|Michelle Eshpeter, her three-year-old son Ben and one-year-old daughter Clara enjoy a meal in their home in Edmonton. Eshpeter plans meals ahead and makes specific grocery shopping lists so that she minimizes food spoilage in her home.|
The mother of two preschoolers finds that menu planning, and keeping an ongoing grocery list on a giant chalk board tacked to the kitchen door, is the best way to ensure she saves money — and the environment — by only buying the amount of food her family will eat.
“The first thing I do is to have a plan for purchasing my family’s food, and what I will do with it,” says Eshpeter, a volunteer with the City of Edmonton’s master composter recycler program, which teaches people how to turn food waste into gold, or at least fertilizer. “I think it’s the most important thing I do to reduce food waste.”
Before shopping, she scours the pantry and the fridge to see what ingredients are already on hand before she makes her list. Veggies gone soft are tossed into a weekly soup. When Eshpeter cooks, she aims for leftovers; they’re great for lunch.
Eshpeter’s attitude toward food preparation, and her concern about reducing waste, is more than the mark of a thrifty household manager. The planet, and the economy, would be further ahead if more people adopted her perspective.
Food waste not only costs money — more than $1,000 a year is thrown in the kitchen trash yearly per Canadian family — it’s a major contributor, via landfill, to the production of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. (In the United Kingdom, it’s estimated that the carbon impact of food waste is more than 20 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually.)
Furthermore, when food is wasted, the agricultural resources used to produce the food, such as soil and water, are also lost.
The costs associated with tossing food are startlingly significant; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that, globally, one-third of food produced to feed people is lost as it moves from field to plate. In Canada, the value of the food waste is greater than the combined Gross Domestic Product of the 32 poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank.
It would be easy to assume that most food loss is linked to spoilage in grocery stores, or excess production at food processors or in restaurants, or careless handling by farmers and food industry truckers. But 51 per cent of food waste in Canada is generated in the home.
“We often throw small things away, a few tomatoes, or a quarter of a cabbage, or the cucumbers that have turned into a science experiment,” says Martin Gooch, an expert in food waste at the Value Chain Management Centre (VCMC) of Oakville, Ontario. “(So) it’s not until we take a step back that we can see how enormous the impact is.”
Statistics Canada estimates that about 40 per cent of all the food we produce in this country goes to waste, to the tune of $27 billion a year — that’s more than the value of all the food purchased by Canadians in restaurants in 2009. American statistics are even more unsettling, with roughly 50 per cent of all food that’s produced for people going to waste.
In the United Kingdom, studies point out that most consumer food waste could be avoided. While about 20 per cent of food thrown away is made up of items such as cores and bones, the rest could have been eaten.
It wasn’t always that way. Anybody with a friend or relative raised during the Great Depression, or either of the World Wars, knows that food was once precious.
“Food waste has got worse over the years, we have evidence over the years to prove that,” says Gooch, the chief executive at VCMC, an agri-food industry consultant specializing in sustainability.
The fact that food is cheaper now than it used to be exacerbates the situation; consumers are perhaps less worried about maximizing its use. American statistics reveal that food expenditures as a share of disposable income decreased from about 23 per cent in 1929 to under 10 per cent in 2008.
Experts note that food cost combined with other factors, such as postwar affluence and high expectations for quality in North America, the frantic pace of modern life and a decline in food preparation skills have contributed to a situation in which it can be preferable to throw food out rather than figure out how to cook it.
Competition in the grocery sector also plays a role, with retailers duking it out on volume. Big box stores that offer super-sized portions of baked goods and two-for-one processed cereal deals, or package fresh food in gigantic containers more suited to a platoon than a family, are part of the problem.
Confusion also abounds over food safety, with many consumers being unclear on the difference between a best-before date, a use-by date, and a sell-by date. Many foods that are still completely safe, but perhaps deteriorating somewhat in quality or appeal, are discarded out of ignorance. (For more information on this, go toeatbydate.com, a consumer organization that seeks to answer the question ‘how long does food really last?’)
Part of the increased household food waste has to do with our growing interest in eating fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables, which perish rapidly. Gooch says the total amount of wasted vegetables has increased from an average of just over 50 kilograms per person, per year, to close to 80 kilograms between 1961 and 2009.
Concern over food waste at home doesn’t let industry off the hook. Some 18 per cent of food waste occurs at the packaging and processing stage. Eight per cent is lost in the food service industry. Retail stores are responsible for 11 per cent of food waste, though some major retailers like Safeway have comprehensive composting and donation programs to charities such as Edmonton’s Food Bank, to ensure that food is wasted as little as possible.
