012, well before the ban came into effect, only about one in four restaurants had a program in place for recycling their organics. By the middle of this year, when we did the survey again, it was three out of four restaurants. That was a significant improvement and one that we’re quite pleased to see,” says Andrew Marr, director of organic waste management for the region.

The benefits to such a move aren’t just environmental: increasing the amount of organics put in the proper bin to 60 per cent could create up to 13,000 new jobs and boost Ontario’s GDP by $1.5-billion, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

Vancouver has also paired the organics ban with a public information campaign titled Love Food, Hate Waste. The campaign publicizes tips on how to get more shelf-life out of food, menus and recipes, and discussions with experts.

“It’s all about reducing avoidable waste. When we looked at what was going in food scrap bins, we noticed a lot of it could have been eaten, so our focus is to get people to use more of the food that they buy,” says Peter Cech, communications specialist with Metro Vancouver.

Such a ban would be difficult to implement in Ontario, says Hargreave. While the OWMA doesn’t oppose a ban, he says it would require careful planning to ensure it works as desired.

“We’ve got 3 million tonnes of waste that flows to the U.S. every year,” he says, “so if you put a ban on Ontario landfills, you need to make sure that it just doesn’t move more of that material into the U.S.,” says Hargreave.

The province is reviewing how organic waste is handled and preparing a strategy to address it. Waste management legislation in Ontario has been under review for more than a decade. In 2004, the Ministry released a report that identified the need to improve organic waste diversion results. It’s unclear when the next review will be released.

“This strategy would likely propose the development of an Organics Action Plan to increase diversion of organic waste and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote Lindsay Davidson, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, in an emailed response.

Image credit: Pixavril/Thinkstock. All rights reserved. 

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