But when more than half the food that is wasted can be found in the collective bin under the kitchen sink, it’s clear that citizens can make a significant difference on the home front.
Nobody knows about that more than Myles Curry, marketing co-ordinator in community relations for the City of Edmonton’s waste management services. Curry was one of the researchers who took part in a study, published in 2013, involving single family homes identified as large volume producers (LVP) of residential waste. Large volume producers, about 10 per cent of Edmonton homeowners, typically drag between six and 10 bags of garbage to the curbside. The average household produces about two bags. Large volume producers were identified by city garbage collectors and 150 households spread across the city were approached in 2012 to take part in an audit of their garbage. The hope was that by identifying the excess, it could be reduced.
What’s remarkable about the audit was the kind of waste produced in the large-volume homes. Typically, the green garbage bags produced by Edmontonians feature 23 per cent food waste. With large volume producers, that figure was much higher — roughly double at 45 per cent of the total waste in the garbage bag. More shocking was this: almost one third of food wasted was still intact.
Curry notes that 28 per cent of the food garbage ended up in the bin because the consumer chose to toss it rather than eat it. Much of that was in unopened packages, including a sealed box of granola bars. The homeowners, who were provided with a small incentive for taking part in the survey such as passes to city attractions, were blissfully ignorant of the amount of food they were wasting.
“They weren’t aware. It wasn’t even on their map,” says Curry.
Furthermore, many of them didn’t care about food waste. In a survey that accompanied the audit, more than 60 per cent of the large volume producers said they do no planning to reduce food waste and 42 per cent were not open to the idea of reducing waste. Compare that to a survey of random Edmontonians — 54 per cent of whom said they were planning on reducing food waste.
Most of the large volume producers didn’t connect tossed food to broader environmental issues.
“It’s a tough nut to crack,” says Curry ruefully.
Many of the big waste producers also believed that the environmental impact of waste is minimized by the processing capacity of the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. For more than 10 years, the EWMC has turned the food scraps at the curbside (along with sewage sludge) into a rich compost for beefing up soil. The composting facility, together with other city recycling programs, means Edmonton diverts up to 60 per cent of its residential waste from landfill. That diversion rate will increase to 90 per cent when the new biofuel facility comes on steam in 2014.
Still, it’s much easier, and cheaper, to deal with waste when there is less of it.
While Curry says the city has plans to develop a program to encourage Edmontonians to reduce their food waste, such plans are in the early stage.
Outside of city hall, some businesses in the food service industry have put their own programs in place to lower the amount of food thrown away. Since 2009, the Shaw Conference Centre has donated excess food produced for banquets or other events through an initiative called Second Helping.
If an event takes place and less people attend than were expected, overproduced food goes to Edmonton’s Food Bank. Sustainability co-ordinator Shelby Sherwick says food safety is key, and the excess food — big hotel pans full of potatoes or roast turkey — stays in the kitchen, where it is repackaged into smaller portions and frozen in aluminum containers for the food bank. Only items that freeze well, such as soup or proteins, are eligible for the program. Sherwick says that Second Helping, along with other waste management strategies including recycling, help to divert 53 per cent of the waste stream at the conference centre from landfill.
Perhaps the world leaders in the reduction of food waste, both in and outside of the home, are the good folk in the United Kingdom, where the government launched the Waste Reduction Action Programme (WRAP) in 2000. Some 40 major grocery stores and food producers in the program, including the big players such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, have created numerous strategies that reduce waste, and many of them save money for the company, too.
Tesco, for instance, began a new kind of buy-one-get-one-free program by adding the word “later” to the tag line. Two-for-one promotions are frequently associated with waste, because you can only use so much bagged spinach, even if it is half-price. But Tesco gave consumers the same deal if they purchased the second item within two weeks.
Other innovations by food retailers include selling mid-sized loaves of bread, and tortilla wraps that are in resealable packages. Marks & Spencer created a new package for its roasts that reduced the material used to cover the roast, and also increased the shelf life of the product by four days.
Some of the ideas generated by UK marketers hoping to change attitudes to waste are charmingly creative. For instance, food waste is a bigger issue around holidays such as Christmas. Inspired by research showing people were surfing the Internet for curry recipes on Boxing Day, the UK division of Molson Coors Brewing launched a campaign to develop recipes for leftovers designed by celebrity chefs that would pair well with beer.
WRAP also encourages consumers to examine their own food behaviours at home.
“A lot of it is education, showing consumers just how much is wasted. It’s almost like a shock treatment, making them fully aware of where the opportunities lie,” says Gooch. “WRAP in the UK were seen as a bunch of kooks (in the beginning) by industry and by many consumers. But over time, they have proven there are real opportunities from a household and business perspective.”
Also in the UK is a popular website called Love Food Hate Waste that encourages consumers to reduce food waste by preparing proper portions and using food before it goes bad. In a PowerPoint presentation the organization uses for training purposes, Love Food Hate Waste notes that food waste has fallen by 15 per cent in the roughly six years since its campaign was launched.
Gooch believes Canada could take a lesson from United Kingdom initiatives such as WRAP and Love Food Hate Waste. He suggests government and industry partner up to make changes that would reduce food waste in Canada, but it’s a big project, and little has been done so far. Indeed, many government rules, such as those about food grading, “actually exacerbate food waste,” Gooch says. One place to start making changes would be to offer tax incentives for producers, farmers or processors who find ways to donate excess food.
While government leadership is important, if more than half of food waste is in the home, changing attitudes and behaviour in the kitchen is a good place to start.
University of Alberta environmental sociologist, Naomi Krogman says municipalities could encourage household waste reduction by charging people more for garbage collection if they produce a lot of it. But encouraging people to gather together to share ideas and learn from each other is also a powerful persuader.
“Seeing how other people reduce their waste is a better way to change behaviour than bombarding people with information or messages about guilt,” says Krogman, who is also the academic director of the office of sustainability at the university.
Locally, a few, small community initiatives are at work. Organizations such as Operation Fruit Rescue and Fruits of Sherbrooke are waking up the community to the benefits of collecting local fruit before it rots on the ground. The newly formed Edmonton Food Council has pledged to look at how to treat food waste as a resource for Edmontonians. Watch for environmental activist and Earth’s General Store owner Michael Kalmanovitch to host workshops in 2014 on reducing food waste in the home.
Once a year, the City of Edmonton’s master composter recycler program teaches people — for free — how to use kitchen scraps in the garden, as well as many other waste reduction skills. The course is 40 hours long, and requires an additional 35 hours of volunteer work from participants. Further information is available online at edmonton.ca, and the deadline to apply for the program is Feb. 20, 2014.
Michelle Eshpeter, who has taken the master composter recycler program and makes avoiding waste a priority, takes a thoughtful approach. She feels that cooking and grocery shopping are “undervalued,” and that people don’t spend the time to make even small changes that could be really meaningful, to the household, and to the culture at large.
“I think our relationship with food is really weak ... people are so busy doing other things, lots of people don’t even cook for themselves,” reflects Eshpeter. “It’s a higher priority to be busy doing activities and it’s admired to work long hours — much more so than if you spend time cooking and doing domestic things.”
Eshpeter prepares comprehensive grocery lists, shops frequently to avoid over-purchasing, and is creative with recipes. It saves money, and waste, and to her that’s worth the effort.
Myles Curry of the waste management department at the City of Edmonton says small changes — from embracing leftovers to learning more about best-before dates — can make a significant difference to the reduction of waste.
“We need to demystify food waste. Not many people know about the food waste numbers and they need to know how much food waste is contributing to our waste overall. I believe there is a strong core of people who would respond well to an appeal.”
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Five ways to reduce waste at home
1) Proudly plan your eating life
Decide on a weekly menu and collect your recipes. Go through the pantry and freezer to see what ingredients are already on hand, and put together a grocery list based on what you need. That way you won’t end up buying unnecessary, extra food items at the grocery store. Boast about your new-found thrift to your friends.
2) Take a lesson from the United Kingdom
Spend some time online on websites such as Love Food Hate Waste, which offers inspirational ideas for consumers — and for businesses — on reducing food waste. Ask your local grocery store to consider running a modified Buy One Get One Free promotion; Tesco in the UK lets consumers pick up their second, “free” product within two weeks, so consumers won’t end up with twice as much food as they need to take advantage of the sale.
3) Learn more about best-before dates
Lots of people don’t understand how long food stays fresh. “Best before” doesn’t mean “bad after.” For more information, go to eatbydate.com, a consumer organization that seeks to answer the question ‘how long does food really last?”
4) Love your leftovers
Make a major meal on a weekend, and eat it again at least once during the week. Microwave leftovers are a great change from sandwiches at lunch.
5) Think twice before buying in bulk
It’s not a good deal if you end up wasting the food that’s on sale, or sold in gigantic containers you’ll never get through. Visit the grocery store two or three times a week to buy your fresh items.
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